Partway through William Friedkin’s Cruising, undercover cop Steve Burns, who’s after a serial killer targeting gay S&M practitioners, shows up at the Mineshaft on “Precinct Nite” and finds the place teeming with men attired in police uniforms, caps, and helmets. As he’s not – oblivious to the dress code, he’s wearing a standard leather jacket, T-shirt, and blue jeans – Steve is confronted by the management and asked to leave, but before he’s shown the door he gets an eyeful of a room full of guys, some brandishing nightsticks and other cop paraphernalia, playacting at what he does for a living. For all intents and purposes, they could have also stepped out of the drawings of Touko Laaksonen, a.k.a. Tom of Finland, whose eventful life and homoerotic art are being highlighted in the Criterion Channel’s “Leather Bound” Double Feature, one of the ways it’s celebrating Pride Month.
Whatever name he goes by, Laaksonen has been well-known in gay circles for decades, so it was inevitable he would receive the biopic treatment. Thankfully, it fell to one of his countrymen, Dome Karukoski, to bring his story to the screen in 2017’s Tom of Finland. This was also the case a quarter of a century earlier when Ilppo Pohjola made the hour-long documentary Daddy and the Muscle Academy, which aired on Finnish television just weeks before Laaksonen’s death from emphysema on November 7, 1991. Neither one paints a complete picture by itself, but between them it’s possible to get a sense of who he was and the impact he had on the gay community during his heyday, as well as what he continues to mean to it today.
“I wanted to make a universal type. A guy who is open to anything.”
Daddy starts with examples of Laaksonen’s instantly recognizable art style, followed by a tracking shot through a low-lit warehouse space where a number of “Tom’s men” are half-glimpsed cavorting in the shadows. Then it introduces the man himself – aged 70 at the time of filming – working at his desk and telling his story, which Pohjola breaks into bite-sized chunks with headings like “Tom’s Name” (which he didn’t choose himself), “Tom’s Women” (Laaksonen makes no bones about the fact that he’s unable to make them look sexy), and “Tom’s Total Maleness.” With its focus on his sense of aesthetics, in particular the blue-collar types that informed Laaksonen’s idealized vision of masculinity, Daddy spends little time on his personal life. That’s where Karukoski’s biopic (scripted by Aleksi Bardy) comes in, although neither film dwells on his youth, which makes sense since his most formative experiences came while serving in the Helsinki Coastal Artillery in World War II, in which Finland was on the side of the Axis Powers since they were both against the Russians.
It was during the war that Laaksonen’s fascination with military uniforms (Nazi ones, in particular) began. Along with the soldiers and officers who inspired him to draw them, he gravitated toward sailors, construction workers, policemen, bikers, cowboys, and other rough-and-tumble types. To his models (many of which were taken from photographs) he added a fantasy element by exaggerating certain parts of their anatomy, especially as his art – first seen in the States in the pages of Physique Pictorial in the late ’50s – started to be serialized. This was exemplified by the creation of the character Kake, the quintessential leather man whose frank sexual escapades were chronicled (without the aid of dialogue, so they could be understood by anyone anywhere in the world) in a series of comics published between 1968 and 1986, later collected by TASCHEN (in association with the Tom of Finland Foundation) in a single volume in 2008. That there was sufficient interest in Laaksonen’s work for this to occur years after his death says much about its continued ability to speak to new generations.
“You’re asking for trouble with pictures like these.”
Compared with Daddy and the Muscle Academy’s freeform approach to Laaksonen’s life and legacy, Tom of Finland is both more straightforward (apart from the framing device and a couple war flashbacks, its story unfolds in a linear fashion) and strangely vague about when many of its individual scenes take place. While Daddy ends on Laaksonen’s rapturous reception at the International Mr. Leather competition in 1983, Tom uses the same event as bookends, opening backstage as he’s waiting to be introduced (and feeling ambivalent about being in the spotlight) and circling back to it after he’s had a moment to think about his entire life. Karukoski and Bardy also keep Laaksonen’s fantasies to a minimum, restricting that aspect to a handful of scenes of Kake observing from the sidelines. Then again, they also have him creating the character more than a decade too early, but his line about what he needs to be inspired (“I have to have a hard-on. Then I know it’s good,” he says, echoing Samuel Fuller’s screenwriting dictum) is accurate enough since it comes straight out of the documentary.
According to Tom, the key people in Laaksonen’s life were a gay officer he meets during the war, his conservative sister who never accepts his “choice,” the cute boarder who becomes his longtime companion, and his American agent who helps him take control of his publishing. Of them, though, the only one that rates a mention in Daddy is the last, Durk Dehmer, rechristened Doug in standard biopic fashion. As his host when he travels to the US, Doug is present when Laaksonen gets his first taste of how much freer life is there, exemplified by the scene set in a club full of leather men that could have been lifted straight out of Cruising (which, in turn, had used some Tom of Finland art as set dressing). “These are your men,” Doug tells him, and so they are. His acceptance of the responsibility for inspiring an entire subculture is the moment Touko makes peace with forever being Tom to them.