By Maureen Lee Lenker
June is Pride Month around the world -- an opportunity for the LGBT community to celebrate and champion their community and the LGBT rights movement. Throughout the month, pride parades and other events around the world will take place in a celebration of all things openly and visibly LGBT.
Here at Night Owl TV, we wanted to take a moment to have our own recognition of Pride Month and honor the achievements and accomplishments of LGBT members of classic Hollywood. Though many members of the LGBT community in classic Hollywood were not open about their sexuality, they still made an indelible impact on film history. We feel that this Pride month they deserve their due and a chance to be recognized in a way that was out-of-bounds for them in their own time. Throughout the month of June, Turner Classic Movies is celebrating “Gay Hollywood” on Thursdays. They are showcasing the work of the stars listed here as well as many others.
Prior to the 1969 Stonewall riots, LGBT communities, particularly members of classic Hollywood, lived shadowy, secret lives. Any hints or suggestions of gay characters or behavior were outlawed by the Production Code (though clever filmmakers often found ways to veil or code such plot points). Actors like Clifton Webb, Raymond Burr, and Farley Granger were forced to remain in the “celluloid closet” and/or carry out elaborate publicity stunts involving the actresses they were “dating” as they claimed to be confirmed bachelors.
Today we’re fortunate to live in a time where LGBT artists can freely express themselves. And some artists from classic Hollywood who are still around, including Joel Grey and Tab Hunter, can live their lives openly. Here are five incredible artists that were not so fortunate, but still managed to carve a unique live for themselves and leave their mark on Hollywood history.
William “Billy” Haines is considered the first openly gay actor in Hollywood, a fact which also precipitated the early end of his acting career. Haines rose to fame in the 1920s at Columbia and MGM making a name for himself as a cocky, charming leading man in films like Brown of Harvard (1926) and Little Annie Rooney (1925). By the end of the 20s he was one of the top 10 box office draws in Hollywood. He had begun to successfully make the transition to sound when his career was cut short in 1933. Haines lived openly as a gay man with his partner Jonathan Shields from the early 1920s. But when he faced a scandal in 1933, Louis B. Mayer gave him an ultimatum: Haines could choose between a “sham marriage” and his career, or his life with Shields. He chose Shields and was promptly dropped from his MGM contract. Haines recovered relatively quickly, beginning an interior design business with Shields and finding work with his rich Hollywood friends, including Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, and Carole Lombard. He was known for hand-painted wallpaper among other tasteful design elements. His work and taste were so prized that some of his antiques and paintings were borrowed by Hollywood studios to decorate sets. Crawford remained close to Haines throughout their lives, hiring him to design numerous homes and recommending him to friends. She called him and Shields “the happiest married couple in Hollywood.” William Haines Designs remains an active and successful company today, years after his death.
George Cukor is one of Hollywood’s finest directors of all time. He was nominated for five Oscars, winning one, and left behind a body of work of over 50 films (including The Women, The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, Born Yesterday, My Fair Lady and A Star is Born, et al). His films bear his signature-- a sense of class and elegance, a keen eye for design, and a blend of comedy, raw vulnerability, and a light touch that makes the emotions all the more potent. Cukor was gay, an open but kept secret in Hollywood, until a 1991 biography confirmed it to the world. His “closeted” life produced art that reflected his secrets and sensitivities. He was known as a woman’s director who was beloved by actresses for his ability to understand them and direct them to vulnerable and superb performances. He was fired from Gone with the Wind because Clark Gable could not stand him, but he continued to work in secret with Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland on their performances. They both credited Cukor for their work in the film throughout their careers. With films like The Women and A Star is Born, Cukor focused on the interior life of women. With the latter, he directed Garland to her best and most raw performance. Thus, without being “out,” Cukor managed to plant the seeds of the sensibilities of a queer cinema under the nose of studio bosses.
Dorothy Arzner was the only female director to successfully make the transition from silent films to sound era, carving a niche for herself in an increasingly male dominated studio system. What’s more -- she did so while always remaining true to herself and her identity as a gay woman. Arzner was the first female member of the Directors’ Guild of America (DGA). She invented the boom mic. She directed over 20 films, as well as continuing to educate the next generation of filmmakers once her own career was winding down. She openly lived with choreographer Marion Morton for most of her life. As a director, Arzner preferred to wear pants on set (and in life) and make films about female empowerment. She directed women like Katharine Hepburn, Clara Bow, and Maureen O’Hara to strong and independent performances in films like Christopher Strong, The Wild Party, and Dance, Girl, Dance. After she retired from filmmaking and turned to teaching, friend Joan Crawford convinced her to return to directing and oversee the production of over 50 Pepsi-Cola commercials. She remains one of the few female directors with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Arzner was always unapologetically herself, from her career choices to her wardrobe to her life partner to the themes of her films.
Montgomery Clift was undeniably one of the greatest actors of his generation and mid-century Hollywood. Remembered for his portrayal of brooding, sensitive young men, he helped to popularize the new style of acting known as “the Method” that came out of New York in the 1940's and 50's. Using an acting technique that relied heavily on drawing on real-life experiences and emotional trauma to create performances, Clift brought many of his own demons, including his bisexuality to the screen. He portrayed tortured, complex men who display a softer masculinity in contrast to actors like Clark Gable and John Wayne. He showcased his talents in major films like Red River, From Here to Eternity, and A Place in the Sun. He suffered a car accident in 1956 that nearly killed him and resulted in a need for plastic surgery. Clift never recovered from the physical and emotional scars of the accident leading to his addiction to painkillers and alcohol that ultimately cost him his life. While he kept his relationships with men a secret during his life, his most famous onscreen partner Elizabeth Taylor confirmed his bisexuality in 2000. Taylor was a close friend throughout his life, and they were linked romantically early in their careers (partly due to studio machinations). She remains a crucial figure in his legacy both on-screen and off.
Rock Hudson was emblematic of a particular brand of late 50s and early 60s masculinity. He made his name as a charming, hunky leading man in melodramas like All that Heaven Allows and a string of romantic comedies opposite Doris Day. So in 1985, when he revealed that he had AIDS it shocked the world. Hudson had been one of the biggest victims of the celluloid closet, even engaging in a sham marriage with his agent’s secretary in an attempt to protect his career and keep his personal life out of headlines. Many of his co-stars asserted they were aware that Hudson was gay, but the actor never publicly came out in his lifetime.
Despite having been forced to live in secrecy for many years, Hudson became an important face for the LGBT movement in the wake of his diagnosis. At that time, AIDS was still a heavily stigmatized disease and many charities struggled to raise money to support research and care. Joan Rivers credited the impact of Hudson putting a movie star face to the disease, saying, “Two years ago, when I hosted a benefit for AIDS, I couldn't get one major star to turn out. ... Rock's admission is a horrendous way to bring AIDS to the attention of the American public, but by doing so, Rock, in his life, has helped millions in the process. What Rock has done takes true courage.” In the years since, Hudson has become an important icon of the LGBT community with his films being studied with an eye for queer subtext. Most importantly, Hudson and his role as a leading man in classic Hollywood demonstrated that the LGBT community wasn’t relegated to a set of stereotypes.
There are many more LGBT individuals who contributed to Hollywood history, and perhaps many of whom we will never even know. But for those who have left a visible legacy, we are honored to celebrate them this Pride Month.