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Behind the Hollywood Sign: A short history of Gay Hollywood

The Gay Divorcee and The Gay Caballeros had a different meaning back in the day. If they were made today you’d instantly think it was about homosexuality, not jovial, light hearted and happy people.

It’s really no big secret that the Hollywood film industry always had very many gay and lesbian employees—then as now drawn to the theatrical life to express their inner creativity. Creative people of all life styles are frequently more openminded than average and have less difficulty accepting differences, —but that didn’t apply to the audience.

Back in the 1920s, 30s, 40s and even today, gays in Hollywood were expected to conceal all evidence that they were gay. Hollywood nurtured the gay and lesbian lifestyle but tried to keep it hidden from the heterosexual public.

In the 1920s there was a high interest in gender roles—stars went out of their way to show the public how masculine or feminine they were. Rudolph Valentino, an avowed heterosexual, had to prove over and over he was a virile hero. For some reason the press at the time dubbed him. The Pink Powder Puff. Afraid it would ruin his career, he scheduled boxing matches to prove how manly he was. It’s a surprise to many that Valentino was an amateur boxer. He died at 31 from a sport-related injury, not from syphilis, as was widely reported.

There were so many big stars who were gay or bisexual, that you’d truly be amazed. Hollywood worked day and night to conceal the truth from the public. The purpose of this column is not to out or in anyway to destroy their privacy, so I will concentrate on performers who are known for being gay. James Dean had affairs with men and Joan Crawford had affairs with women—notably Marilyn Monroe.

In the early 1930s, before the Hays Code, films tended to be frisky, containing sly hidden meanings, double entendres and phallic symbols. Many women’s groups that came to power in the 1930s strongly disapproved of the way sexuality was portrayed in film— especially homosexuality. They warned Hollywood to clean up its act. It’s ironic that the 1930s was the time of the star. Hollywood was very protective of their important actors—and yet they were not truthful with the public. Each star’s contract contained clauses specifying how they should dress, behave and above all, whom they should date.

When we heard a star was suspended, or traded to another producer, his studio went into damage control mode, telling the press that the star was uncooperative, or was having a salary dispute. Much of the time it was because the star had been seen in public, canoodling with a same-sex partner.

Movies in the 1940s started to hint more about a character’s sexuality. Many times a director would slip in a scene or a comment that made the viewer think, Did I just see that? Hollywood insiders often laughed at the censors because of the material that was slipped by them.

When the hit Broadway play, Tea & Sympathy was made into a movie, the character who was plainly gay was changed to ultra sensitive and misunderstood. Fred Zinneman, a great director, had a problem with
A Children’s Hour, a frank story of two lesbians. Zinneman cast two very heterosexual females, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine in the parts. The film contained hints that the characters were supposed to be gay, though the script never once came right out and said so.

In recent years, old taboos have grown less important and big stars are increasingly unafraid to tackle gay roles. Paul Newman played a gay character in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. Rod Steiger surprised everyone when he appeared in The Sergeant, a military story of a sergeant who has the hots for a young private. Even Marlon Brando (who might have been bi-sexual in real life) played a gay Army Officer in Carson McCuller’s steamy Reflections in a Golden Eye.

The big breakthrough was probably the first openly gay movie, The Boys In The Band. Hollywood had to notice that audiences didn’t die of shock. Society and Hollywood have, to some extent, grown up.

But sadly, not enough. When Pee Wee Herman was busted at a porn movie for “taking things in his own hands” his career was all but over. Isn’t it ironic that when a virile male star gets caught with a hooker (as Hugh Grant did recently) it seems to only solidify his male sexuality.

Sometimes, when a gay actor plays a heterosexual role, it doesn’t seem to come off for many movie goers. Anne Heche couldn’t pull off her love scenes with Harrison Ford in Seven Days Seven Nights. It’s no stretch to say Ellen Degeneres or Rupert Everett won’t get roles that stress their sexuality.

If you want irony, here it is: back in the old days, Hollywood stars would shun homosexual roles for fear the audience would want to stone them; now A-Listers go out of their way to play gay characters, knowing that they could be nominated for an Academy Award.

Like the rest of society, the culture in Hollywood is changing. Some day soon it will be an unthinkable to denigrate gays as it is for white actors to appear in blackface.

Ric Pantale writer and director, is an independent film maker.