Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969 – Book review: L.A. confidential

Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969 – Book review: L.A. confidential – Review

David Bahr

Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969 * William Mann * Viking * $29.95

Locating the homosexual in history can be a fraught and thankless task. The question always arises: What exactly are you looking for? And then: How do you know when you’ve found it? Without a self-confession to point to, the search comes down to secondary evidence (interpreting someone’s living arrangements and social affiliations) and, less reliably, gossip. Moreover, the very notion of a defined gay identity is new. Can that construct really be applied to the wide range of lives that predate it? Such are the obstacles facing William Mann with his latest book, Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969.

Tracking gay men or women in Hollywood’s film industry, on the screen and off, is especially tricky, because that global purveyor of fantasy has little use for facts. As Arthur Laurents, the out screenwriter of Rope and The Way We Were, tells Mann, “Look, Hollywood only cares about image. If you projected the right image, they didn’t care what the truth was.”

As Mann shows, Hollywood’s self-image is ever changing, and its public acceptance of gay and lesbians–from costume and set designer George James Hopkins to director George Cukor to actor Rock Hudson–has changed with it. During the silent film era, gay leading men like Jack Kerrigan and Ramon Novarro could be both “soft” and sexual on the screen and off. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, butch numbers like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo were planting passionate kisses on the lips of lovely femmes in their films while having lesbian love affairs in real life. As the Great Depression deepened, conservative forces in and outside the film industry rallied against “perversion” and insisted on traditional gender stereotypes onscreen, diminishing tolerance for gay and lesbian behavior among Hollywood’s ranks.

Openly gay figures of the late 1920s and early ’30s, such as director James Whale and costume designer Travis Banton, gave way to more sexually circumspect individuals like director Vincente Minnelli and designer Adrian, both of whom married. World War II changed things briefly, relaxing sexual mores and gender roles until the oppressive, paranoid ’50s rolled around. By then, tightly controlled publicity machines managed the public perceptions of privately gay or bisexual actors such as Anthony Perkins and Tab Hunter, employing the kind of posed photo ops and candy-coated profiles still shaping the careers of many gay celebrities today.

Mann’s intelligent, fascinating, but perhaps inevitably problematic book is superb when chronicling the individual contributions that many gays and lesbians have made to the movie industry in practically every aspect of filmmaking. It is less persuasive, however, in some of its determinations of who was gay and, most important, whether there was ever a unifying gay sensibility that definitively shaped Hollywood. We know that William Haines (about whom Mann wrote the wonderful biography Wisecracker), Montgomery Clift, and Rock Hudson were unquestionably “gay,” in the sense that they had sex with men (whatever that entailed) and maintained male lovers. But can we apply the same label to Cary Grant, who lived with actor Randolph Scott for years but was eventually married five times, or James Dean, who allegedly “explored” both men and women?

Undoubtedly, people throughout Hollywood’s history have lived the homosexual life as we currently understand it, but there are many others, even today (Anne Heche? Andy Dick?), whose sexuality is more complex and its influence on Hollywood less easily categorized. As we move into the 21st century, shifting social perspectives again demand that we find new paradigms for discussing sexuality. Mann’s engrossing but incomplete Behind the Screen reveals that sexual identity politics is increasingly insufficient.

Bahr writes for The New York Times and New York magazine.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group