I wanted to talk to someone about Judy Garland as soon as I saw the BFI program celebrating the 100th anniversary of her birth, ‘Judy Garland: A Star is Reborn’. And who better to talk with about Judy than Richard Dyer? The conversation is an informal one, a recorded zoom call between friends, that then cuts off at the end as soon as the 45 minute zoom time-limit ends. But it does cover a lot of ground: her artistry, her persona, her significance to gay men, her performances in various films, her duet with Barbra Streisand…and much more. The video may be seen below:
Those of you who prefer to listen rather than look, can hear the conversation in podcast form here:
In the early phase of his career, Burt Lancaster is not only there to be looked at and seen, as all actors are, particularly stars; nor is he just — albeit significantly – characterised by ‘to-be-looked-at-ness,’ something that is seen to be the exclusive and particular lot of women in cinema; and nor is this ‘to-be-looked-at-ness,’ always deflected by action and violence, as is often argued by theorists like Steve Neale. Burt is dressed and undress for the audience’s pleasure. That is true of other stars of the era, one thinks of Rock Hudson, for example, although Burt seems to enjoy it more than Rock. The reason for making this particular video was simply to show how often Burt is propositioned by women, and how that is acknowledged and deflected; how that often sees the characters he plays acknowledge it as an objectifying ploy…one which places him in a position where he has his price and can be bought well….like patriarchal notions of ‘woman’ from the period. He is desirable; can almost always be had on his terms; and can sometimes be bought on others. It’s part of a locus of meanings and actions associated with his star persona at this period that contribute to his representing a particular type of man but one that evokes a certain kind of masculinity in crisis in the post-war period.
Great fun to chat to librarian extraordinaire on her favourite subject, Fredric March: two time Oscar winner; recipient of the very first Tony award; in his time considered one of the great actors of his generation; headliner of films that continue to be seen and appreciated —The Best Years of Our Lives, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Nothing Sacred, etc — yet now relatively forgotten. In the podcast, Nicky and I discuss who is Fredric March? Why is he significant? Why might he have been forgotten? Why should he still be remembered?
There´s a moment in Billy Wilder´s Fedora, where Henry Fonda appears to award Fedora her an honorary oscar and mentions how he envied those great stars who had once worked with her, beginning with Fredric March, a moment that sparked the idea for this podcast.
I have written on some of Fredric March´s lesser known films and those interested can follow up by clicking the hyperlink on:
Burt Lancaster got his contract with Hal B. Wallis at Paramount on the basis of a test directed by Byron Haskin with Wendell Corey and Lizabeth Scott for Desert Fury. Lucky for him, the film was not ready to shoot for another six months and he was able to fit in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers(1946) for producer Mark Hallinger at Universal beforehand. Desert Fury started shooting two weeks before the release of The Killers but there were already whisperings of Lancaster as a big new star, and the whisperings were so loud that Hallinger gave him first billing and a big publicity build-up rather than the little ‘and introducing….’ title at the end of the credits that was then typical, and is indeed the billing offered Wendell Corey in Desert Fury as you can see in the poster above. Before Desert Fury started shooting, Hal Wallis knew he had a big fat star on his hands and that his part had to be beefed up so as to capitalise on it.
By the time the film was released on September 24th, 1947,, Burt Lancaster was the biggest star in the film. The Killers hit screens on the 29th of August 1946. As Kate Buford writes, Ít was an extraordinary debut for a complete unknown. Overnight he was a star with a meteoric rise ¨faster than Gable´s, Garbo´s or Lana Turner,¨as Cosmopolitan said years later (Buford, loc 1260). In New York the movie, ‘played twenty-four hours a day at the Winter Garden theatre, ‘where over 120,000 picture-goers filled the 1,300 seat theatre in the first two weeks, figures Variety called “unbelievably sensational.”‘ Brute Force was the fourth film Lancaster made, after I Walk Alone, but it was the second to be released, on June 30th 1947. According to Kate Buford, it too ‘set set first-week records at movie houses across the country’ (loc 1412).
Lancaster’s status as a star is reflected in the lobby card and poster above, where in spite of being billed third, what´s being sold is what Burt Lancaster already represented, the publicity materials giving a false impression that he is much more central to the narrative than is in fact the case. His image dominates in both, and even the tag lines are attributed to him: ‘I got a memory for faces…killer´s faces…Get away from my girl…and get going’, is the tagline in the lobby card. The text on the poster reads, ´Two men wanted her love…the third wanted her life.
In the ad below, he´s billed second, as ´the sensation of The Killers, Dynamite with the fuse lit’
When trying to recapture a past moment in relation to cinema, it´s often useful to look at trailers and other paratextual publicity materials. Trailers hold and try to disseminate the film´s promise to viewers. Of course, its purpose is to sell, to dramatise its attractions so that viewers will go see it. And of course, they often lie, dramatising not what is but what they hope will sell. That said, those promises, lies and hopes are often very revealing.
As you can see above, the trailer is selling melodrama — violent passions — in a magnificent natural setting filmed in Technicolor. Burt Lancaster’s name is only mentioned 39 second into the 1.41 trailer, after Lizabeth Scott with her strangeness and her defiance of convention and after John Hodiak with his secrets and coiled snakeyness. And Lancaster’s introduced as ‘hammer fisted’ Tom Hanson, erroneously giving the impression that this will be an action film. But note too that by the end of the trailer, Lancaster is given top billing.
According to Kate Buford, in Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Lancaster thought ‘Desert Fury would not have lunched anybody’, later ‘dismissing it as having ‘starred a station wagon’ (loc 1157). The film is really a series of triangles: Eddie (John Hodiak) and Tom (Burt Lancaster) are both in love with Paula (Lizabeth Scott), Fritzy (Mary Astor) has already had an affair with Tom who is currently pursuing an affair with her daughter Paula, Paula and Johnny (Wendell Corey) are both in love with Eddie etc. I have made a not-quite-video essay that nonetheless well illustrates the Johnny-Eddie-Paula triangle, surely one of the queerest of the classic period, which can be seen here:
Tom is really a fifth wheel in the narrative. But by the time the film started shooting, Burt Lancaster was already the biggest star in it. His part was beefed up to take his new status into account, scenes were added, According to Gary Fishgall, the film was based on a 1945 novel, Desert Town by Ramona Stewart, and ‘ Lancaster’s role was an amalgam of two of the novel’s characters: the embittered, sadistic deputy sheriff, Tom Hansen, and a likeable highway patrolman named Luke Sheridan. Neither character was romantically linked to Paula (p.55). But in the film, he ends up with Lizabeth Scott at the end. All these additions probably contributed to the film seeming so structurally disjointed.
In Desert Fury Tom, a former rodeo rider, just hangs around waiting for Paula to get wise to Eddie, leaving her enough rope to act freely, as he does with colts when taming them, but not enough so that she hangs herself, or so he thinks. Really, he’s extraneous. He gets to walk into the sunset with Paula at the end of the film but the film really ends once Paula and Fritzy kiss, on the lips. He certainly doesn’t get much to do during it, except for a couple of great scenes where Fritzy tries to buy him into marrying her daughter (above) and another bit of banter when she thinks he’s come to accept her offer (below). Mary Astor steals both scenes. In fact she steals everything. Every time she appears, her wit, weariness, intelligence, the intensity of her love for her daughter — she lifts the film to a level it probably doesn’t deserve to be in. But Lancaster is good. These are the only scenes in the film where he looks like he’s enjoying himself.
Tom is the closest the film has to a ´normal character’. Indeed, aside from the character he plays in All My Sons (1948) this is the closest Lancaster had come to such a type during the whole of his period in film noir in the late 40s and which includes all of his films up to The Flame and the Arrow in 1950. Even in Variety Girl, which is an all-star comedy where he and Lizabeth Scott spoof the hardboiled characters they’re associated with, the surprise is that they’ve already created personas to spoof in such a short time (see below).
According to Fishgall, ‘Lancaster –billed third before the film’s title — acquitted himself well in the essentially thankless other man’ role. Still, if Desert Fury had marked his screen debut as originally planned, it is unlikely that he would have achieved stardom quite so quickly. Not only did the film lack the stylish impact of The Killers, but so did the actor. Without the smouldering intensity of the Swede and his first pictures’ moody black and white photography, he appeared to be more of a regular fellow, and guy-next-door types rarely become overnight sensations’ (p. 67).
In Desert Fury we’re told that unlike the drugstore cowboys who are now criticising him, Tom used to be the best rodeo rider there was but a while back, whilst wrestling a steer, he got thrown off and is now all busted up inside. Being ‘busted up inside’ is what all the characters Burt Lancaster plays in the late ’40s have in common. He thinks of returning to the rodeo all the time but knows he can never be as good. He used to be a champ, now all he can hope for is to be second best. He knows he ‘ain’t got what it takes anymore’. He’s in love with Paula and she knows it. But she doesn’t know what she wants. He think he does: ‘you’re looking for what I used to get when I rode in the rodeo. The kick of having people say “that’s a mighty special person” I’d like to get that kick again. Maybe I can get it with just one person saying it’. He will, but he’ll have to wait until the end of the movie.
But even in this, Lancaster doesn´t play entirely nicey-poo, true-blue, throughout, and his Tom is given moments of wanton bullying and cruelty where he gets to abuse Eddie just because he’s a cop and wants to. And it´s interesting that it´s that moment, which jives so well with the ´brute force´Lancaster was already known for, and which would attach itself to his persona for many a year, that is the one chosen for the trailer.
According to Robyn Karney, in Burt Lancaster: A Singular Man, ‘As the straightforward moral law officer in a small Arizona town who rescues the object of his affections from the dangerous clutches of a murderous professional gambler, Burt had little to do other than look strong, handsome and reliable. Despite Wallis’ much vaunted rewrites, the role of the Sheriff Tom Hanson remained stubbornly secondary and uninteresting, with the limelight focused on John Hodiak as the villain, fellow contract players Elizabeth Scott and Wendell Corey’ (p.31).
I mainly agree with Robyn Karney except for four points, two textual and stated above: the first is that even in this Lancaster is playing a failure, someone once a somebody that people talked about but now all busted up inside; the second is that that element of being ´busted up inside´leads to a longing that gets displaced onto Paula. If the rodeo is what made feel alive and gave him a reason to live before his accident, now it´s Paula, and the idea that she might also be an unobtainable goal leads to his outbursts of unprovoked violence towards the rival for his affections, Eddie (John Hodiak).
The other two points of interest are extra textual. Desert Fury is gloriously filmed by Charles Lang. A few years later, in Rope of Fury, Lang would film Lancaster as a beauty queen: eyelashes, shadows and smoke, lips and hair (see below):
Here, even with his pre-stardom teeth and his bird´s nest of a hairdo, Lancaster sets the prototype for the Malboro Man:
He looks good in technicolour, and Lang brings out the blue of his eyes:
More importantly, the film visualises him, for the first time, as Western Hero, a genre that would become a mainstay of his career from Vengeance Valley (1951) right through Ulzana´s Raid (1972) and even onto Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981):
Desert Fury was not well reviewed. According to the Daily Herald ‘The acting is first-class. But except for Mr. Lancaster as a speed cop, the characters in the Arizona town with their lavish clothes and luxury roadsters, are contemptible to the point of being more than slightly nauseating’ (cited in Hunter p. 27),
The Monthly Film Bulletin labelled the film a western melodrama, claiming, surprisingly, that ‘The vivid technicolor and grand stretches of burning Arizona desert give a certain air of reality to the film’. Hard for us to see this thrillingly melodramatic film, lurid, in every aspect, evaluated in the light of realism. The MFB continued with, ´This reality is however counteracted by the way in which the sharply defined, but extremely unnatural characters act. Everything is over dramatised, and the title is a mystery in that the desert is comparatively peaceful compared with the way the human beings behaved…Lizabeth Scott is suitably beautiful as Paula and Burt Lancaster suitably tough as Tom. (Jan 1, 1947, p. 139)
Thus, we can see that on the evidence above, the film was badly reviewed, Time magazine going so far as to call it, ‘impossible to take with a straight face’ (Buford, loc1293). But Burt Lancaster´s performance was either exempted from the criticism or its faults where attributed to the film rather than to himself. More importantly still, the film was a hit, Burt Lancaster´s third in a row. Finally, as I´ve discussed elsewhere, the film is now considered by many a kind of camp classic, a leading example of noir in technicolor as well as arguably the gayest film ever produced in the classic period.
On a very special Eavesdropping at the Movies requested by our listeners, José takes us through the career of Burt Lancaster, every one of whose films he has been watching during the lockdown. Lancaster is a star through whose career a whole history of movements and evolutions in Hollywood can be tracked, from the studio noirs of the 1940s right through to the anti-war allegories of the 1970s, taking in all of the social, political, stylistic, industrial and aesthetic shifts that would take place in a constantly changing America.
On screen, Lancaster was capable of moving fluidly between genres and styles, including noir, action-adventure and Westerns, won the 1960 Oscar for Best Actor for Elmer Gantry, was regularly amongst the top box-office stars from 1950-1965, and worked with some of the great screenwriters and playwrights, including Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Off screen, he was one of the foremost independent producers of his day. He fought against McCarthyism during the height of the Red Scare, employing blacklisted screenwriters when nobody else would, later made a number of anti-racist revisionist Westerns, and championed progressive causes throughout his life. José argues that Lancaster conceived of the cinema as a national theatre of ideas, a place in which conversations could be had and arguments advanced, a conception that ties his entire, varied career together.
Mike, on the other hand, has barely seen anything of Burt Lancaster’s, and José has put him on a crash course of five or six films in order to get a sense of his work, style and persona. He’s left with questions to throw at José: Why Lancaster hasn’t lingered culturally as strongly as some of his contemporaries? Is it his politics? His acting ability? His style? Is his reputation for muscles, teeth, and little else, justified?
Burt Lancaster, José concludes, represents the best of America. His work is ripe for rediscovery, and offers rich insight on a constantly changing culture and industry.
Burt Lancaster became a star in The Killers (1946), his very first film. There is probably a combination of many different reasons as to why: the time the film was released in, the story, the production, the role, the performance. Surely, Burt Lancaster’s looks had a lot to do with it. And on top of that, how Robert Siodmak directed cinematographer Woody Bredell to light him was surely the perfect mise-en-scène not only for his looks but for his stardom.
You can see him below as a man in the throes of suffering, physically and emotionally. In the movie, he’s looking, mainly at Ava Gardner, and to-be-looked at, by us; the desiring subject in pain pictured as that which is most desirable:
Ron Moule has pointed out to me the similarity of the image above to Bernini´s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa below:
You can see other images, only from the first forty minutes of the film, below:
Sheldon Hall informs me that The Killers was first shown on British TV under the intriguing and suggestive title, A MAN AFRAID, presumably so as not to confuse it with the 1964 Don Siegel version:
Stardom, beauty, the machinery of Hollywood, madness, age – 1978’s Fedora sees Billy Wilder occupying much of the same thematic territory of his 1950 classic, Sunset Boulevard. William Holden’s has-been film producer attends the funeral of Fedora, a reclusive former film star, and thinks back on the recent trip he took to Corfu, attempting to track her down and coax her out of retirement. What unravels is a mystery, a conspiracy, a twisted mother-daughter relationship, and another in Mubi’s strand of “perfect failures”.
Wilder’s struggle to finance Fedora is apparent, José suggesting that in every part one can imagine a superior actor. Though that’s perhaps scant defence of the tedious visual design – Dutch angles don’t cost money, and the film is crying out for more visual expression than it offers. Mike explains his problem with the plot structure and particularly his dislike of “two weeks earlier” hooks, and we consider the way in which we’re asked to believe in Fedora’s incredible stardom while not really having it explained to us satisfactorily. And José takes particular issue with the casting of Michael York as himself, finding him a blank, while Mike is more content with it, but perhaps that’s largely because whenever someone says “Michael York” it makes him laugh.
Despite the film’s many problems, it remains an intriguing exploration of stardom, identity, the lengths to which people will go to support their own delusions. Mike suggests that Fedora and Sunset Boulevard share a low opinion of women, that their themes of self-obsession, fame and beauty are particularly aligned with their stars’ gender. José describes Fedora‘s relationship to reality, in particular the ways in which it echoes Marlene Dietrich’s extraordinary fame and subsequent withdrawal from the public eye, and how Wilder’s experience and understanding of this and other inside stories informs the film.
And finally, Mike takes a moment to bring up two things he doesn’t like about Sunset Boulevard, because he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t take one look at a great masterpiece of cinema and explain what’s rubbish about it.
Variety Girl is one of those all-star productions, usually featuring unknowns, that showcased a particular studio’s stars whilst raising money for a cause. Most of the famous ones — Stage Door Canteen, Thank Your Lucky Stars — were made during the war and in aid of the war effort. Variety Girl was made post-war, in 1947, in aid of the Variety Clubs of America, which itself had a history worthy of a movie. The Variety Club was initially set up as a show-business social club. However, on Christmas Eve 1928, a baby was left at the Sheridan Square Film Theatre with a note:
‘Please take care of my baby. Her name is Catherine. I can no longer take care of her. I have eight others. My husband is out of work. She was born on Thanksgiving Day. I have always heard of the goodness of show-business people and pray to God that you will look after her. Signed, a heartbroken mother’.
This could have been the basis of a great melodrama but is instead turned into the premise of a musical. In the film Catherine grows up, goes to Hollywood, visits the sights and ends up at Paramount, where we get to see all the stars there at the time: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Alan Ladd, William Holden etc.
The film is not good but it does have many treasurable bits. I wanted to share the clip above, where you can already see Burt Lancaster and Lizabeth Scott kidding their personas, because it’s surprising to think that this is only a year after Burt Lancaster became a star with his very first film, The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946). He’d also had a success with Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1946). Desert Fury (Lewis Allen, 1947), with Lizabeth Scott had already been released, and the two had teamed up again for I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1947). The bit above fulfills the function of giving audiences what they’d liked but also providing publicity for one attraction that was still playing in parts of the country (Desert Fury) and the forthcoming I Walk Alone, another hit.
Burt Lancaster waited a long time to get into the movies. He was already 32 in The Killers. But his success was extraordinary and immediate. As Cosmpolitan said, “a star with a meteroic rise “faster than Gable’s, Garbo’s or Lana Turner.’ Thomas Pryor in The New York Times wrote that “even in a place where spectacular ascents are now more or less commonplace, the rise of Burt Lancaster is regarded as something extraordinary”. His name ona theatre marquee was now said to be good for at least 1 million in ticket sales (Kate Burford, loc 1625, Kindle).
In Variety Girl, he’s ‘Buffalo Burt Lancaster’ who puts a cigarette on the side of Lizabeth Scott’s mouth and will light it with just one bullet. Of course, he misses: it’s a spoof. One year into his movie career and Lancaster already has a persona to kid, a powerful one, aspects of which would cling to his stardom throughout the rest of his life.
Bibliography: Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, London: Aurum, 2013)
I’ve often wondered why Lauren Bacall was a film star for so long. She’s often stiff, mannered, and really not very good. Of course she’s very beautiful. But, as we can see in later films like Written on the Wind (Sirk, 1956), she didn’t photograph that well in colour. I suppose that her performances for Hawks in To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946) sparked a life-time’s interest from several generations of heterosexual men. And I know from personal experience that a certain generation of lesbians became devoted to her on the basis of her performance as Amy North in Young Man with A Horn (1950).
The film is loosely based on the story of Bix Beiderbecke with Harry James dubbing the trumpet. It’s narrated by Hoagy Carmichael as piano-player Willie Willoughby. Nobody does tortured artists like Kirk Douglas, who’s great here as Rick Martin. The film has a wonderful father/son relationship between Rick Martin and black trumpet player Art Hazzard (Juano Herandez). Doris Day sings. And there is great work from Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Ted McCord: there isn’t an image that isn’t worth looking at. The first half-hour of the film charting the background of Rick Martin, how he grew up and how he learned to be a trumpet player must count amongst Curtiz’s best post-war work.
Lauren Bacall only appears 47 minutes into the film but gets a star entrance and definitely makes an impression, the ‘duality’ in her nature rendered visible and contrasted to the ‘normality’ of Joe Jordan, the character played by Doris Day, already being edged out of the frame here and shortly to disappear from the rest of the picture until the end, once Amy/Bacall disappears from view .
We know from the beginning that she’s not ‘normal’ because, as we can see in the clip below, she’s rich, highly educated, ‘always talks like a book and likes to analyse everything,’ and speaks of jazz and mass culture like she does here:’there’s something about jazz that releases inhibitions; it’s a cheap mass-produced narcotic’: probably exactly the thing Amy needs. By the terms of American cinema of the period (and now), she’s already a weirdo.
Bacall’s thoughts on Doris are a favourite moment in the film. Bacall’s lit so only half her face is showing: ‘Jo’s interesting isn’t she? So simple and uncomplicated. It must be wonderful to wake up in the morning and know just which door you’re going to go through’. Amy/Bacall is constantly contrasted with Jo/Doris: Amy’s not so simple, her identity is at least dual, and yet to be discovered by Ricky and maybe herself.
When Kirk/ Ricky starts to get involved with Bacall/Amy, Doris/ Jo comes to warn him, ‘She’s a strange girl, and you’ve never known anyone like her before…inside, way inside, she’s all mixed up’; ‘precisely what I told him myself but he wouldn’t take no for an answer’ says Bacall/Amy as she enters the picture. It’s too late they’re married (see below):
But it’s not just the contrast to Jo/Day, or all that the characters speak about her being ‘mixed up’ and ‘strange’. There’s her apartment, even, actually especially, after Kirk/Ricky marries Bacall/Amy. We’re shown how female-centric the house is, and not just because her florid cockatoo is called Louise. Look at the number of statues that are female Grecian figures, the painting inside and outside her bathroom door that are naked women bathing, even her paintings are of women.
Rachel Mosely pointed out to me something I hadn’t noticed: If you click to a closer look on the image of Bacall playing the piano above, you’ll see that the ancient goddess who is the base of the lamp has an extended broken arm that looks more than a little like an extended phallus, as if to indicate that women provide the only sex and power she needs and Kirk can go blow his own trumpet.
Bacall/Amy doesn’t really like men. We can see it in the clip here below where they embrace. She doesn’t like the kiss, it’s the last time she’ll be honest with him. It ends with him saying ‘call you what?’. I think lesbian audiences knew the answer to that one.
‘How do you know about anything until you try it?’ she tells Kirk/Ricky, presumably about heterosexuality:
At the end, she finds a girlfriend, an artist. She loves her sketches and they’re going to go to Paris together. Kirk finally clocks it and calls her as ‘filth’, ‘dirty’ a ‘sick girl who needs help and better see her doctor’; you can also read the bit about him almost ‘forgetting about his trumpet’ but now ‘getting it back’ metaphorically:
When Bacall disappears from the picture, the film starts getting sanctimonious and goes downhill and for a phoney happy ending with Jo/Doris.
Movies of the time couldn’t represent lesbianism directly; and Young Man with a Horn certainly offers mixed messages that could be disavowed to the Hays Office. But it offered enough so that a generation of lesbians clocked and treasured it. The representation is laced with the typical homophobic language and perspective of the period but, as embodied by Bacall, it also evoked beauty in looks, intelligence, and attitude.
One of the reasons the second season of Sense8 continues to be so enjoyable is that it’s not only intriguing, enticing and wonderful to look at but it’s also giving us so much to think about. In the clip I extracted below, film star Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) has been outed when pictures of him having sex with his boyfriend are photographed with a telephoto lens and leaked over the internet (raising all kinds of questions about the rights to privacy in the current digital, inter-webbed era). Soon his agent drops him and instead of getting leading roles in big-budget action movies, he now gets offered small roles (9 pages) of drug dealers, drug addicts, or other unhappy people on the edges of criminality who basically fulfil a plot point and kill themselves whilst giving the real star of the movie a chance to shine. It’s not unlike the situation of gays and lesbians in Hollywood cinema that Vito Russo so eloquently described and analysed in The Celluloid Closet almost half a century ago.
We have to assume that these filmmakers — so well versed in the art, economics and politics of Hollywood filmmaking — know what they’re talking about. And yet, we are on the one hand invested in wanting stars to be out, and indeed to out them – think of the pressures on Jodie Foster from the 80s until she came out recently and on people like Tom Cruise and John Travolta and so many others right up to the present; On the other hand, we also like to point to those who are out and whose careers don’t as of yet seem to be affected by it. Think of Cynthia Nixon on Broadway, or the success with which Neil Patrick Harris played heterosexual Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother, or how we applaud when Colton Haynes and Charlie Carver, both from Teen Woolf ,come out. We also like to indicate how the film careers of people like Ian McKellen’s didn’t suffer at all: as he likes to point out, he didn’t really have much of one before he did.
But it might be good to compare like with like. There might be differences in the parameters a TV star is allowed to operate within, ones that might be greatly expanded in the theatre, and ones much more severely limited for film stars. The fact is we still don’t have a film star, one who is currently commanding the best film roles, having film built around him/her, one who puts people on seats and is the focus of marketing, who is currently out.
We do know that Rupert Everett blames the decline of his starring career in films on choosing to be out. In 2009, Everett told The Observer: “I would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out. The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business.” This caused the expected backlash with people arguing that he had a perfectly good career. However, no one knows his career better than Everett does himself, and whilst he continues to be a celebrity in various fields and arguably has become a West End star, he’s not had a career as a film star since he came out, with even his comeback in cinema, supporting Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, taking place on a different, lower, plateau.
We also know that when an actor’s outed there is a period in which it’s not acceptable and then one in which it doesn’t matter. In my experience for a good decade after Rock Hudson’s death I couldn’t show one of his sex comedies without hearing snickers from the class, and a generation later, it didn’t matter at all, but maybe that was because the audience had forgotten that dimension of his later star persona. They seemed to have forgotten that Rock Hudson was gay and had died of AIDS. Most of them didn’t have a clue as to who he was period.
Adrian Garvey pointed out to me the instance of Luke Evans, who has been out since since a 2002 interview with The Advocate, is clearly a name and in one of the biggest hits of the year, Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon, 2017). On the surface, being out hasn’t harmed his career at all. On the other hand, DraculaUntold (Gary Shore, 2014) is the last title role I remember him in. The article in Time, hyperlinked above, notes how when he moved to Hollywood, his management team tried to drag him back in the closet in order to push his career, an impossibility in the age of the internet. I see that he’s also been in High Rise (starring Tom Hiddleston) and The Girl on the Train (Justin Theroux played the male lead) and good in both parts, albeit secondary. He’s very charismatic, talented and clearly a name with a following. Yet compare his career to those of Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch. Isn’t it telling that Evans’ only title role in the movies recently has been as Dracula? If you’re gay you get blood-sucker, if you’re heterosexual like Redmayne and Cumberbatch you can play anyone, including a whole range of gay men. I don’t see films built around Evans the way the are around Redmayne, Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Michael Fessbender and other British stars in or out of Hollywood. It’s almost an impossibility to speak with certainty on this as it’s a game of woulda-coulda-shoulda and might-have-beens, but I find the comparisons informative.
I don’t mean to only imply that these actors suffer form a degree of homophobia. Of course they do, and Sense8 renders it very evident. But Sense 8, in a scene immediately following the clip I posted above, also demonstrates how it’s more complex than that. When Nomi (Jamie Clayton) and Amanita (Freema Agyeman) go with Bug (Michael X. Sommers) to see Our Father Who Art in Heaven at the Castro Cinema in Episode 5, the film takes pleasure in showing us how a trashy crude action film like that nonetheless involves great pleasures and complex processes of identification and desire. I suspect that the element of desire is not the greatest of problems: we’ve seen how adolescent girls continue to scream at their teen idols no matter what their sexual orientation (from Ricky Martin to George Michael) and I’m sure Bug had no desire for Lito to begin with. But the kind of identification — the way he says ‘No More Lies’ alongside the character Lito is playing onscreen; an idealised wishing one could do and say and move and look like who’s on the screen — I suspect that’s an area where sexual orientation does matter, particularly to men, and especially to young men already burdened with all kinds of anxieties about sex and sexuality.
What the little scene in Sense8 reminded me of is to extrapolate a further question, one which the speculation on Evans above also begs, which is that before we can answer whether a film star can remain a film star after they come out, we need to ask what is a film star today, something which we know to be different from what it was in the classic period, and even right up to the early nineties (think of how Sense8 uses the figure of Jean-Claude Van Damme) but which I’m not sure we’d necessarily have a shared understanding of, or response to, today.
So two things then, A) I think film stardom now is different than it was when Richard Dyer wrote his groundbreaking Stars and thus the methods he offers with which to analyse the phenomenon might no longer apply — or maybe only apply partially — to stars today and B) that questions of desire and identification, always considerations when talking about stars might affect stardom in ways that are not due solely to ‘homophobia’, which might be more ‘I don’t want to be, am not, like him/her’, rather than merely ‘Ugh’
Thanks to Adrien Garvey, David Sugarman, Celia Nicholls and Andy Medhurst for their input on this.
Judy Garland on Judy Garland, edited by Randy L. Schmidt. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2014
It could be argued that of all Studio-Era stars, Judy Garland is the one that continues to be most present in the culture; most seen and heard, most discussed, indeed so much of a reference point that we might take her presence for granted. Every Easter we see her in Easter Parade with Fred Astaire; every Christmas it’s ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ in Meet Me in St. Louis; not a year goes by where we don’t have an opportunity to see The Wizard of Oz, recently even in Cinemas and in 3-D. Her death in 1969 was said to have sparked the Stonewall Riots, the subject of one of this year’s great flop movies. She’s a gay icon. But the obsession with her life and career is, as Susan Boyt so movingly demonstrated in the excellent My Judy Garland Life (London: Bloomsbury, 2009), not limited to gay males d’un certain age. End of the Rainbow, a musical show about her life, is still touring after its debut in 2005, and Tracie Bennett won the Tony for her performance in the play in 2012. This year, Lorna Luft, the other Garland daughter, has been touring the UK in The Judy Garland Songbook andVarietyjust announced that The Judy Garland Show, which ran for a short time in 1963 and 1964, would, with The Merv Griffin show, anchor the new Talk-Variety block on Get TV.
All the above is a context as to why I was so eager to read Judy Garland on Judy Garland: Interviews and Encounters. In the back cover of the book, Sam Irvin, author of Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, tells us, ‘The Holy Grail for fans of Judy Garland! Randy Schmidt is the Indiana Jones of Garland archaeology. Never before has Judy been given such laser-focused spotlight to speak for herself – and like her greatest musical perofrmances, she takes center stage and wows us with every phrase.’ After reading the book, my first thought was, ‘who does Sam Irvin think he’s kidding’?
The book is composed of interviews garnered from radio, the fan magazines, newspapers and later television. They’re organised by decade. The first two deades are clearly studio stage-managed. Thus in the 30s we get a lot about how Judy’s stuck ‘In-Between’, the title of one of her great hits of the period, where she’s not yet a child but can’t quite go on dates. The forties are very much a way of stage-managing the public reception of her love life; mentions of Artie Shaw and then her elopement with David Rose, her subsequent marriage and divorce with Vincente Minnelli and the birth of Liza. The fifties are only partially covered and we only get slected interviews mainly from the fan magazines until 1955, thus covering the period where she was fired from MGM to the moment just after the release of A Star is Born. The Sixties is expectedly necrophiliac but covers a greater diversity of material, including excellent interviews with Art Buchwald and a transcript from a superb interview with Gypsy Rose Lee on TV.
On the one hand, it’s great to see these collected in one volume. On the other, most of them are quite readily available and the ones culled from TV or radio would be so much better to listen to or watch that one feels disappointed. One doesn’t really begin to hear her ‘voice’ until the sixties, though there are some hints in the 50s material as well.
There’s no question that this is rich source material; and that Randy L. Schmidt has done a good job of collating it together. But reading through the material one wishes someone had offered an analysis or more of a context for each of those periods covered as it raises a lot of questions and answers none: Are Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland the key popularisers of the concept of the teenager in the twentieth century?;How did what Garland mean evolve throughout the 40s? Is anything Garland did in the 50s different to what Sinatra did and is the differing ways they were imaged and publicised not a continued marker of an oppressive sexism? How could someone who worked at that pace across so many media and into middle age in the Sixties avoid drugs and alcohol when much younger people in that decade were much quicker to succumb? How could someone who never stopped working and always earned top dollar never have any money (i.e. were Freddie Fields and David Begelman, her managers in the sixties, thieves?} These are the questions the book raises, though it is perhaps unfair to expect a book of this kind – a collection of interviews – to answer them. I nonetheless wish someone would.
Thus a good collection of interviews, with quite a lot of repetition amongst them, less context and analysis then one would have hoped even within the scope of such a book, and ultimately a disappointment.
Walking through Birmingham City Centre yesterday, I saw the image pictured above and I thought, ‘Why is Jon Snow advertising Jimmy Choo?’ I at first didn’t realise the ad was for perfume and was picturing Jon Snow with his shaggy hair and his furs — an essential accessory for Castle Black but also such a gorgeous backdrop to his brooding face — now wearing Jimmy Choo heels through the ramparts of The Wall, perhaps hoping the heels would lift him up from the cloud of melancholy that always seems to surround him.
It then struck me that I had referred to the image as Jon Snow rather than Kit Harington. That never happens when I see Leonardo DiCaprio flog TAG Heuer watches: there it’s always Leo. And what ‘Leo’ means has changed and expanded over time. ‘Leo’ is polysemic: he is Romeo, Gatsby, Howard Hughes; he is also the characters he played in Titanic (James Cameron, USA, 1997), Inception (Christopher Nolan, USA, 2010), The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorcese, USA, 2013); he’s a great actor and the biggest box office star of his generation; he’s also someone who shags models, works to enhance social awareness of endangered species and climate change and dances like one’s dad.
Now, I have seen Kit Harington in Pompeii (Paul W. S. Anderson, USA, 2014) and in Spooks: The Greater Good (Bharat Nalluri, UK, 2015) so why does he remain Jon Snow? Does it have to do with the degree of stardom? I don’t think so. Harington is as hot an actor as any at the moment; that’s why he’s had big-budget films built around him; and indeed that’s why he’s being paid to flog perfume by Jimmy Choo. Does it have to do with differences between stardom in one medium or another? Again, in the past I would have said yes. But I don’t think that’s any longer true. James Garner, Matthew McConnaughey, Woody Harrelson, Charlie Sheen and many others since at least the fifties have had enormous success on television without being solely identified with one character. Perhaps it’s process. After all, Clint Eastwood was ‘Rowdy Yates’ throughout America for years before he became ‘Clint Eastwood’.
So, let’s say it’s not about intensity or extent of stardom, or even the medium in which that stardom was first created and took hold; let’s say that it’s merely about polysemy and intensity, about the power and range of different meanings signified by a star sign, such as Kit Harington’s face. But in that case, is Kit Harington ‘The Jimmy Choo Man’ or is it Jon Snow. If the latter, wouldn’t it be appropriate for Harington to hand over some of what he got paid over to whomever owns the image rights to Jon Snow? Isn’t the image for sale on the basis of its meanings here not that of Kit Harington but of Jon Snow? or at best, that of Kit-Harington-as-Jon-Snow? I suppose the two are one in the public imagination. Kit Harington’s face and body is what now embodies Jon Snow; it’s how Jon Snow is signified. In the novels, we each had our own view of him. Now Kit Harington gives flesh to Jon Snow; and we like that embodiment so much that it can be commodified and put for sale; it has an economic value; but until Kit Harington becomes ‘Kit Harington’ does he have the right to commodify Jon Snow and attach those meanings to a scent? Does Kit Harington have the right to get rich from what Jon Snow might mean to an audience? Just a thought.
Bombshell has an opening montage that is very instructive in how studios and audiences perceived the life and function of a film star. We see Jean Harlow as Lola Burns in film magazines, in newspapers, awarding prizes, being the subject of scandal, in advertisements selling hosiery, and on film-screens — bigger than life — with an audience enraptured as she’s embraced by Gable; celebrity, scandal, glamour, the personal and the social, significance and signification, already all rolled into one. One of the many interesting things about the montage is that we see men reading Modern Screen, Photoplay, Silver Screen and other movie magazines as avidly as women, which, even whilst keeping in mind that Lola Burns/Jean Harlow is meant to be a sex-symbol, is not exactly what one expects. We see audiences enraptured by the image, copying Lola’s stockings and perfumes, her name in lights and finally a hypnotic reunion in the dark where audiences identify, desire and long to that image provided by Burns/Harlow; and of course Harlow does seem to burn up the screen with joy, and wit and life as it all unfolds: A glorious beginning to an entertaining film.
Warners has a less showy version of stardom in 1933 with James Cagney playing a character clearly influenced by George Raft in Lady Killer (Roy del Ruth, 1933):