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, Dracula Untold (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 and Variety just 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.
For Garland completists only.
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.