Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Abominable Showman, November 20, 2011

Sir Ian McKellan

Gay Old Time
Broadway embraces its gay actors while Hollywood continues to (mostly) shun theirs
by Richard Burnett

The reason why rumours Richard Gere enjoys gerbils up his ass keep dogging the actor after all these years is because Gere not only worked at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1971, but posed for Playgirl (made for girls but "read" by boys) in 1983. Mostly, though, it’s because Gere starred as a gay man interned by the Nazis during World War II in playwright Martin Sherman’s internationally-acclaimed play Bent

Gere in Bent
Is it any surprise, then, that real, honest-to-God gay Hollywood matinée idols still refuse to publicly come out? 

Since Bent debuted on Broadway with Richard Gere and in London’s West End with Sir Ian McKellen, folks having been trying to out Gere as a gay man (he’s straight, by the way) while McKellen publicly came out in 1988 at the height of the AIDS media hysteria.

Backstage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in February 1999, where he was portraying Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, McKellen – who began acting on the stage as a Cambridge undergrad in 1958 – opened a bottle of red wine and told me, “Of course you want people to come out, but the way to do it satisfactorily isn’t to do it on their behalf. No gay man would rob another gay person of that joy of finally taking control of themselves. And it’s a blessing, you know, it’s one that straight people don't enjoy. They never have to come out! They don’t know what it's all about and misunderstand it and get much more exercised about being outed than we do. They miss the point that coming out is the most wonderful thing you will ever do in your life whatever age you do it.”

The theatre world, of course, has long been quite accepting of gay actors. Broadway has rarely been as closeted as Hollywood where to this very day even the whiff of gayness can still ruin a young actor’s shot at career longevity and greatness. That is why John Travolta evidently so assiduously keeps up appearances, even after being outed by his Hollywood colleague Carrie Fisher,  who told The Advocate last December, “My feeling about John has always been that we know [he’s gay] and we don’t care. Look, I’m sorry that he’s uncomfortable with it, and that’s all I can say. It only draws more attention to it when you make that kind of legal fuss. Just leave it be.”

Granger and Dall in Rope
When it comes to Tinsel Town, the closet remains pretty much business-as-usual. Before Farley Granger died in March 2011 at the age of 85, the 1950s screen idol told me about the time he co-starred in Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 cult classic film Rope which was loosely based on real-life, early-20th-century gay killers Leopold and Loeb who committed a “thrill kill” to impress their mentor. In Rope the mentor is played by James Stewart while Granger and his co-star, the late John Dall, played the gay killers. Coincidentally, in real life, Granger was bisexual and Dall was gay.

“John and I did discuss the [gay] relationship between our characters,” Granger told me in New York City. “But we never discussed our own private lives. We discussed [sexuality] in terms of our characters, not our personal lives. You got to realize this was 1947. No one discussed those things openly then. People forget that. The word ‘gay’ wasn’t even appropriated yet.”

As for Dall, Granger adds, “I wasn’t attracted to him in that way – it just never would have happened.” 

But off the Hollywood studio soundstages, Granger says he never hid his gay affairs. “That never happened in Hollywood. I never hid. I never considered myself in the closet. When I had my relationship with Arthur Laurents during the filming of Rope, all of my friends knew about it. We went out to dinner together and went to parties together. It was the crowd we hung out with – it was a New York music and theatre crowd. None of those people cared a fig about whom you were having sex with.” 

There it is:  “The New York music and theatre crowd. None of those people cared a fig about whom you were having sex with.”

Like the time acting legend John Gielgud was arrested in England for cottaging in 1953. “John and I worked together in Much Ado About Nothing at Stratford and during that time I got to know him,” openly-gay theatre legend Louis Negin – the first actor to ever appear fully nude on a West End stage – explained to me. “At the time of his arrest he was starring in a play in London. He was petrified to go on the next night. How was the audience going to react? It could mean the end of his career. So when he went on it was an act of bravery. And the audience cheered him.”

That moment was a seismic change from just 25 years earlier when the first Broadway play to deal openly with gay life and drag culture was Mae West’s 1927 play The Drag. That play never even opened on the Great White Way because after West’s first Broadway play Sex (which she also wrote, produced and directed) was closed down by the NYPD in April 1927 (West was sentenced to 10 days in jail for obscenity), the Society for the Prevention of Vice vowed to ban The Drag if West attempted to stage it. 

But today, over 80 years later, La Cage aux Folles and Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical have become huge Walt Disney-esque successes on Broadway.

So when it comes to embracing gay matinee idols, change in Hollywood is as inevitable as the talkies were in 1927. 

As my friend and colleague Michael Musto, gossip columnist for The Village Voice in NYC (and whom I like to call North America’s OTHER fabulous loudmouth columnist) told me a few weeks ago while promoting his new anthology of essays  Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back, “I think everyone on Earth should come out, even if they’re not gay! The reality is, ‘Be proud, be happy and be honest about who you are.’ The cowering, the lies and the evasions create so much unhappiness. And the actors who have come out have never expressed any regrets about it, except for Rupert Everett. In general, they’re so much happier living free, open lives. And we now have the example of Neil Patrick Harris, who has made it huge on TV and now has a hit movie franchise. People used to say this could never happen to an out gay actor. Well, it happened.”
Burnett and Musto

Which brings me back to Sir Ian McKellen whose coming out in 1988 did not slow down his celluloid career – though admittedly McKellen never really was a matinee idol. 

But the theatre legend does crave what only Hollywood can give him: About starring in director Bill Condon’s 1998 masterpiece Gods and Monsters (the Oscar-winning biopic about unapologetically out Hollywood film director James Whale whose own film Frankenstein reinvented the Frankestein “monster” as an outsider and pop culture icon), McKellen told me as he sipped his glass of red wine backstage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, “I think it might be just what I sometimes dream about – and that’s to be in a classic, to be in a movie that lasts and lasts and lasts.”

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