During his career, Tab Hunter only won one award, according to IMDB, placing fourth in the category of Top Male Musical Performer for his 1959 film Damn Yankees. (He lost to Pat Boone in Mardi Gras.) Hunter has 75 credits as an actor, his last one being 1992’s Dark Horse, had his own TV series in the early ’60s, and sang a number one hit song in 1957 (“Young Love”), but suddenly, he finds himself a hot commodity again, thanks to last year’s documentary Tab Hunter Confidential. The film about Hunter has already garnered more awards than Hunter himself, winning feature awards at film festivals in California, Louisville, San Diego, and Miami.
However, Hunter’s success, then and now, was never a guarantee. Tab Hunter Confidential, a popular gossip rag of the studio era in Hollywood that refused to play nice with the studios, did their best to damage Hunter’s blossoming career, revealing his arrest for attending a gay “pajama party”. Thanks to his immense popularity and the fact that he was romantically linked in the press with Natalie Wood, America’s darling, Hunter’s career survived the story. This scare didn’t stop him from having same-sex relationships, though, his most serious being with Psycho‘s Anthony Perkins. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last year, Hunter noted, “I never mentioned my sexuality to Warner Bros. at all and they never mentioned it to me, thank God.”
The prevailing attitude of the studios in Hollywood’s first 70 years (and still somewhat today) was “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell; Don’t Get Caught.” Whereas today’s closeted stars rely on managers and press agents to keep their sexual proclivities a secret, the stars of yesteryear could count on the studios to manufacture a false persona for public consumption. This wasn’t a service provided solely to LGBT stars; the studios created “public personas” for most of their big name stars, often arranging dates and creating fictional biographies. Hunter, Rock Hudson, Sal Mineo, Montgomery Clift, Richard Chamberlain, Dirk Bogarde, Robert Reed, and a host of gay and bisexual actors, from Cary Grant to James Dean, benefitted from the system. A few stars, however, circumvented the “faux life story” publicity machine by playing to their comedic strengths as gay men.
The time period necessitated deception for most LGBT stars. As Elisabetta Girelli, author of Montgomery Clift, Queer Star explains “Specifically, the 1940s and 1950s were characterized by a crisis about the meaning and function of masculinity, and by the emergence of youth culture; at the same time, the McCarthy anti-communist witch hunt, with its broad antidissidence agenda, reflected the strength of a punitive social order that remained hegemonic. Sexual activity was the target of control and oppression, and alternative sexual orientations would be criminalized well into the 1960s (in the United States).” (Wayne St. University Press, 2013, p. 4)
Countless film historians have noted that films of the ’20s and early ’30s were rather liberal in their depiction of gay characters, often labelled “fairies” or “pansies” by critics and film-goers. While same-sex romance wasn’t permitted, excessively effeminate characterizations were, until the Hayes Code changed the rules for what could be depicted. The strictness of the code combined with heteronormative social customs ensured that most actors who were gay, lesbian, or bi masked their true selves to obtain commercial success.
However, at what cost? Many actors were able to sustain the macho image that their screen roles demanded while successfully navigating murky sexual waters. Others were not. While they were able to keep their careers going, their personal lives became tragic, resulting in the psychological damage that often accompanies living a lie. One such actor was Montgomery Clift. Of Clift, producer Arthur Laurents once said, “Monty was miserable. He was tremendously guilt-ridden about his homosexuality. The time Monty spent out in Hollywood only made it worse. It said to him, ‘You are a pariah if you pursue what you want.'” (qtd. by Robert LaGuardia, Monty, Avon, 1977, p. 198)
Clift’s early career was certainly enviable, even if his life was not. He received a Best Actor Oscar nomination, the first of four nominations, for his first released film, The Search (he filmed Red River before The Search, but it was released later). From there, he went on to star in such classic films as From Here to Eternity, Raintree County, A Place in the Sun, The Heiress, Suddenly, Last Summer, Judgment at Nuremburg, and The Misfits, Marilyn Monroe’s last film. Clift has 18 total film credits as an actor, as well as serving as an uncredited co-writer on three of his films. He also made 12 appearances on Broadway before being signed in Hollywood.
Still, maintaining his career while circumventing his sexuality was problematic. Montgomery Clift, Queer Star notes that blackmail attempts were made by those who had seen Clift in gay bars, but such attempts were dealt with by Clift’s lawyers. The press was also problematic, with famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper asking his agent about the matter as early as 1948. Stories implying Clift was anything other than straight were routinely quashed.
Clift’s career might have continued to go strong if it wasn’t for a 1956 car accident. After leaving a party at Elizabeth Taylor’s house, he wrapped his car around a telephone pole, resulting in serious facial lacerations, a broken jaw, broken nose, and fractured sinus. (Reportedly, Taylor rushed to the scene, where she told reporters, “If you dare take one photograph of [Monty] like this, I’ll never let another one of you near me again.” The threat worked.) While the accident resulted in noticeable changes to his face, despite extensive plastic surgery, it led to even greater changes in his personality, as he became increasing dependent on drugs and alcohol.
According to Girelli, “A history of emotional fragility, depressive tendencies, and assorted addictions was suddenly incorporated in leveling trauma of Clift’s broken face.” (p. 126) The transformation in his personality was obvious to fans, coworkers, and reporters, with Hedda Hopper declaring him “pathologically disturbed” at the end of shooting on Raintree County, the film he was working on at the time of the wreck.
While Clift continued to work after the accident, eventually sporadically, the loss of his sexual appeal — in his eyes — caused a downward spiral into amplified drug and alcohol consumption. No longer a pretty boy, what was Clift but an aging homosexual, a “pariah”? Clift died in 1966 at the age of 45 from heart problems exacerbated by his unhealthy lifestyle.
Clifton Webb (L)
Clift’s story may seem representative of the gay actor experience in Hollywood during the era, but that isn’t completely accurate. For some actors, there was more latitude allowed, so long as they didn’t broadcast their sexual preferences. Character actors such as Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn typically played fastidious life-long bachelors, but the distinction between these men and such stars as Clift and Robert Reed, the star of The Brady Bunch who also struggled with his orientation, was that Horton and Pangborn weren’t leads or expected to carry a vehicle. Audiences could look at them as comic-relief before diverting their attention back to the heterosexual love story. Perhaps the most successful of these was three-time Oscar nominee Clifton Webb who, it is rumored, was asked if he was a homosexual and replied, “Devoutly, my boy, devoutly.”
Webb appeared in a total of 27 films and had a long history in the theatre. He was one of the few gay character actors to break into decidedly heterosexual roles, most notably in the original version of Cheaper by the Dozen, in which he was not only a devoted husband but the father of 12. Even so, his character Frank Gilbreth was still a very particular, soft-spoken (but firm) man, keeping Webb away from the role of the macho male lead in many comedies of the era and leading New York Times critic Bosley Crowthers to call his performance “faintly androgynous”.
According to Leonard Leff in his article “Becoming Clifton Webb: A Queer Star in Mid-Century Hollywood” (Cinema Journal, Spring 2008), “even after Fox put him on the straight and narrow — he reconciled the contradiction of queer and star. Even when portraying married men, including married men with supposed Herculean testosterone, he weakened what Eve Sedgwick has termed ‘the privilege of not knowing’, and created a safe zone where moviegoers across the sexual continuum could vicariously act out their desires.” (Leff also notes that a joke going around concerning Webb’s performance in 1953’s Titanic was that “Clifton Webb went down on the Titanic.”)
This dichotomy of actor casting — excluding gay men from romantic leads and action roles while putting them in supporting, comedic roles — still exists to a large extent today. The last openly gay man to play romantic leads in action films was Ramon Navarro of the silent film era. Several years ago, Daniel Craig suggested that James Bond would engage in a same-sex scenario, and his comments were largely met with scorn.
As this sort of reaction is not atypical, many gay actors today who want to be leading men must still rely on staff to keep their secret orientation hidden and must deal with their choices in ways that are ultimately psychologically unhealthy. One can only hope their stories end more like Tab Hunter’s than Montgomery Clift’s.