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Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969

William J. Mann

Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969

Author:William J. Mann
Publisher:Viking Press

By Heather Joslyn | Posted 10/31/2001

When Steve Martin hosted this year's Academy Awards, he suggested that the ceremony's oft-touted billion home viewers were gazing at the assembled Hollywood elite and thinking the same thing: that they're all gay. The crack drew nervous titters from the image-conscious crowd, but it carries a tinge of truth. Hollywood is chock-full of people of fluid or unconventional sexuality and always has been, and the ticket-buying public has never been given enough credit for knowing and accepting those facts. With Behind the Screen, author William Mann takes the long view, trekking back to the earliest days of the dream factory to find gays, lesbians, and people whose sexuality defied easy labels working in nearly all aspects of the business. And he finds them, all the way from the silents through The Godfather. More than merely tallying an exhaustive list, though, Mann explains how these folks shaped the movies--and how the movie business shaped them.

Mann, author of the acclaimed Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star, drops a smattering of big names into his tale, but marquee monikers aren't Behind the Screen's main attraction. The author is most fascinated by the people behind the camera; he found them by carefully combing obituaries from decades of Variety archives, looking for red flags like "lifelong bachelor" or "no immediate survivors," then winnowing his list through public records and interviews. What emerged was a picture of the Hollywood work force that included "distinct gay and straight enclaves," Mann writes; his file on gay sound technicians, for example, "remained thin and the one on 'costume designers' bulged so much I had to create a second one, and then two, and then three."

The author had stumbled upon a stark illustration of the concept of "queer work," labor traditionally performed by members of one gender but undertaken by members of another. While it's no shock to learn that gay men ruled costume and set-decoration departments, Mann provides plenty of context, and also finds gays in nearly every job at the studios--significantly, many were publicists and journalists, sometimes literally in bed with the people whose public images they helped create. Their degree of overtness depended on their particular work environment and the social class from which they came; men and women from poorer families tended to be less concerned about appearances. Some eras (like the '20s and '40s) were sexually freer than others, as were some spirits.

The result is that queer folk found many different ways to carve out lives for themselves in old Hollywood, with a wider variety of options available to them than you might think. So while some snuck around under a cloud of shame (actor Anthony Perkins) or denied the truth to their graves (like legendary hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff), many others, like directors James Whale and Dorothy Arzner, lived openly with same-sex partners or, like director George Cukor, discreetly played the field with impunity. Still others married, and their opposite-sex unions were not necessarily loveless shams.

Just as Neal Gabler did in his 1988 studio-mogul history An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, which Mann credits as a model, Behind the Screen successfully fleshes out a sociological schematic with great people stories. You won't soon forget some of the "wild pansies" and "girls with imagination" evoked here; Mann leaves the reader feeling that most of them did the best they could to live authentic lives while satisfying Hollywood's demand that image is everything. And, of course, the world will never forget the images they helped put on the screen.

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