Sunday, December 17, 2006

Gay Los Angeles II

Growing up in Los Angeles in the forties and fifties I went to the movies twice a week. Eventually I came to harbor a fierce contempt for the latest products of Hollywood. I have in mind such things as the immensely over-rated “Barefoot Contessa” and “Two Weeks in Another Town,” the latter surely one of the most disgusting piles of faeces ever flung at the viewing public.

I felt differently about the silents and some major talkies of the pre-WWII years, such as “Sullivan’s Travels” and the comedies of W. C. Fields. Among contemporary works I savored imports from Italy, France, and Sweden. But the latest Hollywood flics were beyond the pale. They were hopelessly infantile.

In retrospect, this infantilization had two causes. During World War II audiences demanded light entertainment to take their minds off the long hours they were working and the often-grim news from the battlefield. After the war was over, the studios continued on this profitable course. Then television came along, and Hollywood had to lower its standards still further to compete with that rubbish (as it was, in those early days).

Eventually movies got better—or some of them did, especially with the rise of the indies, the new art-house fare. And I came to recognize that Hollywood has had a major impact on the American collective psyche. It is also one of our few successful exports, shaping people’s views about America across the globe.

As a student at UCLA I picked up rumors about gays in Hollywood. Having met some of them, we all accepted that writers, set designers, and costumiers could be gay. But we thought that the studio’s filtration devices kept “pansies” (as the moguls and their minions routinely termed them) from ever appearing on the silver screen. The only exceptions were “obvious” types like Franklin Pangborn and Clifton Webb, stereotypes brought out as if to prove that all the real stars were heterosexual.

That did not stop some people from gossiping, though. I recall when I heard (ca. 1955) that Rock Hudson was gay. Those Hollywood queens, I thought, they will say anything!

As we have long known, Hudson (originally Roy Fitzgerald) was the creation of the agent Henry Willson, who discovered the actor, coached him on grammar and table manners, and had his teeth fixed. To stave off a threatened expose, Willson required that Hudson submit to a kind of shotgun wedding to a secretary, Phyllis Gates.

Willson discovered many other pretty boys, including Guy Madison, Rory Calhoun, and Troy Donahue. The benefactor bestowed all these names. (Humphrey Bogart remarked that the ideal Willson name was Dungg Heep.)

During his prime (in the late forties and fifties) studio moguls prized Willson for his uncanny ability to detect men who would appeal to bobby soxers. That was because the agent was himself a kind of bobby soxer. The ideal young man was tall and muscular, had Anglo-Saxon features, a cute smile, and a pleasant, though vapid personality. Acting ability was not required. That could be added later, Willson opined. In short the agent played Pymalion, but with naive hunks instead of flower girls.

He could also engage in cruel mockery. Sometimes at dinner he would break a breadstick in two and hold up the short end, exclaming "Guy Madison!"

Some of the hunks were straight and some were gay. Willson may have been a predator, but not all of his protégés were required to sleep with him. After they met his tests he would get them through the studio doors. Then the rest was up to them.

The gay candidates had to follow certain rules to protect their image. Any effeminate traits must be purged. They must not live with another man. Cary Grant and Randolph Scott had gotten away with it in the ‘thirties, but now times had changed. Even Willson himself would only have favorites over for a weekend. Matters were helped, after a fashion, by the fact that he seems to have been a “oncer” who showed little interest in men after the first seduction. This helped in another way, for men who were repelled by the experience could console themselves with the prospect that it was unlikely to be repeated.

One must never be seen dining in a tête-à-tête with another man. To foster the proper perceptions, Willson supplied “beards,” young women tacitly in the know who would agree to be seen publicly with the actors. Appropriate photo ops were arranged. Indeed, part of Henry Willson’s success lay in his expert manipulation of the Hollywood gossip sheets. He also took care to cultivate secretaries and mail-room boys with gifts and flattery. Then he could rely on them for useful tips.

After office hours Willson held court at his favorite Hollywood restaurant, and also at his Saturday afternoon pool parties. Both groups, gay and straight, proved surprisingly adaptable. If possible, the gay men had to give the appearance of dating, and sometimes to get married, as in Rock Hudson’s case. For their part the straight pretty boys had to go along-—at least at the beginning. One experienced heterosexual protégé advised a newbie that performing fellatio was not really so bad; it was a bit like sucking on a woman’s teat.

Remarkably, all this happened during a great surge of America’s homophobia. Homosexuals were deemed security risks, and the vice squads were especially active, damaging many lives. Willson had a serious brush with the FBI, but he denied that he was homosexual and the matter blew over. What did Willson in was the new type of star represented by Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Warren Beatty. These men didn’t fit Willson’s template.

Willson died a pauper. When the end came, the only person attending at his bedside was the superstraight Troy Donahue, who held the disgraced agent’s hand.

Readers will find all they need to know in Robert Hofler’s The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson (Carroll and Graff). This is much more than a tell-all book; it is genuine history. Mr. Hofler, a writer for Variety, conducted some 200 interviews and consulted many printed sources. His book fills a gap some have felt in the generally excellent Gay L.A. by Faderman and Timmmons. I am putting it on my reference shelf.


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