I love movies! I’ve started devoting my Friday posts to movies, “films” and documentaries that have appealed to me. It’s a difficult decision regarding what to review each week as there are so many things to choose from. True, there are thousands of books and I seem to manage to choose those…but I tend to devote six days a week to those. It’s so hard to pick just one movie!
Today’s post is about a book about the movies. Don’t worry, there will be a movie for review tomorrow! Unfortunately, though as I said, I love movies, I’m not nearly as knowledgeable about them, and especially about the history of the movies and of Hollywood, as the all around movie buff would be. I found this book written by noted author and biographer, William J. Mann, titled, Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969 and I just had to read it.
I’ve read a few books about Hollywood and the movies in my time. Most were very “straight”. I always felt like there was something missing from those histories but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then, recently, I read and reviewed the book Fifty Years of Queer Cinema: 500 of the Best GLBTQ Films Ever Made (October 6th, 2011 post) by Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince and my eyes were opened. That book was based on specific films. I sought out more information about the gay and lesbian history of Hollywood and the movie industry and that’s what lead me to this book by Mann.
The brief book synopsis from the publisher:
Whether in or out of the closet, gays and lesbians played an essential role in shaping studio-era Hollywood. Gay actors (J. Warren Kerrigan, Marlene Dietrich, Rock Hudson), gay directors (George Cukor, James Whale, Dorothy Arzner), and gay set and costume designers (Adrian, Travis Banton, George James Hopkins) have been among the most influential individuals in Hollywood history and literally created the Hollywood mystique. This landmark study-based on seven years of exacting research and including unpublished memoirs, personal correspondence, oral histories, and scrapbooks-explores the experience of Hollywood’s gays in the context of their times. Ranging from Hollywood’s working conditions to the rowdy character of Los Angeles’s gay underground, William J. Mann brings long overdue attention to every aspect of this powerful creative force.
The Publisher’s Weekly review is a bit more “revealing” about the true content you can expect from the book:
“Come next week if possible. Kathleen giving supper Sunday the 27th. Will ask her to include you and Gary. Want both to occupy one guest room? Answer soon as possible.” An insignificant query? Not when you know that it was sent in 1929 to openly gay actor Anderson Lawler, and that “Gary” was none other than beautiful Hollywood newcomer Gary Cooper, Lawler’s constant companion. While he doesn’t skimp on the details of who was sleeping with whom (Mary Martin and Janet Gaynor; Claudette Colbert and Marlene Dietrich; Cary Grant and costume designer Orry-Kelly), historian and cultural critic Mann (Wisecracker) also delivers an astute and groundbreaking study of the impact of gay and lesbian actors, set designers, writers, costume designers, editors and producers on studio-era Hollywood. Without directly correlating sexual identity and artistic production, Mann applies sharp, original research and interviews to re-create the intricate lives and work of “gay Hollywood,” offering a new lens for examining the complicated, sometimes contradictory relationship between sexual activity, identity and work. Treating his subjects with great integrity, he argues that it is inaccurate to label stars like Colbert, Cooper and Grant “gay,” because they had a far more fluid sexuality. Yet he makes a cohesive and persuasive argument for how their varied sexualities transformed Hollywood and the movies. Mann also covers a wide range of ancillary topics e.g., the history and aesthetics of set design; the rise of Los Angeles’s “pansy clubs”; and the special role of Jews (who were more likely than gentiles to be open about their sexuality). This intelligent and accessible study marks a major step for gay, gender and film studies. Agent, Malaga Baldi.
If you’re gay or lesbian and a film lover, and especially if you like the old classics that started it all for Hollywood, I consider this a must read. It sheds a lot of light on why things evolved the way they did. It may not “out” anybody new for you, if you’re a true Hollywood acolyte, but I guarantee you that you’ll learn things that you didn’t know and see other things in a new light!