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Film Actors: Gay Male  
 
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In 1922 Hollywood established the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, a self-regulating body led by former Congressman Will Hays that functioned as the public relations and lobbying arm of Hollywood. The MPPDA squelched actors, homosexual and heterosexual, who generated bad publicity, and in 1929 passed the Production Code, a complex set of moral standards for film content. The banishment of Haines and the establishment of the MPPDA forced actors of ambiguous sexuality, such as Tyrone Power, deeply into the closet.

With masculinity defined in terms of the machismo of Clark Gable and the outdoor ruggedness of John Gilbert, there was little room for film stars who deviated very far from the increasingly rigid American gender and sex roles. The press became bolder, looking with skepticism at any publicity release announcing the imminent marriage of (gay) actors. During the 1930s and 1940s, gay actors were "The Twilight Men."

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The Legacy of Stardom in the 1950s

James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Rock Hudson achieved stardom in the 1950s, each leaving a lasting mark on film history and the public.

When Dean died on September 30, 1955, only one of his films, East of Eden (1955), had been released. After his death and the release of Rebel without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), Dean became an icon of the sensitive and moody young man.

In the years and decades since Dean's death, newspapers, magazines, and books have repeated rumors of his bisexuality. Allegedly, Dean had affairs with prominent men and women in Hollywood and frequented leather and S&M bars. Dean's screen persona, that of a troubled, uncertain, and reckless late adolescent, in conflict with 1950s conformist values, fused with the rumors of his personal life and resonated deeply with gay audiences.

"No other star captured the hearts and minds of gay men like Montgomery Clift," proclaims John Stubbard. Clift's persona was sensitive, introspective, fragile, and intense. "Clift was like a wound," Jane Fonda noted, constantly suffering and in psychological turmoil. But with his physically slight body, pretty face, hesitance to take action, and troubled stare, Clift helped reconfigure notions of masculinity in Hollywood.

Gay men of the 1950s may have responded so fully to the suffering of Dean and Clift because they connected it with the degradation they faced every day in a society.

Almost every year during the 1950s, Look, Photoplay, Modern Screen, and other movie magazines proclaimed Rock Hudson "most popular star" or "top male star." He was six feet four inches tall, virile, steadfast, with a smooth muscular body and heroic square jaw. The strength of his masculine persona permitted Hudson to feign effeminacy in comedies with Doris Day and Tony Randall and appear vulnerable and indecisive with women in Douglas Sirk's melodramas.

Fearing imminent outing of his client by Confidential magazine, Henry Willson, Hudson's agent, arranged the star's marriage with Phyllis Gates, his executive secretary. It lasted three years.

Obsessed with his image, Hudson supposedly declared he would rather die before fans discovered he was gay. In the 1950s, Hollywood publicists filled magazines with pictures of Hudson in his shorts, frolicking with Elizabeth Taylor and other glamorous female stars. Gay males of the era saw through this facade, however, and, most of them also necessarily closeted, could even identify with it.

In the 1980s, many gay males could also identify with Hudson in another way. Shortly after the news in July 1985 that Hudson had AIDS, the writer Armistead Maupin, a friend and brief lover of Hudson's, publicly outed him by speaking to The San Francisco Chronicle. Waking up an apathetic President (and wider public) may well be the most significant legacy of Hudson's stardom. A New York Times headline of September 2, 1989 declared, "Actor's Illness Helped Reagan to Grasp AIDS, Doctor Says."

Troublesome Rumblings from the Closet

Many gay actors invested an enormous amount of energy to remain closeted, but such efforts took their toll physically and psychologically. Raymond Burr, for example, believed he could ensure privacy by creating an imaginary world to hide his homosexuality and his forty-year relationship with Robert Benevides. Burr claimed he was married three times and had a son who died of leukemia at age ten. Only in the late 1990s did his sister admit that Burr was married only once, for a short time, and had no son.

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