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Film Actors: Gay Male  
 
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From the silent era forward, gay film actors have made significant contributions to cinematic art and Western culture. While very few gay and lesbian actors have been permitted the luxury of openness, many of them have nevertheless challenged and helped reconfigure notions of masculinity and femininity and, to a lesser extent, of homosexuality.

Because of the peculiar hold that film celebrity has had on Western popular culture, film actors--particularly film stars--have always been the subject of rumor and gossip, which in turn has affected the way they are perceived by others. Literally scores of actors, ranging from silent stars such as Rudolph Valentino and later screen idols such as Cary Grant and James Dean to contemporary stars such as Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Keanu Reeves, and Tom Selleck, have been rumored to be gay. Sometimes the rumors are true, but often they are not.

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Although the most successful gay film actors have achieved success by fulfilling the fantasies of the predominantly heterosexual mainstream audience, some of them have also simultaneously fulfilled the fantasies of gay men.

Any list of gay male film actors is bound to be selective and arbitrary and should include accomplished character actors such as Charles Laughton, Clifton Webb, Michael Jeter, Dan Butler, and Simon Callow, as well as handsome hunks such as Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter. The actors mentioned in the following paragraphs are representative and are included because they exemplify in various ways the peculiar difficulties faced by creative artists who were or are homosexual.

For the public, film actors are often expected to be not merely talented performers but also the embodiment of the characters they portray, and for many people an essential characteristic of film stars is heterosexuality. For most of film history, open homosexuality, or even rumors of homosexuality, could end the careers of actors; hence, it is not surprising that most gay actors have had to expend enormous energy disguising their sexuality.

Today, the question of an actor's homosexuality tends to center on whether the public will accept an openly gay actor in a heterosexual role. Many gay actors refuse to come out because they believe it may limit the kind of roles they are offered.

The Silent Era and the Coming of Sound

When Rudolph Valentino died on August 23, 1926, he was mourned wildly. Over 100,000 women swarmed his funeral. One month before his death, however, The Chicago Tribune called Valentino a "pink powder puff" and announced that if effeminate men like Valentino really existed, it was time for a matriarchy, even if led by "masculine women."

Male audiences were offended by Valentino's extravagant dress, colorful spats, make-up, and willingness to display his body on screen in such films as The Sheik (1921) and Blood and Sand (1922). Hollywood's first film star, Valentino disrupted his era's rigid codes of sex and gender. Valentino's sexuality remains ambiguous, but rumors of his homosexuality were rife among Hollywood gay circles, despite (or because of) his marriages to and divorces from Jean Acker and Natacha Rambova, both lesbian.

Ramon Novarro, who starred in Mata Hari (1931) and Ben Hur (1926), was an outsider, a Mexican immigrant in a town known for its negative representations of Mexicans. But he brought to the screen a delicate masculine body and boyish eroticism that unsettled male viewers.

Novarro defied Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio, who demanded that the actor marry to deflect rumors of his homosexuality. Defiance of Mayer, as well as internal conflicts over his sexuality, which led to alcoholism, prematurely ended Novarro's career. Many years after he had faded into obscurity, Navarro, at age 70, was killed by two male hustlers--his death confirming the rumors that had hounded him during his days in the limelight.

By all accounts, William Haines, an MGM star in the 1920s, was the first openly gay actor in Hollywood. Although Haines met his life companion, Jimmy Shields, in 1923, he remained boldly flirtatious on movie sets. Louis B. Mayer, again, sought to control a star's image by issuing a press release announcing Haines' deep love for actress Pola Negri.

Haines rose to stardom with Tell It to the Marines (1927), but, ironically, six years later plummeted from stardom when he was reportedly arrested with a sailor in a room at the YMCA. Mayer allegedly canceled his contract and prohibited him from ever working in Hollywood, at least as an actor. Haines went on to a successful career as an interior designer.

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Raymond Burr (left) with Barbara Hale and Robert Benevides, his life-partner. Hale played Burr's indispensable assistant in the Perry Mason films and television series in which he starred.
  
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