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Film Actors: Lesbian  
 
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Garbo went on to lead a life entirely different from that of Dietrich: she never married and became famously reclusive after her retirement from film at the tender age of 36. In contrast, Dietrich, who had had a husband and child in her early 20s, maintained her notoriously seductive ways with both men and women throughout her long career.

Despite the differences in their approaches to sexuality, apparently Garbo and Dietrich had, whether knowingly or not, lovers in common. For example, de Acosta and Le Gallienne, aside from their relationships with each other and Nazimova, both became involved with Garbo at different times; de Acosta also had an affair with Dietrich.

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Tallulah Bankhead, primarily a stage actress, but also the star of films such as Tarnished Lady (1931) and Lifeboat (1943), was intimate with one of the only openly lesbian actresses of the time, comedienne Patsy Kelly. Bankhead reportedly had affairs with both Dietrich and Garbo and also claimed to have slept with Barbara Stanwyck.

Louise Brooks--the silent-film actress famous for her bobbed hairdo as well as her role as Lulu in Pandora's Box (1929)--became outspoken in her later years. In her memoirs and conversations, she reminisced about affairs with women, including a tryst with Garbo.

Aloof from the "sewing circles" were other actresses rumored to be lesbian or bisexual, including Janet Gaynor, star of A Star is Born (1937), and Mary Martin, best known for her Peter Pan role. Reportedly, the "best friends" both had "lavender marriages," to a costume designer and an interior decorator, respectively.

Character and supporting actresses also went to great lengths to hide their sexuality, although they usually lived without the constant public scrutiny superstars experienced. Agnes Moorehead, for example, never mentioned her widely presumed lesbianism.

Moorehead appeared in more than 60 films, including Citizen Kane (1941), and received several Academy Award nominations for her supporting performances. She is perhaps now best known for her role as Endora, mother of witch Samantha in the 1960s television series Bewitched. Despite her reticence, however, her alleged lesbianism was widely assumed. Gay comedian Paul Lynde proclaimed her "classy as hell, but one of the all-time Hollywood dykes."

Barbara Stanwyck, best known for her steamy roles in such films as Stella Dallas (1937) and Double Indemnity (1944), also had a booming television career in the 1960s and 1970s. Stanwyck married twice, the first time to vaudevillian Frank Fay and the second time to Robert Taylor. Although she rebuffed any questions about her sexuality or her marriages, many observers of the Hollywood scene believed that neither Stanwyck nor either of her husbands were heterosexual.

Throughout their careers, Dame Judith Anderson, Elsa Lanchester, and Sandy Dennis were the subject of persistent rumors that they were lesbian, but they never confirmed the rumors.

The closetedness of lesbians and gay men during the golden age of Hollywood is, of course, quite understandable. Not only were homosexual acts a prosecutable offense in all parts of the United States, but, especially after World War II and the advent of the Cold War, homosexuals became one of the favorite targets of witch-hunts.

Moreover, during this period, scandal magazines became ever bolder. The climate in the United States for homosexuals in the 1950s and early 1960s was oppressive in the extreme. Hence, the fear of lesbian and gay male actors of exposure was by no means paranoid.

Coming Out: Lesbian Actresses into the Present

Although the gay rights movement has helped to improve visibility in industries such as publishing and music, and gay men and women no longer live under quite the same climate of oppression that they did in the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood has not been liberated from severe heterosexism. There are still only a handful of out lesbians and bisexuals in film, and many of those have only recently come out.

For example, the brilliant stage and film actress Lily Tomlin, whose persistent advocacy for feminism and gay rights led many to suspect her lesbianism for decades, remained hushed about her sexual orientation until early 2001. Even then, the statement she made concerning her thirty-year relationship with writer Jane Wagner was not entirely unambiguous. Moreover, she made it clear that while she does not "disavow my private life . . . I also don't want to become someone's poster girl either."

There is no doubt that television actress and comedienne Ellen DeGeneres's public coming out in 1997 was a landmark in the advancement of lesbians in the entertainment industry. The well-publicized relationship Ellen maintained with film actress Anne Heche--who subsequently married a man--made them for a while the only high-profile out lesbian couple in Hollywood.

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