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Film Directors  
 
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Gay, lesbian and bisexual film directors have been a vital creative presence in cinema since the medium's inception over one hundred years ago. Until the last two decades, however, mainstream directors kept their work (and not infrequently their lives) discreetly closeted, while the films of underground and experimental creators, although often confrontational in theme and technique, had limited circulation and financial support.

More recently, new filmmakers have capitalized on increased (although by no means unproblematic) public acceptance to win critical recognition and commercial viability for their projects.

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The Hollywood Golden Era

In the so-called Golden Era of Hollywood, there were a number of famous directors privately known for their alternative sexual preferences. These included George Cukor, Edmund Goulding, Mitchell Leisen, F.W. Murnau, Mauritz Stiller, James Whale, and Dorothy Arzner, who functioned with varying degrees of success in the industry.

Cukor (1899-1983) is primarily famous as a prolific and assured director of women's films. His sexuality was a well known secret in Hollywood, and while it did not do substantial harm to his career, it is generally believed that his "fairy" reputation cost him the directorship of Gone With the Wind (1939), following objections from macho star Clark Gable.

Although Cukor's work never overtly addresses gay issues, later critics and viewers have come to appreciate its many queer subtexts: Katharine Hepburn's cross dressing in Sylvia Scarlett (1935); the gloriously camp bitchiness in the dress and dialogue of the all women cast of The Women (1939); the effete figure of Kip in the classic Adam's Rib (1948).

Less discreet and, as a consequence, less fortunate than Cukor, James Whale (1893-1957) moved from the English theater to Broadway and then to Hollywood. Although he directed a range of genres, including the first version of the musical Showboat (1936), Whale's reputation as a director rests on his quartet of horror classics: Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Dark House (1932), and The Invisible Man (1933). These films, with their grotesque ambience and alienated protagonists, have been interpreted as offering metaphoric expression of queer suffering.

Whale's career collapsed at least in part because of his refusal to tone down his openly gay behavior, and the last two decades of his life were spent on the Hollywood margins. The circumstances of his death by drowning in his swimming pool remained unresolved until only recently, when his suicide note was made public. His last months provided the basis for Bill Condon's 1998 film Gods and Monsters, based on the novel Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram and starring Ian McKellen.

It has sometimes been said that the lesbianism of Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979) afforded her a certain license as "one of the boys" in a fiercely male dominated profession, but the road for one of only two successful female directors in Hollywood's Golden Era was not easy.

Censorship codes and convention no doubt prevented Arzner from undertaking overtly lesbian themes. Nevertheless, critics have noted such touches as the sensuous handling of women's friendships in The Wild Party (1929) and the focus on such strong, albeit constrained, women as Hepburn's Amelia Earheart-like aviator in Christopher Strong (1933) and Joan Crawford's shoulder-padded businesswoman in The Bride Wore Red (1937). Forced to retire after ill health in the 1940s, Arzner made occasional television commercials in the 1950s and later taught film at UCLA in the 1960s.

Avant-Garde, European, and Underground Film

Developments in experimental film from the 1940s onwards, as well as the influence of European cinema, led ultimately to the formation of what is commonly known as underground cinema--the term coming from the screening context of small, alternative, sometimes illicit venues--that burgeoned in the 1960s.

In this subcultural space, (primarily male) homosexual directors forged a quirky mixture of aesthetic experimentation, kitsch, and iconography into what was to become, ultimately, a highly influential set of cinematic techniques.

The doyen of this tradition is undoubtedly Kenneth Anger (b. 1927), a child prodigy who grew up in Los Angeles and started shooting 16mm shorts at the age of fourteen. While attending the University of Southern California film school, Anger began to create what became an influential series of eclectic films, including Fireworks (1947), Eaux d'artifice (1953), and Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965).

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A portrait of actor Jack Larson (left) with director James Bridges and their dog Max by Stathis Orphanos.
  
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