It’s not Tommy Kirk’s fault that he was always kind of funny-looking. I think the closest Disney really got to a certified dreamboat in the live-action glory days of the studio was Kurt Russell. Oh, attractive men—but were Guy Williams and Fess Parker really dreamboats? I don’t think so, not in the sense I’m talking about. I suppose if he’d been a Tab Hunter, Disney might’ve protected him a bit more. This is the confluence of L.A. Confidential and Hail Caesar! The latter doesn’t touch much on the actual closet, more sort of “gay for pay,” but a contract kept the scandal sheets away.
When Vito Russo told people he was writing a book about homosexuality in the movies, people asked him if he was using anyone’s real names. The book wasn’t about actors, just parts, of course. But fear of being outed was an enormous aspect of queer life in ’50s Hollywood. Tab Hunter’s appearance in the scandal sheets was from a party before he was a star, a party where men were quietly dancing with men and women with women, and the police raided the party, and there was his police record for “disorderly conduct.” And that was enough.
Obviously, we cannot know for sure who was queer. (And, as I’ve noted before, the focus tends to be much more on gay men than on lesbians; presumably all women are expected to lie back and think of England anyway?) Any list of gay actors will probably include a lot of speculation and still miss any number of people who just closeted themselves better. Or had studios doing the closeting for them; it was easier if you had a studio do that for you, because they could lean on the magazines. Hunter believed that his outing in Confidential was a trade to keep someone else closeted.
Hunter and Anthony Perkins would go on “double dates” so they could go out together but still be seen as Absolutely Straight. Jim Nabors and Rock Hudson were rumoured in the ’70s to have had a secret wedding, and though they were friends, they were both closeted and never saw each other again. Montgomery Clift’s friends referred to his liaisons with men as “Monty’s being bad again.” Several actors turned down the lead role in Victim out of fear that they would be assumed to be gay. Raymond Burr invented two wives and a dead child to conceal his homosexuality, which I saw casually revealed in his Life obituary.
I wonder if the reason Hunter’s closeting was so successful was the kind of movies he made. I’m not enormously familiar with his work, I’ll be honest. It seems to me, however, that a lot of what he made were basically cinematic romance novels. In a way, even if he had been uncloseted, that just would have added to the safe factor. Teen idol, yes. But also a safe choice for older women unhappy in their lives. My preference for his older appearance is probably tied to the fact that I don’t need a safe choice. (My adolescent preference for Charlie Sheen indicates I was never all that interested in “safe.”) I like him a bit more roughened, but his innocent blandness suggested he wasn’t dangerous and could be someone to dream about without risk.
Oh, Perkins had Norman Bates, of course, which did all sorts of things to his reputation and career for years to come. But it seems to me that your best bets were probably to be bland or otherwise wholesome, to be interestingly foreign or fussily British, or to be such a sissy that you were basically treated as neuter. There are exceptions; Rock Hudson retreated into intense machismo, for example. And if you closeted yourself deep enough or made enough money for the studios, no one would ever be sure—see the discussion about Cary Grant, which I believe is an issue still unresolved. Many men would only be revealed to be gay when they died of AIDS; several gay men have stated bluntly that being gay still reduces your box office success and that it’s still important to remain closeted.
I like to hope that we’ve gone beyond the way things were in the ’50s. Tab Hunter wasn’t entirely convinced, it seems. I guess you could still ask Tommy Kirk and get him to compare notes with, say, Zachary Quinto. I believe Rupert Everett would agree with him, at least about how things were twenty years ago. Perhaps we are still moving forward. I wish I could be certain.
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