The Golden Age of Hollywood is a legendary period in the history of cinema. Modern audiences regard it as a period of unprecedented luxury, class, elegance and talent and the birthplace of some of the best films of all time, driven by a seemingly endless parade of charming and exceptional performers. These actors occupy a privileged place in our collective unconscious, flawless stars forever frozen in amber, icons rising above the clouds, untouched by time, legends in every sense of the word.
How we treat these classic Hollywood performers is tricky. every aspect of their life fascinates us. Their victories, their defeats, their smiles, their tears, their sorrows, their joy. In our eyes, they can’t do wrong; their mistakes become actions misunderstood, their struggles elicit sympathy rather than condemnation, and their lives turn into blueprints for success and success. However, the sword cuts both ways. More worryingly, their pain and suffering become a source of entertainment; the amount of annual biopics about Hollywood icons with tragic lives says a lot about how we view this particular time in cinematic history.
Still, there’s no denying that classic film actors are more than stars to modern audiences. LGBTQ+ viewers are particularly likely to identify with and appreciate characters from Hollywood’s Golden Age, the Crawfords, Monroes and Newmans of movie history. But why? Why do LGBTQ+ fans hold these numbers higher? What drives them to celebrate these icons and what is behind this devotion?
Life like the others
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We LGBTQ+ people know what it’s like to be the “other,” the one looking out. Even when we can fit more easily into a traditionally heteronormative space, we know the sense of distance, of strangeness that comes with living half a lie, half a life.
Some of the LGBTQ+ community’s most beloved icons – Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh – were trailblazers in more ways than one. They walked lonely roads to stardom, often dealing with multiple personal issues at once — from mental health issues to sexist institutional behavior that pushed them over the edge. Their private lives were interesting then and remain so now, but it is their complexity of mind and character that makes them so fascinating.
We know the deeper issues lurking beneath a seemingly flawless surface, but we still can’t help but be captivated by such a striking veneer. It would be futile to deny that these ladies remain attractive to members of the LGBTQ+ community because of their more obvious qualities; endless grace to go with unparalleled beauty and unbreakable composure. Think of Crawford, stoic and untouched, marching to her doom during the final moments of humorous, Monroe singing Diamonds are a girl’s best friend in Men prefer blondesDavis returning home from her makeover in Now TravelerLeigh’s perpetually arched eyebrow in just about everything she did, or Hepburn’s larger-than-life persona, on and off screen.
Above all, we love these women because of the injustice that surrounded their lives. Garland’s manipulation at MGM and at the hands of Louis B. Mayer is particularly and notoriously egregious, as is his loss at the Oscars for A star is born, probably the best female performance in the history of cinema. Davis and Crawford’s treatment at the end of their careers, Monroe’s exploitation at the hands of the Hollywood machine, and Leigh’s isolated life in the face of misunderstood mental illness contribute to our shared sympathy for them. We identify with their loneliness and sympathize with their struggles, knowing full well what it means to walk a path with no one around.
Classic Hollywood stars also represent some of our earliest examples of what it means to be different, to stand out because of who we are, how we look, how we dress and how we behave. Iconic images like Marlene Dietrich wearing a tuxedo in MoroccoCrawford’s architectural hair and impossibly wide shoulder pads, Davis’ unconventional good looks – at least by sexist Hollywood standards – and Stanwyck’s timeless femme fatales have contributed to our ideas of class, beauty, femininity and pride.
life in the closet
Locked-in actors were common during Hollywood’s Golden Age. We know several who were indeed part of the community, although their coming-out stories weren’t exactly pleasant. Icons like Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson were idols during the Gilded Age, famous for their roles as leading men opposite some of the most beautiful women of the time – oddly enough, both were close to Elizabeth Taylor, another beloved figure in the LGBTQ+ community. Clift’s sexuality remains up for debate, though Taylor declared famous he was gay during his speech at the 2000 GLAAD Awards, a claim Clift’s brother supported.
However, Hudson’s homosexuality is well documented, for better and for worse. One of the most successful stars of the 1950s, Hudson became synonymous with manhood through his work in films like Giant and the many romantic comedies he made with Doris Day. Hudson’s sexuality was well known around Hollywood, although he was cleverly concealed and masked by his agent, the infamous Henry Wilson. Hudson’s homosexuality became public knowledge after becoming one of the first high-profile stars to contract AIDS in the 1980s; Hudson died in 1985 of an AIDS-related illness.
The charm and fantasy surrounding certain Hollywood actors makes it easier to question their sexualities. Although considered a gay icon for years, James Dean’s ambiguous and seemingly experimental take on sexuality has turned him into a queer legend, especially in recent years. Randall Riese’s book The Unabridged James Dean: His Life and Legacy from A to Z quotes the screen caption saying he wasn’t gay but he “definitely didn’t go through life with one hand tied behind his back”. Nicholas Ray, director of rebel without a cause, checked in saying Dean “wasn’t straight, he wasn’t gay, he was bisexual”.
Dean’s notorious audition for East of Eden opposite, Paul Newman launched a thousand fanfics, cementing his place as an LGBTQ+ icon — and carving out a place of honor for Newman in the rainbow community. Other well-known personalities of the time, including legendary director George Cukor, silent star Ramon Novarro and 1950s idol Tab Hunter, were also gay, with their sexualities playing more or less in their lives. legacy.
Several female stars are also believed to be part of the LGBTQ+ community, although their sexualities remain ambiguous. Many writers have speculated that screen legend Greta Garbo was bisexual, with Barry Paris claiming in his 2002 book garbo that she was “technically bisexual, mostly lesbian and increasingly asexual”. Katharine Hepburn, widely known in her day for her masculine energy and demeanor, is now considered by many to be a lesbian. Columnist Liz Smith, leading lady of Dish and a close friend of Hepburn, attested in the 2017 documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood that was indeed the case. And Joan Crawford’s Queer Identity has become increasingly important in recent years. The actress apparently had relationships with both men and women, with many even claiming that the start of the divine feud between her and Bette Davis stemmed from Crawford’s continued attraction to Davis.
Hollywood’s queer icons will always have a place of honor in our community. Nostalgia will always make everything brighter, bigger, and inherently better. However, our respect and appreciation for these personalities and their legacy goes beyond mere admiration. History has rarely been kind to queer personalities, a sad but undeniable fact that remains true today. Thus, we find solace in those with whom we relate, rooting their success and their suffering as well as their pain.
We may not be able to change their stories or improve their situation, but we can keep their memories alive and bring their work to new generations. Their legacies are not always easy to explain; there will always be traumas and painful stories lurking under the bed, secrets, bad choices and awkward comments that might be difficult to understand, let alone justify; Dear Mums waiting to arrive. Indeed, these figures are not perfect, far from it, but it is part of their heritage. Queer personalities owe no one perfection, and appreciation is not glorification. We can see their flaws and understand their mistakes while celebrating their complexity and acknowledging their influence in our community.
Whether they were truly part of the LGBTQ+ community or simply allies whose support would later become invaluable, these icons spoke to us through their showmanship and cinematic language. Their private struggles and strength to carry on and prevail against all odds, sometimes against entire institutions determined to prevent them from thriving, is inspiring, especially for a group of people living in a society that moves the goal post every day. .
Maybe that’s why Judy Garland is the ultimate gay icon. Judy had a legion of gay followers, a closeted gay father, two potentially gay husbands, and a slew of gay friends. Judy’s trademark song, above the rainbow, launched a thousand dreams and a movement that would ultimately change the LGBTQ+ community forever. Judy represents everything a queer icon should be, not because of the tragedy of her life but because of the strength of her will, a powerful hunger to be seen and heard even when everyone around her tried to make it go away. In the end, we are truly friends of Dorothy, and proudly.