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Queer icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age

Hollywood’s Golden Age is a legendary time in film history. Modern audiences consider it a period of unparalleled luxury, class, elegance, and talent and the birthplace of some of the best films ever, brought to life by a seemingly endless parade of charming and exceptional performers. These actors hold a privileged place in our collective subconscious, flawless stars forever frozen in amber, icons rising high above the clouds, untouched by time, legends in every sense of the word.

It’s tricky how we treat these classic Hollywood performers; every aspect of their lives enthralls us. Their victories, their defeats, their smiles, their tears, their heartache, their joy. In our eyes, they can’t do wrong; their mistakes become misunderstood actions, their struggles provoke sympathy rather than condemnation, and their lives transform into blueprints of achievement and success. However, the sword cuts both ways. Most disturbingly, their pain and suffering become a source of entertainment; the sheer amount of yearly biopics about Hollywood icons with tragic lives says a lot about the way we view this particular time in film history.

Still, there’s no denying that classic film actors are more than stars for modern audiences. LGBTQ+ viewers are especially inclined to relate to and appreciate figures from Hollywood’s Golden Age, the Crawfords and Monroes and Newmans of film history. But why? Why do LGBTQ+ fans hold these figures to a higher standard? What compels them to celebrate these icons, and what’s behind this devotion?

Life as the other

Film still of a young Vivien Leigh.

We LGBTQ+ people know what it’s like to be the “other,” the one on the outside looking in. Even when we can fit more easily in a traditionally heteronormative space, we know the feeling of distance, of foreignness 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 paths towards stardom, often dealing with multiple personal issues at once — from mental health struggles to sexist institutional behavior that pushed them over the edge. Their private lives were interesting at the time and remain so today, but it’s their complexity of mind and character that make them so fascinating.

We know of the deeper issues lurking beneath a seemingly flawless surface, but we still can’t help but be enthralled by such a striking veneer. It would be futile to deny these ladies remain appealing 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 intact, walking to her doom during the final moments in Humoresque, Monroe singing Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friends in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Davis returning home after her makeover in Now, Voyager, Leigh’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 Louis B. Mayer’s hands is especially and notoriously egregious, as is her Oscar loss for A Star Is Born, quite possibly the best female performance in film history. 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 while dealing with a misunderstood mental illness contribute to our shared sympathy towards them. We identify with their loneliness and sympathize with their struggles, knowing full well what it means to walk a path with no others around.

Classic Hollywood stars also represent some of our first examples of what it means to be different, to stand out because of who we are, how we look, dress, and act. Iconic images like Marlene Dietrich wearing a tux in Morocco, Crawford’s architectural hair and impossibly large shoulder pads, Davis’ unconventional beauty — at least by Hollywood’s sexist standards –, and Stanwyck’s timeless femme fatales contributed to our ideas of class, beauty, femininity, and pride.

Life in the closet

Film still of James Dean looking to his right.

Closeted actors were common during Hollywood’s Golden Age. We know of several who were indeed part of the community, although their coming-out stories aren’t exactly pleasant. Icons like Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson were heartthrobs during the Golden Age, famous for their roles as leading men opposite some of the most beautiful women of the time — curiously, both were close with Elizabeth Taylor, another beloved figure for the LGBTQ+ community. Clift’s sexuality remains subject to debate, although Taylor famously declared he was gay during her speech at the 2000 GLAAD Awards, a claim Clift’s brother supported.

However, Hudson’s homosexuality is well-documented, for better and worse. One of the most successful stars of the 1950s, Hudson became synonymous with manliness 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 it was expertly hidden and masqueraded by his agent, the infamous Henry Wilson. Hudson’s homosexuality became public after becoming one of the first prominent stars to contract AIDS in the 1980s; Hudson died in 1985 from an AIDS-related illness.

The charm and fantasy surrounding certain Hollywood actors make it easier to wonder about their sexualities. Although considered a gay icon for years, James Dean’s ambiguous and seemingly experimental take on sexuality has transformed him into a queer legend, particularly in recent years. Randall Riese’s book The Unabridged James Dean: His Life and Legacy from A to Z quotes the screen legend as saying he was not a homosexual but was “certainly not going through life with one hand tied behind (his) back.” Nicholas Ray, director of Rebel Without a Cause, went on record to say Dean “was not straight, he was not gay, he was bisexual.”

Dean’s notorious audition for East of Eden opposite Paul Newman has launched a thousand fanfics, cementing his place as an LGBTQ+ icon — and carving a place of honor for Newman in the rainbow community. Other well-known figures of the time, including legendary film director George Cukor, silent star Ramon Novarro, and 1950s heartthrob Tab Hunter were also gay, with their sexualities playing varying degrees of importance in their legacies.

Several female stars are also suspected to be part of the LGBTQ+ community, even if their sexualities remain ambiguous. Many authors have speculated that screen legend Greta Garbo was bisexual, with Barry Paris claiming in his 2002 book Garbo that she was “technically bisexual, predominantly lesbian, and increasingly asexual.” Katharine Hepburn, widely famous during her time for her masculine energy and behavior, is now believed by many to have been a lesbian. Columnist Liz Smith, the Grand Dame of Dish and a close friend of Hepburn’s, attested in the 2017 documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood that this was indeed the case. And Joan Crawford’s queer identity has become increasingly prominent in recent years. The actress apparently had relationships with men and women alike, with many even claiming the beginning of the Divine Feud between her and Bette Davis came from Crawford’s lingering attraction toward Davis.

Forever icons

Judy Garland doing her eyebrows in her dressing room.

Hollywood’s queer icons will always have a place of honor in our community. Nostalgia will always make everything seem brighter, bigger, and inherently better. However, our respect and appreciation of these figures and their legacies go beyond simple admiration. History has seldom been kind to queer figures, a sad yet undeniable fact that remains true today. Thus, we find comfort in those we relate to, rooting for their success and suffering along with their pain.

We may not be able to change their stories or improve their situations, but we can keep their memories alive and introduce new generations to their work. Their legacies aren’t always simple to explain; there will always be traumas and painful stories lurking under the bed, secrets, poor choices, and clumsy commentaries that might be difficult to understand, let alone justify; Mommie Dearests waiting to happen. Indeed, these figures aren’t perfect, far from it, but that is part of their legacy. Queer figures do not owe perfection to anyone, and appreciation is not glorification. We can see their flaws and understand their mistakes while celebrating their complexity and recognizing their influence in our community.

Whether they were actually part of the LGBTQ+ community or just allies whose support would later become invaluable, these icons spoke to us through their showmanship and cinematic language. Their private struggles and strength to continue and prevail against all odds, sometimes against entire institutions hellbent on stopping them from thriving, are inspiring, especially for a group of people living in a society that moves the goalpost every day.

Perhaps that’s why Judy Garland is the ultimate gay icon. Judy had a legion of gay followers, a closeted gay father, two potentially queer husbands, and a slew of gay friends. Judy’s trademark song, Over the Rainbow, launched a thousand dreams and a movement that would eventually 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 her disappear. In the end, we really are friends of Dorothy, and proudly so.

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