Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Of Hollywood, Gable, and Gays

It always used to bug me the way some critics, readers and fans would cry out in a decidedly homophobic manner if a biographer dared suggest that one of their favorite film stars was gay or bi. It always seemed especially egregious when the star in question was some supposedly "macho" sort who couldn't possibly be gay, as if it never occurred to these people that Hollywood was all about illusion and image.

So I applaud the fact that some biographers are no longer being coy when it comes to their subject's sexuality. People can complain that it seems as if just about every dead star -- and a few living ones -- are being outed, but the fact remains that Hollywood has had its fair share of closet cases, probably more than its share when one considers what was at stake. And if that's a problem for some people, too bad.

But I have to say that books like David Bret's Clark Gable, Tormented Star, don't help the situation. Author James Robert Parish intelligently wrote about Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in his book on the former, employing key facts and educated speculation to formulate what he posits about their sexuality, but Bret (and others like him) seem to simply pass along a lot of unsubstantiated gossip. This only provides aid and comfort to those who would deny that this or that star was gay, and who can point to books like CGTS (Clark Gable, Tormented Star) and chortle that it has absolutely no source notes and many of its conclusions are just thrown at the reader without any solid foundation to back them up. The book has virtually no interviews as well.

Now I'm not saying that Clark Gable wasn't gay or bi. However he saw himself in his own mind, I believe he had sex with men. But not because of anything I read in Bret's book, but in others written by those who were around at the time or at least had spoken to people who were first-hand observers. And because a very good friend of mine -- now in his eighties -- has a lot of inside information about the goings-on in Old Hollywood. Many people reading Bret's book will just roll their eyes and think "how does he know any of this?" Bret isn't old enough to have had sex with Gable himself (mind you, I'm not saying Bret is gay; I have no idea).

There were some things I liked about the book. Bret points out how ridiculous it was for people to assume a hairy chest meant a man had to be heterosexual, and other "Gay Lib"-like zingers along those lines. He tries to expose the hypocrisy of machismo and the studio system, the foolish belief in a star's image above all and everything that went with it. But because the book never substantiates any of its claims about Gable himself, this bio will hardly convince any of the many Doubting Thomases. This is the right book by the wrong author.

Bret, who writes many books about gay/bi celebrities and has a wife, seems to have recreated Clark Gable as a kind of super-bisexual for the 21st century, but this is possibly just as phony as the image of Gable as super-straight. He doesn't deny Gable's numerous homosexual liaisons, nor that not all (according to him) were for profit of one kind or another, although he first suggests that Gable was "gay for pay." [Having homoerotic liaisons for cash does not preclude the hustler being gay himself, even if he's closeted or sees himself as being straight.] Gable used men and women right and left, but Bret feels that the true loves of his life were all women. This despite the fact that Bret makes clear that Gable became more and more closeted (that is, less sex with men; he was always in the closet) the more famous he became. Bret accepts Gable's marriages, such as to Carol Lombard, as serious love matches despite the fact that Hollywood is full of homosexuals who marry one woman after another (Cary Grant comes to mind), and indeed Bret even refers to one fellow, a non-actor, as a gay man who had four wives.

Yeah, maybe Gable was bisexual, but he also could have been a homosexual man who did everything he could ( some of it mentioned by Bret) to run from his true sexuality and distance himself from any perception by the public that he could have been queer. (That he was bisexual in the technical sense, involved with both men and women like many married homosexuals, I do not doubt.)

But then, in Bret's apparent world-view, going by what I read in CGTS, everyone but everyone (except perhaps the aforementioned gay guy with four wives) is bisexual. George Raft, George Brent, this one and that one, virtually everyone named in the book, no sources ever given, practically all of Hollywood does it with both men and women. There is no talk of internalized homophobia or anything along those lines -- all these people are just swingin' happy bi's. So why exactly was Gable so "tormented" then, as the title suggests? Fear of exposure, even though his wives and affairs with females would have put paid to such stories in that gullible era? Was he tormented and conflicted by his sexuality as he got older? Bret doesn't know or write about it at all. Maybe the real love of his life was Ben Maddox, the writer/reporter he (allegedly) had an affair with (who was -- of course! -- also bisexual).

Gable would not have been the first homosexual (or bisexual) man to dump a male lover of his youth to stick with women for the rest of his life. Nor the first to make homophobic remarks both as a cover-up and as an expression of self-hatred. You can talk about sexual fluidity all you want, most guys who do this are sticking their asses in the closet -- it doesn't mean they've gone straight nor that they're essentially hetero. In any case, even stories in Confidential about Gable's gay involvements would probably not have been believed by the public then (or now). And money and fame can do a lot of ease a person's "torment," be it over his sexuality or his (by now legendary) halitosis.

There are some stupid moments in the book, and despite all the bed-hopping and bisexuality, it's not really a particularly good read. The book even becomes comical at times. One passage goes: "[actor John] Hodiak was a volatile individual who had recently emerged emotionally scarred from a torrid affair with Tallulah Bankhead on the set of Hitchcock's Lifeboat -- to take up with Lana [Turner] while shooting the ironically mistitled Marriage is a Private Affair, and all the while married to Anne Baxter. On the rebound, Lana ended up in the arms of Tyrone Power, separated from his French actress wife, Arabella -- and also involved with Cesar Romero, who had recently ended a relationship with John Hodiak!"

Don't get me wrong. There were a lot of gay goings-on in Old (and New) Hollywood, and a lot of bed-hopping to the point of in-breeding. Maybe somebody told Bret about Hodiak being with Romero who was with Ty Power, who was with .... but, if so, who was it who told him? I'm all for letting people know how many people, famous or not, engage in gay behavior and love affairs, but if it's not backed up by solid journalism or at least some good interview quotes from people who were there or have credible inside knowledge, what good does it do?

As for the great love affair between Gable and Joan Crawford? For all we know that could be the case of a woman who was essentially a lesbian being "in love" with a man who was essentially a homosexual, no more serious than the Great Love Affair of Tracy and Hepburn.

But who knows? Unless that proverbial fly on the wall shows up and spouts off, we may never know.

As for Gable, I never quite understood what all the fuss was about. He's never been of much interest to me. He may have thrilled millions of people, male and female, in his hey day, but I never found him especially appealing either as an actor or a sex symbol.

Not even if he'd had the freshest breath on the planet.


Anonymous said...

I just googled is Georges Brent gay ? and your 2008 article came up...not sure why I am asking , it is so obvious. I just feel pain when I imagine how difficult their lives must have been because of it . that's all. Clark gable ..not sure..the tin man from wizard of oz?

Bill Samuels said...

I don't know anything about George Brent's sexuality but I believe this book says he's gay or bi but without any sources. Don't know about Ray Bolger, but Gable undoubtedly fooled around with males.

Anonymous said...

hey Bill! Just wanted to make a correction to your post here. Ray Bolger played the Scarecrow and Jack Haley the Tinman in "The Wizard of Oz." I don't believe either of these actors was gay.