Hollywood Lesbians Revisited: An Interview With Boze Hadleigh

When Vito Russo wrote The Celluloid Closet in 1981, he penned what most believe to be the definitive statement on Hollywood's tortured representations of homosexual love. But it was the 1994 publication of Boze Hadleigh's Hollywood Lesbians (Barricade Books) that shed much-needed light on the lives of the Sapphic actresses, directors, and stylists who helped create and subvert Tinseltown's queer cinematic codes. Many commentators, including some gay reviewers, dismissed Hadleigh's book as a sensationalistic violation of the interviewees' privacy. A well-known gay film archivist recently commented to Girlfriends that much of Hadleigh's work -- which spans in-depth, gay-themed interviews with everyone from Rock Hudson to Bette Davis -- was "totally fabricated." Such criticism and disbelief softened what should have been the enormous impact of Hadleigh's delicately written, politely bold, and rare insights into the real-life closet behind the celluloid one. On the phone from the house he shares with his boyfriend in Beverly Hills, Hadleigh reveals himself to be a surprisingly modest, typewriter-toting journalist with an encyclopedic knowledge of classic Hollywood film -- and the culture of glamour and secrecy behind it. Hadleigh assembled Hollywood Lesbians at the request of a fellow activist at the National Organization of Women, but only after he acknowledged (one imagines blushingly) "that it was only a matter of time until such an interesting and overdue project materialized, and that I imagined it would be done by a female." The master interviewer spoke to Girlfriends' editor in chief, Heather Findlay, about his subjects, Hollywood propaganda, and his wish list for a book of interviews with more modern figures in the TV and film world. Hadleigh: You know, after Hollywood LesbiansÊwas published, I went on tour doing a lot of radio shows, and the hosts -- almost always male -- would want to know was Bette Davis, you know ...Girlfriends: I'm sure they asked that because she always played such strong characters.Hadleigh: Yes, and because she was such a powerful woman herself. People, men especially, associate lesbianism with that kind of woman: strong, thinks for herself, has power -- Girlfriends: In opposition to that other species of lesbian, the kind that figures so heavily in the male pornographic imagination. You know, feminine, passive, blonde -- Hadleigh: Like Amanda Bearse.Girlfriends: Amanda Bearse, right!Hadleigh: I believe it's Bearse, pronounced to rhyme with "purse." Yes, I did hear her say once, "Bearse, like 'purse.'" [Laughs]Girlfriends: What about Ellen DeGeneres's recent revelation that her character on EllenÊmay come out this season? Apparently her ratings are way down; do you think this bodes ill for Hollywood lesbians?Hadleigh: I wouldn't think so. Ratings go up and down. Her ratings may be down, but comparatively, she still could be in the top 20. Lately we've seen, actually, that lesbian content on TV is very beneficial as far as ratings are concerned. As with the lesbian marriage on Friends, or the "lesbian kiss" episode on Roseanne, ratings go up.Girlfriends: I wanted to ask you about that, actually. What do you think is the psychology behind that?Hadleigh: It's very interesting, isn't it. With male homosexuality, people are more, well, grossed out, and the patriarchy is threatened. For example, when I talked about Hollywood LesbiansÊon tour, the tone of the male hosts was just amused or entertained, not on the defensive. I think they see two women together as less real, less issue-oriented. When it's solely with females, it's solely entertaining. I'm not condoning this, of course. I am a feminist; I'm against patriarchy. But from their perspective ...Girlfriends: When Hollywood Lesbians first came out, it caused some controversy, not just about its content, but about its overall effect. You were criticized by a number of reviewers for "outing" your subjects, even in the gay press. Was that your intent?Hadleigh: Oh, no, not at all. First of all, you have to define what "outing" is. For example, if someone is deceased, is that outing? Dame Judith Anderson and Nancy Kulp died before the book came out, and Dorothy Arzner was deceased before I even conceived of the project. Also, to whom are you outing someone? In many cases, the only revelation you are making is to the bigots. And who cares what bigots think anyway?Agnes Moorehead insisted that I print "absolutely nothing" until she was dead. Dame Anderson said, "I don't care one way or the other." One of the interesting things about all this is that, legally, it is in the case of homosexuality only where you can get sued for saying something that's true. If I say that X actress is lesbian or X actor is gay, I could be sued for it, even if it's true. That's the only place, legally, where that's the case. Girlfriends: But it struck me that these reviewers had not read the actual style of Hollywood Lesbians, which is very circuitous, delicate, and suggestive. Not at all the style of the usual outing campaign, which tends to be blunt.Hadleigh: We're all brought up with what I call "the lady syndrome." When one is interviewing a woman, one is a little more careful, polite. When one is interviewing someone like Barbara Stanwyck, however ... She was very rough and tumble, very offensive in the beginning, and she didn't want to be handled with kid gloves. To my surprise, what angered her was not my questions about her sexuality, but about the witch hunts [mid-century attacks on supposed Hollywood communists]. I had no idea she was so right wing. You know she was married to Robert Taylor, and most everyone agrees it was an arranged marriage by MGM. I touched on the subject, and that's what did it. She knew I was getting there. She was very protective of him. Girlfriends: You performed interviews under less than optimum conditions: Dorothy Arzner, for example, warned you she did not identify as a lesbian -- Hadleigh: Or even as a feminist!Girlfriends: Right, and she explicitly reserved the right to terminate your conversation at any time.Hadleigh: I'm always aware that no matter what you do, people will criticize. This one [interview with Arzner] was a phoner, which I don't prefer. Usually you get in touch with a somebody through their people: their publicist, their agent. When it's somebody who's retired, personal connections are most effective. And that is how I got the Dorothy Arzner interview. I'm not going to pass up this chance, phone or not, because she was a director, the only director of her kind. She was a truly original woman. So many people spoke of her in a stereotyped way -- the butch thing -- and they criticized her for her "mannish dress." But the truth is she never wore men's suits. She always wore tailored skirts. Girlfriends: Yes, I've seen her in pictures, long wool skirts. Hadleigh: Yes. Many people ask me, do you save the "are you or aren't you" question for last? Well, no. You play it by ear. Early on you can get the sense of what they're going to say and not going to say. Many people were disappointed that the women in Hollywood Lesbians didn't come out and say they were lesbians. But that just can't be expected. Not only did these women had to deal with antigay prejudice, but with sexism. Oh, and looksism. Marjorie Main, for example, never played a lead until Ma Kettle. And then the ageism! As soon as a woman matures -- Girlfriends: It's harder and harder for her to get a job.Hadleigh: Right, but the men, the men that you still see! [Robert] Duvall, Robert Redford, who is in his sixties, paired up with Michelle Pfeiffer, it's disgusting!Girlfriends: If you were to publish a second edition of Hollywood Lesbians on more modern figures, who would be on your wish list? Hadleigh: Of course ,Lily Tomlin, but she wouldn't do this one either. Girlfriends: You pitched Lily Tomlin for Hollywood Lesbians, and she declined?Hadleigh: I never got a response. And of course, Jodie [Foster]. She declined to respond as well. The usual response is silence. Usually you send a letter, and then you wait, you send another fax, or you call again, and finally you give up. Then again, on this topic as a whole, silence is the rule. Patsy Kelly, you know, called Foster "that butch little thing."I would love to interview Bea Arthur. I have approached her, I have met her, been on airplanes with her, but again, no answer. Eva Le Gallienne was willing to talk to me about other women whom she knows to be lesbians, but that was not acceptable to me.Girlfriends: If Whoopi Goldberg were to agree to interview with you, what sort of things would you talk to her about?Hadleigh: I would ask her about her androgyny, which used to be so much more prominent. These days, she's toned that down as she's gone much more mainstream, and I would want to know why. The whole thing seems to me like an effort to appear more heterosexual -- referring, as she did in the [1996] Oscars, to the men in her life, boyfriends this, husbands that.Then again, in Hollywood there's a lot of bi. Perhaps even more among women than men, because for women it's so much more fluid. Girlfriends: You're thinking about Rock Hudson's comment to you in Conversations With My Elders that he couldn't understand bisexuality. Hadleigh: Exactly. Girlfriends: But I guess with that Whoopi question I was trying to get at the question of race. Sometimes the story of homosexuality in Hollywood seems to be all about white, closeted people.Hadleigh: Oh, definitely. I know this personally. I'm part Hispanic on my father's side, and all the Hispanic men we know here in L.A. are married, or married with children. When one comes from a culture that is even more patriarchal, one is often forced to live such a double life. And then there is the whole question as to whether an actress or actor will identify more with her or his race, than sexuality. That may very well be the case with Whitney [Houston], for example. Many blacks in Hollywood identify more heavily as black, because that's more visible, as opposed to being gay or lesbian. Which is really a shame, because it's hard then in so many ways to serve as a role model for gay and lesbian people. I would mention the statistic, for example that three times as many gay and lesbian youth commit suicide than straight ones.Girlfriends: I wanted to ask you about that, actually. Do you think that more out lesbians in Hollywood, both actresses and characters, would have a positive effect on gay liberation? Hadleigh: Oh, without question. My father's a history professor, he does very fascinating work, and many people have asked him, why didn't your son write about history? My response is that fewer people read about history than read about Hollywood. Hollywood, for better or worse, is far more influential. These actresses, actors, directors, and everyone else have a lot of impact on young people. Internationally, in cultures that are hungry for American film and completely lacking in gay role models, Hollywood is giving young people permission to act and think differently. When they see an androgynous male, or a butch female, they think, I can be like that. Hollywood is, without question, propaganda. Why else do all the films end in marriage?Girlfriends: Would Mary Louise Parker be on your wish list?Hadleigh: [Gasps] Oh, is she?Girlfriends: She seems awfully drawn to lesbian or lesbian-themed roles, such as in Fried Green Tomatoes or Boys on the Side. And there have been rumors.Hadleigh: Hmm. In any case, that would be an interesting, to interview women, straight or gay, about playing lesbians on screen. Girlfriends: Kristy McNichol?Hadleigh: I approached her, and I was told, "Ms. McNichol is no longer in the business."Girlfriends: But that's all the better for you.Hadleigh: Yes, one would think. But they'll come up with any old excuse. Stonewalling, that's all it is. But please don't hold you breath for a sequel. Although I had 10 interviews [for Hollywood Lesbians], the book was not as long as I would have liked. I had to omit a number of interviews because some did not talk about anything, or the material was just not good enough. And today, today, these women are under such pressure. Even if the woman is deceased, the people who remain -- especially the relatives, they're the worst -- they won't tell you anything. I'd very much like to do a book on gays in comedy: on my wish list would be Rosie O'Donnell, Margaret Shoenborn, Ellen DeGeneres, Paula Poundstone. Paula Poundstone always says, "I'm not gay, but I'm very progay." But I know many people who say otherwise.Girlfriends: Hollywood Lesbians also covered women behind the scenes in Hollywood, such as costume designer Edith Head. Do lesbians still play a major role off-screen in Hollywood? Hadleigh: More so. They didn't then to speak of. In Arzner's day, there were very few female producers or directors, period. They may not have the power to green light, but there are many more female directors in Hollywood. That doesn't mean they're out. What's surprising is that Edith Head and Arzner were just as closeted [as the actresses], if not more so, even though they weren't in front of the camera doing love scenes. As for stunt women, set design ... well, crews are very macho in general. I think women crew are still afraid to come out in these areas because it's very blue collar. Girlfriends: Historically, gay men have held a monopoly on camp, including the idolization and imitation of classic Hollywood leading ladies. Why, in your opinion, are lesbians by and large camp-impaired?Hadleigh: [Laughs] Lesbians are more interested in different things. They tend to be less interested in frilly, glamorous actresses. Of course there are exceptions. Some now feel that it's okay to relax and enjoy it, because it's fun. Girlfriends: Is camp apolitical?Hadleigh: There was the perception that was something that belonged to gay men, or to frivolous gay men. And of course there is the whole feminist critique of drag, the argument that drag queens imitated the most stereotypical aspects of being female. I can see why lesbians would want instead to work for gay and lesbian rights, or to give money, or something more serious. Girlfriends: You wrote a book on the music industry, too, The Vinyl Closet. In it, "The Story of O" has been rumored to be about Olivia Newton John. Why have you always refused to reveal "O's" identity?Hadleigh: Because I had promised her complete confidentiality. That book was not composed of interviews, so I had different criteria. I decided that if this is the only way a person is going to talk, the least it can do is to contribute to the readers' sense of how these singers are kept closeted by their managers, their record companies -- the people who make money off them.I was on a radio show once, and we were talking about "The Story of O." A man called up and even though I had said nothing about O's real identity, this man was a dedicated fan of hers so he recognized whom we were talking about. Originally he had called up because he was devastated and he wanted to berate me for having spoiled his image of her. But after we talked for a bit, he began to have a different feeling. He began to see the tragedy of this woman's story, and that the real point wasn't that she let him down by being a lesbian, but that she underwent such hardship by having to live a lie.

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