When Rock Hudson died from an Aids-related illness in 1985, commentators bemoaned the intolerance of the old studio system that had compelled him to remain in the closet.
“Forty years ago, the world was a very different place and there were virtually no publicly available gay men or lesbians in any walk of public life,” notes Brian Robinson, senior programmer at London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, of the period in which Hudson was working. “Now, lots of things have changed. A whole generation has grown up with an idea of normalcy about gay identity.”
Even so, Hollywood is still in the business of making “four quadrant movies” – that’s to say ultra-mainstream films appealing to males and females, young and old. When a studio spends $100m on a mainstream movie and an equivalent amount in marketing it at home and abroad, anything that can jeopardise its box-office performance is frowned on. Agents put pressure on their clients not to “come out”.
Those who have worked in Hollywood talk about the elaborate culture of deception that still exists. In the heyday of the studio system, publicists and agents used to “arrange” marriages for gay and lesbian stars so as to reassure fans that they were heterosexual. There are still some marriages of convenience today.
One gay writer (who covers the film industry in Hollywood) recalls putting together a list of the most powerful gay and lesbian figures in Hollywood. Once he started his research, he very quickly discovered that “even the ones you know are gay can’t be outed”. What might have been an open secret in the Hollywood community was still concealed at all costs from the wider public.
Leading directors of action movies couldn’t reveal they were gay because it would undermine the image of machismo that their films projected.
As for the big-name stars, “they are making films for Middle America first and foremost… you can’t come out. You would ruin your mainstream appeal as a heterosexual red-blooded male.” Often, the stars themselves have little choice over how their images are moulded. “I think these people (the stars) have good intentions but once their agents get their hands on them, they are like ‘don’t you dare come out!'”
Recent Hollywood history presents several examples of straight actors playing gay characters but even this can cause consternation. Notoriously, Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine refused even to see Brokeback Mountain. Curtis complained that a movie about gay cowboys certainly wouldn’t appeal to John Wayne. The fact that the film didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar (losing out to rank outsider Crash) underlined the depth of opposition to it from conservative elements within the Hollywood community. Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008) may have received positive reviews and won Academy Awards for both Sean Penn and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, but its box-office performance was disappointing.
I Love You Philip Morris (2009), a comedy drama about a con artist (Jim Carrey) who falls in love with another prison inmate (Ewan McGregor), couldn’t even secure a mainstream US release in spite of positive reviews.
The stars who do “come out” tend to do so when they are no longer playing leading roles. There are exceptions. Several actresses – among them Angelina Jolie, Anna Paquin and Evan Rachel Wood – have acknowledged their bisexuality without it affecting their careers – or their status as sex symbols for men.
Although there is potentially large amounts of “pink money” to be earned by targeting lesbian and gay audiences, this dwarfs into insignificance by comparison with the box-office receipts that a big action movie or romantic comedy will make.