An interview with the Emmy-winning producer, entertainment reporter,
columnist, lecturer, film critic, and historian
Stories and clips documenting LGBT presence in showbiz, behind and in front of the cameras
By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
Monday night a very special event is happening at New Conservatory Theatre Center. The City’s very own “Empress of Entertainment” Jan Wahl is presenting Reel Fabulous – LGBT In Hollywood. This is the Jan Wahl we all love best – The Maven of Movies dishing out an evening of stories and clips documenting Queer presence in showbiz. That’s right! Behind AND in front of the cameras. There will be stories and clips from films directed by, written by, and/or starring LGBT artists and technicians. And it’s about the great stars of Hollywood who knew one when they saw one. What Jan wants to know is … who had an impact on you?!
Seán: I’ve been watching a clip of Franklin Pangborn on YouTube.
Jan: What was the movie?
Seán: Professional Sweetheart, 1933, with Ginger Rogers and Zasu Pitts.
Jan: Omigod – the studios used to get so nervous when he was in a movie. And the censors – because he was so flaming. But I just love him.
Seán: The parts must have been written with him in mind. It couldn’t have been an accident that he was cast in particular roles. So, tell me about your gig at NCTC.
FRANKLIN PANGBORN and CLIFTON WEBB
Jan: I love to celebrate my favorite LGBT movies. It’s going to be my favorites, not the whole history of Gay cinema. That’s already been done by Vito Russo. I really want to explain to the audience why I love this subject so much.
Seán: Who are you going to talk about?
Jan: The ones I hold very close to my heart. As a little girl growing up in west L.A., I lived in Beverly Hills and Westwood. My parents were friends with movie people. I was very lucky. I saw a lot of out of the closet Lesbians and Gays. They were everywhere I was. I’ve been collecting Lesbian movie memorabilia since I was a little girl. My mom would drop me off at this book store in Hollywood called the Cherokee Book Store. It’s no longer there.
Seán: I remember that store very well!
Jan: You know this store?
Seán: Absolutely. A lot of my collection on Norma Shearer and Jeanette MacDonald came from there. When I was in my early 20s I hung around a group of movie collectors and we would go shopping every Saturday up and down Hollywood Boulevard. We started off at this restaurant – I think it was Ted’s Steak House.
Jan: That sounds right! My favorite thing to collect was Photoplay. I loved the really old ones from the 30s and 40s – those with great cigarette ads with Clifton Webb and George Sanders and Barbara Stanwyck. My mother completely loved these guys.
GEORGE SANDERS and BARBARA STANWYCK
Jan: My parents had a really great feeling for Gays and Lesbians. One of my mom’s best friends was a totally out of the closet sculptor. She was successful, her stuff was in all kinds of museums. She was just a wonderful woman. My dad was a musician when he was wasn’t being a business man. My mom and dad had a liquidation auctioneering business. We would have a lot of stores in Hollywood and Beverly Hills – especially the jewelry and clothing stores that we would be liquidating and auctioning. And there were always these Gay men. My parents always loved them and I grew to love them so much. People ask, “How did you get to be like you are, Jan?” Well – Jesus! – I was so lucky to be able to grow up with out of the closet Gay and Lesbian people in West L.A. Plus, my mom was a feminist and big believer in women’s rights. And strong women was what I always looked for. I always gravitated towards Lesbian women for that reason.
Seán: I never had any of that kind of exchange with my parents. We never had any positive exchange about homosexuality – or anything even remotely fey!
Jan: Where did you grow up?
Seán: I’m a native San Franciscan.
Jan: See? This is why I’m beginning to have this feeling – and maybe it’s just wierd – that L.A. was a very good place in the ‘20s to about the ‘50s for Gay people. If I was a Gay person, I would hope to have worked in L.A. Yes, you had to keep in the closet at the studios. Unless you were William Haines, my hero. But, out of the closet, it seems like that would be a place you’d be able to find other Gays and Lesbians easily and socially.
Seán: I agree with you. And how they associated with one another can be found in the biographies and histories of Hollywood.
MARLENE DIETRICH and GRETA GARBO
Jan: Of course. Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich – they had that big group of Gay women. There were many Gay men’s groups who were all very social – at George Cukor’s house, Rock Hudson’s house, Ross Hunter’s house. There were probably a lot of places where you could go and meet other Gay people. So, it would have been a nice place to be if you had to be in the closet.
Ross Hunter, with Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore
GEORGE CUKOR and ROCK HUDSON
Seán: What we’re talking about are people with money and influence and who chose a way of life that is about having to be one person here and another person there.
Jan: Welcome to the world, right? Early on I heard stories about William Haines. He was so courageous about what he did. He absolutely refused to be in the closet. He told Louis B. Mayer that he would not escort the women to the premieres. He had a long time companion and just would not play the game. Mayer kept him around because he was such a big star in the silent days. But as soon as he could, he got rid of him. Fortunately, Billy Haines had this incredible artistic flair as an interior designer. He designed for Nancy Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale, Walter Annenberg – and ended up very successful. Wisecracker, by William Mann, is all about William Haines. It’s one of my favorite books.
Seán: Who are you going to talk about at your show?
Jan: The show is going to be about my own favorites. I’ll talk a little bit about the history – as I know it. But this will be a very personal look at everything. Big Eden is my favorite movie ever done about Gay men. It’s like a Frank Capra movie. Again, I’m coming from the point of view as an old movie queen. That’s what I love – Classic Hollywood. In Big Eden the whole town gets together and tries to make this relationship happen with these two men. One thing I love about the film is that it shows how Gay men come in all shapes and sizes and colors. It’s just very romantic. Another is the original La Cage Aux Folles with Michel Serrault and Ugo Tognazzi. The reason I love it so much is that they raise the son together. I don’t like The Bird Cage because they never concentrate on how important that relationship was. That pissed me off.
Jan: Another favorite is The Dresser. And, of course, Brokeback Mountain. There was a huge change in the world when that came out. I like to celebrate great Gay men of the movies – like director George Cukor, and Terence McNally who wrote The Ritz and Love! Valour! Compassion!, and John Schlesinger. I was lucky enough to meet him a couple of times and interview. He was a doll. Also, Vincent Minnelli, who was a famous bisexual. But not to me. He was totally Gay and always will be. And especially with Roger Edens in there. He was so amazing with what he did for Judy Garland. I doubt we’d even have Judy Garland without Roger Edens.
Jan: When it comes to movies about transexuals, there will never ever be anything better than Terence Stamp in Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
Seán: My partner and I watched that the other night! It is still as fresh as the day it was produced.
Jan: Every Father’s Day I talk about that movie. Remember the father and his relationship with his son at the end? There’s this thing where the son is so not interested in his father’s sexuality. It doesn’t matter to the kid. He loves his father and it’s unconditional love. The way that it’s done and shown is just beautiful.
Seán: How about the Women’s Department? Who are you covering there?
Jan: There’s a movie called, But I’m A Cheerleader. It’s about these two women who meet in a homosexual rehabilitation camp. It’s a farce and very well done. The problem is – very often I don’t meet the Lesbians I know in real life in the movies. They very rarely have the kind of smart, funny and attractive Lesbians I know in real life. Desert Hearts is good. And I like The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love and If These Walls Could Talk 2.
Jan: One of my favorites is more bisexual, Henry and June, the one about Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller’s wife. It is so sexual. What a turn-on! Maybe I’m just not seeing the right movies. But they don’t remind me of any women I know.
MARIA DE MEDEIROS and UMA THURMAN – Henry and June (1990)
Jan: I like the early stuff the best. The biggest turn-on Gay women-wise is Garbo in Queen Christina. That’s me, you know? That’s you and I. Then there’s “George Sand”. Not like Merle Oberon as this boring person in A Song To Remember – but as Judy Davis played her in Impromptu. That is a big turn-on to me, even though she seems to like Hugh Grant as “Chopin”. That’s sort of BS. I think of her as a Lesbian going after Emma Thompson. One of my favorite Lesbians in the movies ever is Cher in Silkwood.
Seán: Let’s go back to early Hollywood and the women that we now know were either Lesbian or bisexual.
Jan: Absolutely! Dietrich in Morocco when she kisses the woman. What a hot number that is. Dorothy Arzner directed a lot of great movies, one with Kate Hepburn – who we would call bisexual or lesbian. So, I would say that Dorothy Arzner – this brilliant, brilliant director who was so smart and tried to make it in the Good Old Boys Club – really had to pay for being a Lesbian. An OUT Lesbian. She was very out. We know Claudette Colbert swung both ways.
KATHARINE HEPBURN and DOROTHY ARZNER
Seán: And let’s not overlook Barbara Stranwyck.
Jan: Absolutely! That’s all great stuff with these women.
Seán: And In the pre-Code era where they were expressing themselves – obviously, because of the script – through all the overtones, that are so freely there, during an exchange of lingerie, etc.
Jan: They have this wonderful snarky attitude towards men.
Seán: How about guys like Ramon Novarro?
Jan: Growing up in West LA, I knew about him early on. He had a rough time there at the end, and what a terrible death he had.
THE BEN–HURS: Charlton Heston & Ramon Novarro
Seán: Growing up in San Francisco, I was profoundly influenced by the MGM package of films that began screening on Channel 7. I did not register that I was watching “old movies” because the whole experience was new to me. The first one I remember happened to be SAN FRANCISCO with Jeanette MacDonald and Clark Gable. I got completely hooked. Then it’s Norma Shearer in PRIVATE LIVES and I’m hopelessly in love. Both stars made a film with Ramon Novarro. A few years later comes this great half-hour show hosted by Ernie Kovacs called “Silents, Please” and I became smitten with a particular kind of “Hollywood” that preceded the films I’m watching on TV. Somewhere in there I’m getting glimpses of the young Ramon Novarro as ”Ben–Hur” and I start getting very intrigued. During that time, Charlton Heston’s BEN–HUR goes into production and there’s all this talk and imagery about the original 1925 version starring Ramon Novarro. Now, with Turner Classic Movies showing his silent films regularly – it’s totally clear to me. Ramon Novarro is as Gay as it gets.
Jan: Ever–ever. He seemed very out. I heard an interview with Gore Vidal, who wrote the screenplay for the second Ben–Hur, and he said that was one of his influences: to make it as Gay as he could between Heston and Boyd.
Seán: How could people during the ‘20s not see this?
Jan: Remember, we’re coming from the time of Valentino. There’s this acceptance of the foppish man, of the Oscar Wildean fop. I think it made people more accepting. Valentino had this huge influence on film at the time and on the image of Leading Men. Don’t you think that had something to do with it?
Seán: OH! Absolutely!
Click here for ticktet information: JAN WAHL – LGBT IN HOLLYWOOD
CLAUDETTE COLBERT and BARBARA STANWYCK
CLIFTON WEBB and DANA ANDREWS — Laura (1944)
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Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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