Farley Granger: Goldenboy
The following interview first appeared in the August 20, 1996 issue of The Advocate. Farley Granger died Sunday, March 27, at the age of 85.
“I’ve loved both men and women in my long life,” says actor Farley Granger, “but I don’t find that talking about my preferences or saying the words ‘I am out’ will do anything to change Hollywood or the world. I see no reason to come out unless it’s important to your work or your politics.”
Granger, 71, may hesitate slightly about addressing certain aspects of his private life, but it’s a reticence that, thankfully, doesn’t extend to discussions of gay life in old Hollywood. On that topic the former leading man—he starred in nearly 40 films, most of them while under contract to Samuel Goldwyn Productions in the ’40s and ’50s—offers up an insider’s perspective and effortlessly peppers his talk with pointed anecdotes. He remembers, for example, escorting Barbara Stanwyck, who was known to be bisexual, to a party at Gary Cooper’s house sometime in the ’40s. “I had just returned from working in Europe, and I wasn’t up on the latest,” he says. After he asked Stanwyck how her husband, bisexual actor Robert Taylor, was doing, Granger says, “She just stared at me very coldly and said, ‘You mean Mr. Taylor? He’s left me. For a woman!’”
While Granger starred opposite rumored-to-be-gay performers such as Danny Kaye (in 1952’s Hans Christian Andersen), he says they didn’t gather at the studio commissary and complain about the morality clauses in their studio contracts. “We never talked about it,” he says. “We knew who was gay, but there was no big deal made about it. You didn’t get together with your gay friends and say, ‘Did you hear about so-and-so?’ You knew, and you kept it to yourself.”
The Hollywood grape-vine, however, filled in the blanks, according to Jane Withers, who costarred with Granger in his first film, 1943’s The North Star. “The most creative people usually turned out to be gay,” she says. “I’d hear that someone I knew or worked with was gay, and I’d think, I knew there was something special, something different, about him! There was something different about John Dall. Farley was different. Hurd Hatfield was very different.”
According to Granger, that differentness could be dangerous to a star’s career. The fear instilled in contract players by the then-powerful studio system was intended to protect the studios’ investments from potential blackmailers and from snoopy Tinseltown tabloids like Confidential. “Who was sleeping with whom—male or female—was hushed up by the studios,” Granger says. “They could tear up your contract and you’d be through if there was talk that you were gay.”
Then, as now, Hollywood was ruled by homophobic film producers, directors, and casting directors, many of whom were gay themselves. “You always hear about the golden age of Hollywood, but there was so much hypocrisy,” Granger says. “All the Metro kids were so beaten in the head, every move was orchestrated. To this day, they still say, ‘Oh, Mr. Mayer was so good to me. He was like our daddy.’ Bullshit. He was a raging homophobe. All the studio heads were.”
Samuel Goldwyn, Granger’s boss, was the worst, the actor says. When the 17-year-old star-to-be became friendly with legendary composer Aaron Copland, who was crafting the score for The North Star, Goldwyn cautioned him against being seen in public with Copland. “Goldwyn said, ‘He’s suspected of being a homosexual,’” Granger remembers. “I told him, ‘So? You want me to tell one of the greatest composers in the world that I can’t be seen in public with him? Forget it. Tear up my damn contract!’”
Granger recalls only one other instance in which Goldwyn warned him about fraternizing with another gay man. “He said I shouldn’t be seen with Arthur Laurents because he was gay and because he was a Communist,” says Granger of the famed playwright and screenwriter. “I don’t think that last part was true,” he adds, laughing.
Granger says he ignored Goldwyn’s counsel and continued his friendship with Laurents. Eventually the pair became lovers. The romance lasted four years, Granger says, though he refuses to go beyond confirming the relationship.
While his romances with famous men may remain mysterious, Gran-ger’s affairs with women are well-documented. In the late ’40s, gossip columnist Louella O. Parsons paired him with Joan Evans, his costar in 1949’s Roseanna McCoy, and he was engaged to Janice Rule in the mid ’50s. Granger insists that these romances were real and that he resisted the “arranged” affairs some stars endured. Goldwyn didn’t interfere with the actor’s love life until he read of Granger’s engagement to Shelley Winters.
“That one with Shelley drove Goldwyn up the wall,” Granger recalls, laughing. “He told me I should marry Jane Powell or Ann Blyth but not someone like Shelley, who was always playing this kind of sexy hooker type. I was supposed to be the boy next door.”
Although he truly wanted to marry Winters, “she was so impossible that I talked myself out of it,” says Granger. “I love her to death—we’re still great friends—but she’s nuts. Janice Rule and I lived together, and I felt I was in love with her, but something was saying, Don’t do this. I’m glad I didn’t.”
Granger saw several gay actors cave in to studio pressure and marry. “It was never a fair deal for their wives or their kids,” he says. “These guys were living a lie, and they usually ended up regretting it.”
As an example, Granger cites Robert Reed, whom he replaced in a gay role in Deathtrap on Broadway in 1981. “That was a tragic case,” Granger says. “He kept pretending. He was married, but he was sneaking out and picking up men all
Granger never married, and that, coupled with several gay film roles, fueled rumors that he was gay himself. In 1951’s Strangers on a Train, for example, he was pursued by killer sissy Bruno Antony, played by Robert Walker. Four years later Granger portrayed real-life gay socialite Harry Thaw in The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, although the character’s sexuality isn’t addressed in the film. “I knew Thaw was gay,” Granger says, “but they didn’t want me to play it that way. His sexuality wasn’t important to the story.”
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, from 1948, on the other hand, depended on the sexual tension of its murderous young lovers, portrayed by Granger and Dall (the latter’s gay dalliances are practically Hollywood legend). Granger insists that the director didn’t discuss the characters’ sexuality with either actor: “And John didn’t want to talk about it either. He wasn’t very friendly. At least not to me.”
Granger recalls being told by several colleagues at the time of Rope’s release that he shouldn’t have played a gay character on the screen. “But it was an opportunity to work with Hitch,” he says, “and I’ll play any good role, regardless of its sexual orientation.”
Not according to gay playwright Robert Patrick. He says that when Granger starred in a Chicago production of Patrick’s Kennedy’s Children in the late ’70s, the actor erased his character’s sexuality altogether. “Farley managed to forget every line written to indicate that his character was gay,” Patrick recalls. The writer says the production, which costarred Winters, was a disaster that ended Patrick’s theater career in America. “They were both awful to work with, but they were the best luncheon companions I’ve ever had. They gossiped like hairdressers.”
These days Granger confines his conversations to safe topics. He won’t discuss whether he’s involved in a romantic relationship, but he’s happy to share his opinions on the state of gay affairs in Hollywood today.
“Things haven’t changed much,” he says. “You still hear a lot of rumors—now they’re about John Travolta and Richard Gere—and there are still plenty of marriages of convenience. But actors today are getting so much money, they have to get married or risk losing an enormous income.”
Gay movie roles, he says, have changed little since Franklin Pangborn swished across the screen in the ’30s and ’40s. “There are more homosexuals in movies today, but they’re silly, campy people or murderers,” he states. “Or they’re in dresses. People are seeing these stereotypes and thinking that must be how we are. But what can be done about it? There are enough gay people in the industry that we should be able to pull ourselves together somehow. Yet we’re still not depicted responsibly.”
Granger cites recent gay films as examples of how little progress has been made. He dismisses It’s My Party as “old-fashioned but not in a good way. The campy dialogue seemed dated—I don’t think most young gay men talk that way anymore.” He didn’t bother to see To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, saying, “One more drag-queen movie isn’t doing us any good.” However, he thought The Celluloid Closet, the documentary based on Vito Russo’s book about gay characters in cinema, was well-made. Granger appears briefly in the film—in a clip from Rope and in an interview about the making of that film.
But while he’ll go on record bemoaning the hazards of the Hollywood closet, Granger is not interested in outing himself. “I like being ambiguous,” he insists. “I’m an old man. I just want to be left alone now.”
Old Hollywood habits die hard, according to author Boze Hadleigh, who’s made a career of documenting the lives of gay movie stars. “It’s the self-loathing of that whole generation that keeps them from saying the words ‘I am gay,’” Hadleigh says. “Plus the fact they still believe everything the studios told them—that if they tell anyone, everything’s over. If they live to be a hundred years old, these actors will never come out.”
Granger doesn’t feel it’s his responsibility to take on the Hollywood closet. “There’s this new attitude that you’re either out or you’re a bad guy,” he says. “That’s ridiculous. There’s no personal choice in that kind of thinking.
“I am more or less retired,” he continues, “so any impact my words would have would be minimal. It would take someone big, someone who’s hot today, to come out and make a difference in the movie business. And that,” Granger says, “will never happen.”