Classic Movies Through an LGBT Lens
While growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, Tony Maietta watched a lot of classic Hollywood movies on television. So when he moved to Los Angeles as a 20-something in the 1990s, he brought some film-fueled fantasies with him.
“I thought I was going to see William Holden at the Brown Derby, Robert Taylor at the Farmers Market,” he jokes. He soon realized that the only way he could live in the golden-age Hollywood he loved was to be a film historian. Having written and lectured on the movies, appeared in documentaries, and hosted film events, he’s now sharing his cinematic knowledge with TV viewers as host of Here’s Hollywood.
In the program — an original production of Here TV, owned by Here Media, also the parent company of The Advocate — Maietta views vintage movies through an LGBT lens.
Above: Jane Powell and Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding
The third installment of the series, premiering tonight, features the 1951 MGM musical Royal Wedding, with Stanley Donen directing Fred Astaire, who among other things dances on the ceiling.
That dazzling sequence is familiar to anyone who’s seen That’s Entertainment, but the film has many other things to recommend it, especially to LGBT audiences, says Maietta. “It’s a musical, and God knows, don’t we all love musicals,” he says. Plus it has Astaire at the peak of his career, the expert helmer Donen in what was only his second directorial effort, and a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, who also wrote the lyrics for the film’s songs, to music by Burton Lane. The plot is almost incidental, but it has Astaire and Jane Powell as an American brother-sister dance team who find romance with, respectively, Sarah Churchill (daughter of Winston) and Peter Lawford in London at the time of Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth’s wedding. “It’s just such a joyous musical,” Maietta says.
However, it marked a less than joyous time in the life of one of the all-time great gay icons, Judy Garland, who was originally slated for Jane Powell’s role. Garland was exhausted after filming Summer Stock, but she cut a much-needed vacation short when she was cast in Royal Wedding. She prerecorded some songs for the movie, but she was in a precarious physical and emotional state, and her absenteeism and tardiness led to her firing from the production and the end of her MGM career. “She was just at that point in her life where she had no more to give,” Maietta says.
Garland did make use of some songs from the film, Maietta says — she sang one of them, “Too Late Now,” on her 1960s TV series, and her daughter Liza Minnelli has performed another, with surely one of the longest titles ever: “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life.”
Above: Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor in The Last Time I Saw Paris
That kind of inside info is what Maietta shares as host of the series, which so far has also featured the Elizabeth Taylor melodrama The Last Time I Saw Paris (“It’s a fun, trashy, guilty-pleasure kind of a movie,” he says) and Swing High, Swing Low, with the “luminous” Carole Lombard as a singer wooed by musician Fred MacMurray in a film by the gifted gay director Mitchell Leisen.
One of the things Maietta aims to do with the series is to make viewers aware of the contributions of LGBT artists to classic Hollywood films. “Hollywood would not exist if it weren’t for us,” he says. “We were not only the costume designers but the directors.”
In the 1920s and ’30s, he notes, gay people in the movie business had a measure of freedom, as long as they didn’t get involved in public scandals, showed up to work on time, and made films that were popular. Leisen, for instance, had a lifelong relationship with dancer-choreographer Billy Daniels. There was somewhat less acceptance for LGBT actors. Cary Grant, often said to be gay or bisexual, had at least “a ‘bromance’ of some sort” with housemate Randolph Scott, Maietta says, but Grant had to go on studio-arranged dates with women, although he frequently insisted that Scott go along as well. In 1943, after Grant married heiress Barbara Hutton, he and Scott finally parted ways.
The conservatism of post–World War II era meant not only a blacklist for suspected Communists but a deep closet for gays and lesbians in Hollywood, but their work was still important to the industry. “This is such an unappreciated part of classic Hollywood,” Maietta says. “Gays and lesbians and their contributions to this great industry are greatly unacknowledged.”
Above: Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour in My Favorite Brunette
He thinks Here’s Hollywood will change that and also make viewers aware of gay characters, coded and otherwise, and subtext in vintage movies. “It’s interesting to see how we were portrayed,” he says. As a matter of fact, the star of the series’ next installment had a persona with some stereotypically gay traits, and his name might surprise some fans: Bob Hope. In his sardonic, bitchy screen portrayals, “he’s not too far removed from Sean Hayes in Will & Grace,” Maietta says of Hope, who costars with Dorothy Lamour in My Favorite Brunette (pictured above), premiering November 30. Moreover, he says, the “renowned heterosexual” Hope had his best on-screen chemistry with another man — Bing Crosby.
Maietta hopes to bring many more classic films to Here TV audiences, and he has numerous other projects as well. Two of them are related to his favorite film, the iconic 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. He’s working with Jerry Torre, who appeared in the film when he was a young handyman in demand at the decaying Beale mansion and was dubbed “the Marble Faun” by Little Edie, on Torre’s autobiography, titled Faun in the Garden. He also a producer on a documentary about Torre, a gay man who has become a sculptor (working in marble, no less), called The Marble Faun of Grey Gardens, by directors Jason Hay and Steve Pelizza.
Maietta notes that his list of favorite movies and stars is ever-changing, but Grey Gardens remains at the top. What’s a favorite bit of Hollywood gossip he could share? Well, for one, Clark Gable did not have George Cukor fired from Gone With the Wind, he says.
Above: Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray in Swing High, Swing Low
“There was always the implication that Clark Gable did not want to work with a gay director,” Maietta says. “That is absolutely false.” The supposedly macho Gable was actually a somewhat introverted man and did not have particular animus toward gay people, Maietta says, and what’s more, he didn’t have the power to have the director fired.
The real problem with Cukor, he says, was his concentration on the film’s smaller, more intimate scenes rather than its epic sweep, which irritated producer David O. Selznick no end. Victor Fleming came in and brought the epic touch, while Cukor worked a few weeks on another Fleming film, The Wizard of Oz. There, Maietta says, Cukor made the valuable contribution of removing Judy Garland’s blond wig and excessive makeup, giving her Dorothy the more natural look that has been a key part of the movie’s enduring appeal. So all ended well.
LGBT film fans can count on more happy endings, along with some of our people’s history, from Here’s Hollywood. “There wouldn’t be a Hollywood if it wasn’t for us, and people need to know that,” he says. “I’m really excited to be a part of this.”
Here’s Hollywood is available exclusively on Here TV and Here TV Online. On most major cable providers, Here TV can be found by entering the “On Demand” menu, selecting “Premium,” and then selecting “Here TV on Demand.” You can also sign up for Here TV Online, the network’s premium online subscription video player, at http://premium.heretv.com. For more on Tony Maietta, visit TonyMaietta.net.