Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969, by William J. Mann

Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969From the publisher’s book description:

Whether in or out of the closet, gays and lesbians played an essential role in shaping studio-era Hollywood. Gay actors (J. Warren Kerrigan, Marlene Dietrich, Rock Hudson), gay directors (George Cukor, James Whale, Dorothy Arzner), and gay set and costume designers (Adrian, Travis Banton, George James Hopkins) have been among the most influential individuals in Hollywood history and literally created the Hollywood mystique. This landmark study-based on seven years of exacting research and including unpublished memoirs, personal correspondence, oral histories, and scrapbooks-explores the experience of Hollywood’s gays in the context of their times. Ranging from Hollywood’s working conditions to the rowdy character of Los Angeles’s gay underground, William J. Mann brings long overdue attention to every aspect of this powerful creative force.

Reader reviews on Amazon:

Fascinating, Superbly well-written history of Gay Hollywood

An absolute goldmine, jam-packed with fascinating, well-researched information on every aspect of homosexuals in Hollywood from the earliest days of silent pictures to the late 1960’s. An excellent reference book that you’ll want to return to. One couldn’t ask for a more thorough, serious yet hugely entertaining book on the subject. A huge treat for those interested in Hollywood’s golden age. As for the couple of reviewers here who found the book “confusing” or “overwhelming” or were skeptical because not every single item among many hundreds can be unequivocally “proved” via explicit eyewitness accounts of sex partners, I can only say I’m surprised at such reactions. This is not a book of doubtful, unsubstantiated gossip. For instance, the author acknowledges that while there has long been speculation that Barbara Stanwyck was a lesbian or at least bisexual, he says that he was unable to find any first-hand testimony to corroborate it one way or another. On the other hand, there is a great deal of clear evidence that Gary Cooper carried on a gay relationship in the late 20’s. A theme throughout the book of course is how deeply closeted and/or “discreet” many people were. Van Johnson, one of the few gays whom the author was unable to legally name when this book was published several years ago, has died.
As others here have pointed out, this book is more about the behind-the-scenes characters (the successful and famous as well as the obscure and forgotten) than about the stars, although the stars are exceedingly well-represented. The photographs are well-chosen; you’ll wish there were many more. Hugely recommended!

Excellent study of gays and lesbians in Hollywood

I found this book to be extremely interesting, and, ultimately, hard to forget. It is a well-researched account of what life was like in Hollywood for gays and lesbians, both pre-Code and post. While it is true that the book is comprehensive, and many, many people are discussed, I didn’t find this to be problematic. They were not necessarily names which I recognized, but that was why I was reading the book. If I had a little trouble remembering who he was referring to in a given section, I let that go and read for content. What the people experienced. Why they did. How they felt about it.

The sheer volume of research Mr. Mann did is overwhelming, and necessary for this topic to be taken seriously. Very often, critics of gay and lesbian history books will claim that nothing is substantiated. Given the fact that some of these people were in the closet, therefore have left no documentation themselves, in my opinion, looking to other people who lived at the same time, who knew the people in question is just as valid as having a piece of paper which says, “I am gay/lesbian, and I loved ‘X,’ and I hid my orientation for ‘Y’ reason.” It is unrealistic, in many cases, to expect that level of documentation, particularly with the generation of people the book talks about. Putting oneself into the closet in, say, 1935 (post-Hayes Code) meant that you *stayed* in the closet, for the rest of your life. That doesn’t invalidate the experiences of the people who knew you, took photos of you, saw you and your lover behind closed doors, or at a party.

Mr. Mann put in untold hours of research, and when you look at the chapter notes, it’s clear that the whole picture he presents is exactly that. He doesn’t print mere rumour–there are a number of times when he doesn’t “name names.” What he does do is present his information, substantiated by any number of disparate sources, and gives it to the reader, straight out (so to speak). All of which, to me, is a valid way to deal with this subject. All of which made the book that much more valuable.

I found this book to be eminently readable. I could not put it down. I found a number of the stories heart-wrenching, and terribly sad (for example, Cary Grant and Randolph Scott’s relationship). I found others to be uplifting. I learned about people I’d never heard of, and now, when I watch a movie from the 1930’s, or 40’s, I recognize names of set designers, and writers, and costume designers as *my* forefathers and foremothers (as Mr. Mann calls them).

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, for those of you who want to know more about gay and lesbian history, and how the shaping of Hollywood (by gays and lesbians) influenced the general American culture, and vice versa. It’s fascinating.

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