As the world mourns the passing of movie goddess Elizabeth Taylor, it feels as if the last vestige of Hollywood’s golden age has disappeared over the horizon. And in many ways, it has. Stars such as Taylor, who came of age at MGM’s dream factory, had images that were carefully crafted by the studios to make them not just stars, but icons.
As the first major star to wage the war on AIDS, when most public figures dared not even mention it, Elizabeth Taylor was a true hero to the gay community. Yet as a performer, she was not a gay icon. While traditional sex symbols such as Taylor and Marilyn Monroe captivated the straight world, the stars who became gay icons had very specific, non-traditional qualities.
Since there’s never been a truly out male film star, the gay icons are almost always women, with qualities that gay men have identified with, as the gay self-image has evolved over the years. The gay movie icon is an outsider, fighting the mainstream world for respect, acceptance and love with the help of special skills like a bracing or bawdy wit, fearless determination, and an amazing singing voice – which often cover an aching vulnerability.
Mae West was a sexual outlaw of stage and screen in the ‘20s and ‘30s — when gay men were literally sexual outlaws. Her overtly sexual humor and bawdy demeanor landed her in jail when her Broadway play Sex was raided. Battles with the censors followed her to Hollywood despite the huge success of films such as She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel (both with Cary Grant).
Hollywood’s censoring Production Code was created partly in response to West’s films and by 1943 her film career was over. She took her act back to the stage, then to Las Vegas, surrounded by a chorus of bodybuilders. In her ill-advised return to film in Myra Breckinridge and then Sextette (1978), the 85 year-old West still played the sexpot, delivering suggestive one-liners as if the sexual revolution had never happened. But her status as the first gay movie icon remains intact.
Judy Garland captured the longing, and the worship, of gay men from the moment she sang Over the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz (1939). In the glory days of her MGM musicals she played the girl who wasn’t quite beautiful enough to get the guy, but with her charm, spunk and incredible singing voice, she eventually won him over.
Garland’s personal struggles with ill-fated marriages, drugs and alcohol mirrored the struggles that many gay men of the ‘40s through the ‘60s experienced, which endeared her to them even more. She wore that pain and longing on her sleeve when performing signature torch songs like The Man That Got Away. As gay men mourned Garland’s death at New York’s Stonewall Inn in 1969, a police raid triggered the Stonewall riots – and the gay liberation movement was born.
Bette Davis was anything but a traditional beauty, and she embodied a caustic, hard-edged wit and imperious self-confidence in her films of the ‘40s. Her on and off-screen persona was closer to that of a gay man than a straight woman – which spawned innumerable drag queen impersonations.
Her signature role of aging stage diva Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950) made the film a gay classic. Her public feud with Joan Crawford fueled her scathing performance as a washed-up child star who psychologically tortures her crippled sister in the 1962 thriller Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? If you haven’t seen these Davis classics, rent them now.
Barbra Streisand was the ultimate gay movie icon of the ‘60s and ‘70s – and remains one to this day. Her image as the notably un-beautiful girl who’s blessed with fierce determination and powerhouse talent was cemented in her screen debut as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968).
Streisand’s underdog persona gained her fiercely gay loyal fans, and it’s impossible not to root for her in films such as the hilarious What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and the heart-tugging The Way We Were (1973) in which she overcomes tremendous odds to land Ryan O’Neal and Robert Redford, respectively. Her later career as a fiercely perfectionist director and star has only added to her diva appeal.
Liza Minnelli had gay movie icon genes as the daughter of Judy Garland and the brilliant (and gay) director Vincent Minnelli, but her own blend of vulnerability, star power and chutzpah was never more iconic than in her Oscar winning performance as nightclub singer Sally Bowles in Cabaret (1972).
While her film career never soared as it should have following her star-making role, Minnelli enthralled audiences with television specials, concerts and the occasional Broadway show. Her personal antics as a hard-living socialite at New York’s Studio 54 in the ‘70s, and her penchant for marrying as many gay men as her mother did, made gay fans feel like Liza was one of them.
Bette Midler incorporated all the gay icon aspects of those who came before her, with West’s bawdy wit, Garland’s powerhouse pipes, Davis’ acid tongue and Streisand and Minnelli’s take-no-prisoners chutzpah. And how many major stars got their start performing at a gay bathhouse (with Barry Manilow at the piano no less)?
Midler was a gay icon for the post rock and roll, sexual revolution and gay liberation ‘70s and ‘80s – and she gleefully captured the post-closeted gay attitude of “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke!” She shined brightly in films that were custom made for her talents including The Rose, Beaches and For the Boys, and a slew of slapstick comedies like Ruthless People, Outrageous Fortune and Big Business.
In today’s 24/7 entertainment news and paparazzi driven Hollywood, we get more personal information about movie stars than we could possibly need – which makes them seem more ordinary and less iconic than they once were. Today’s iconic performers are more often from the world of pop music, where image is crafted in songs, concerts, videos and album art.
This is why gay icons of today include the likes of Cher, Madonna and Lady Gaga. But unlike the gay icons of yesteryear, without the movie roles that shape what we think we know of these performers, it’s harder to see ourselves in their foibles, struggles and triumphs.
Mae West – I’m No Angel
Mae West – Sextette
Barbra Streisand – Don’t Rain on My Parade
Liza Minnelli – Cabaret
Bette Midler – Chapel of Love / Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy
Bette Midler – Long John Blues