LGBTQ cinema explored in Turner Classic Movies series ‘Gay Hollywood’

William Haines, left, is credited with being the first openly gay actor in Hollywood, but abandoned acting in 1935 after refusing to deny being queer. Haines’ achievements were celebrated in the Turner Classic Movies series “Gay Hollywood,” which airs every Thursday in June. Photo: Turner Classic Movies.

For decades, the Hollywood has been both a welcoming and hostile place for LGBTQ creatives.

During the Prohibition Era of the 1920s and ‘30s, William Haines, credited with being the first openly gay actor in Hollywood, enjoyed years of success in the film industry, but later abandoned acting in 1935 after refusing to deny being gay.

For Pride Month, Turner Classic Movies has celebrated Haines’ achievements  in its “Gay Hollywood” series, which airs every Thursday in June. Entertainment journalist Dave Karger and author and historian William Mann host the series.

The series, coupled with FilmStruck’s “Gay and Lesbian Cinema” showcase, spotlights 35 movies that explore LGBTQ themes in movies and recognize numerous queer actors, actresses and artists whose talents helped them overcome anti-LGBTQ roadblocks.

For example, from 1930 to 1968, the major film studios had to follow the Hays Code, a set or moral guidelines that, among other things, that forbid same-sex love or physical intimacy. As a result, many directors and actors implemented coded depictions or language of LGBTQ themes or topics.

In an interview with Q Voice News, Karger discusses Hollywood’s gay and lesbian history, the selected movies and the Hays Code. Here are some excerpts.

On how the films were selected

“All credit goes to the programmers at Turner Classic Movies. They are the people who decided which films we were going to show. William and I will discuss these films, and with each film we focus on that gay actor, filmmaker or writer and give context about him or her and their importance to the film industry,” Karger said.

On the movies that will be shown

“I knew ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ and ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ and ‘Rebel Without a Cause,’ but there were some I was not familiar with notably ‘Just a Gigolo’ that we aired this past Thursday. I was so taken by the actor William Haines. I found him so charming and likeable and to find out he was openly gay was just remarkable,” Karger said.

‘The Loved One’ from the 1960s is so gay. It’s based on a book by Evelyn Waugh, who was gay. Christopher Isherwood wrote the screenplay, and he was gay,” Karger said. “There are cameos by Liberace and Tab Hunter. It’s a strange, bizarre movie. It very rarely gets shown. it’s kind of this underground 1960s film. Classic film fanatics will enjoy getting a chance to see that.”

On Hollywood’s gay and lesbian history

“I was extremely surprised how many prominent actors and directors who were working in the 1930s and 40s were gay and were living authentic lives — even in that time — and their homsexuality was widely known in the film industry, and it didn’t really hamper or hinder their careers at all,” Karger said.

On how the Hays Code impacted movies

“The history of gay men and lesbians in particular in Hollywood still seems to be fairly hidden. What’s so fascinating about this series is because we have films about the 1930s, we see the films that were produced before the Hays Code. We also see a few films that were produced during the code and a few produced after the code,” Karger said.

“In so many ways, film took steps backwards. Characters couldn’t be anywhere near gay or sexualized in any way. The movies from the ‘30s that we show have much more frank sexual content than the movies from the ‘50s. That was very eye-opening for me.”

On how the film industry represents the LGBTQ community

“We see all types of LGBT characters in independent films, but more progress has to be made with the major studios. Gay characters are sidekicks, villains, token characters in a way,” Karger said. “Just like there should be better representation of women on and off screen, we need better representation of the LGBT community and characters.”

Elizabeth Taylor, left, and Paul Newman star in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” one of the movies celebrated in Turner Classic Movies’ “Gay Hollywood” series. Photo: Turner Classic Movies.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBT community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBT students.