To Out or Not to Out: Should Dead Movie Stars Stay in the Closet?

Vincent Price and wife Coral Browne were pansexual and in an open marriage. Photo courtesy Victoria Price

Outing celebrities is a history fraught with debate. Over the past 30 years (and certainly before), gay and straight publications engaged in the practice fairly regularly, albeit with different aims. For hetero news, outing was tabloid fodder, salacious and good for newsstand pickups (of papers, not twinks). For gay publications, the goal was more about visibility, and there was a certain bitterness attached to it. Here were famous stars such as Jodie Foster, whom the collective “we” of the LGBT knew were gay, but who refused to come out to the straight world. During those decades, if gays were represented in media at all, it was mostly as stereotypes—the news only glimpsed fringe groups from pride parades, and in film, gays were depicted as twisted perversions such as serial killer Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs or the psycho-sexual lesbians of Basic Instinct and Poison Ivy. The LGBT community couldn’t get comprehensive news coverage or positive fictional characters, so they looked to the giants of their group to come out and show the world that most of us were average, decent people whose lives span the spectrum.

These days, many actors have chosen to come out themselves, and with each revelation, there’s a cavalcade of outraged whiners who scream, “Who cares?!”—but this isn’t a cry for equality, as in “it shouldn’t matter” (which is true), but rather the new way of saying, “I don’t want to know this; keep it to yourself.” In short, it’s the new “stay in the closet.”

In 2012, Scotty Bowers, a self-proclaimed “handler” of Golden Age celebrities, published a tell-all book about the covert sex lives of some of Hollywood’s most iconic figures. As it turns out, they were not all straight-arrow shooters, but often fell somewhere else on the spectrum—gay, lesbian, bi or queerly fluid. While many LGBT welcomed these revelations about stars they love, a peanut gallery of boo-hooers decried the outings as deplorable, with even Barbara Walters on The View yelping that these people are dead and could not “defend” themselves. Because gay is bad and something that needs to be defended against.

The release of Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, based on Bowers’ book and reviewed for OC Weekly by Aimee Murillo, has brought those advocates for the closet to the comment sections on reviews and Twitter. Even in the doc itself, a man proposes to Bowers at a book signing that the grandchildren of these dead stars might be adversely affected by the gay outing, to which Bowers responds, “What’s wrong with being gay?” The man does not have a response—at least not one that’s included in the film.

Finding out that Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper had a long-term affair (while both were married to other people) makes classic-movie fans swoon, but finding out that Vincent Price and wife Coral Browne were pansexual and in an open marriage is blasphemy. It also apparently requires Robert Mueller-level “proof” beyond the corroborations of folks who knew them well, which Bowers includes in his book (and Price’s daughter Victoria confirms in her own illuminating essay). You must prove gay, but you don’t need to prove straight, as it turns out.

Believing that idols of yesteryear were not their screen personas in real life seems to be a giant leap for many fans, even though they’re aware of the morals clauses actors were forced to sign and that coming out or outing anyone meant certain career destruction. As if we don’t all know that the arts always attract more LGBT people into their ranks than, say, banking or construction.

Bowers made a point not to write his book until almost all of his friends were dead, and his tell-all tales are pretty vanilla sexcapades. More often than not, they’re just stories of regular one-night stands. He’s not claiming these stars murdered anyone, after all, and offers no dark episodes that might accompany modern headlines—no pedophilia, no rape, no abuse.

Instead of greeting this news with lament that idols are being smashed, why not see it for what it is: Sad. Helpful. One of the most powerful segments in Trynauer’s documentary is the footage from raids on gay bars that took place at the time—raids that threw men and women into police vans, often resulting in lost jobs, families, even lives.

These dead stars suffered addictions in their closets, as well as violence and isolation, yet they still got up and did their job, still gave us the fantasy we wanted, both on and off the screen. Imagine the terror Rock Hudson had to endure—and the subsequent humiliation he faced when he could no longer hide his secret and had to wither away before our eyes from AIDS. The shame Kate Hepburn, who, by all accounts, was impossible to shame, must have felt regarding her own nature. How sad for them. How sad for us. It’s also helpful. For the LGBT, it’s further representation in history and culture. For straight people, it offers understanding of the lives of LGBT, both throughout history and today.

Is Bowers, a wiley little gnome with a taste for the lurid, the ideal messenger for such revelatory information? Of course not. But, it seems he’s the only one who’s talking, and one can only wonder if the dead stars—if they are, indeed, floating around in some ethereal afterlife watching us—care at this point. Might Rock Hudson finally sigh in relief knowing that we like him anyway? That had he lived, he would have been able to marry the man he loved? Kate Hepburn might have delighted at Rachel Maddow’s brilliance and Ellen Degeneres’ humor and humanity on display.

The answer to “who cares?” is gays, lesbians, bisexuals, queers and transpersons care. The truth cares. History cares. We’re sorry not sorry that some of your fantasies are blown—but the greater good is that finally, in death, these stars can be their authentic selves. It’s a small price for straight people to pay, it seems. And, after all, you still have Audrey Hepburn, as well as thousands of other stars on your “team.” You’ll be fine.

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