Old and new gay film icons continue to inspire

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday February 17, 2009

As the pre-Oscar buzz continues to grow, this reporter is wondering what ever happened to the gay icon film actress? Davis, Crawford, Garland and other stars... and even Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth and other sex symbols reigned supreme in Hollywood's Golden Age.

EDGE decided to ask the experts: Brandon Judell, a film critic and professor of Film and Queer Studies at the City College of New York; Jeanine Basinger, chair of Film Studies at Wesleyan University and the author of "The Star Machine"; and legendary drag performers, Lypsinka, who has often portrayed Joan Crawford and will appear with Whoopi Goldberg and Charles Busch in "Legends" at Town Hall on March 23, and Hedda Lettuce, who will soon be celebrating eight years hosting the Chelsea Classics on Thursday nights at Chelsea Cinemas.

EDGE: What did those actresses have that has so enthralled gay male audiences to this day and continues to generate impersonations?

Brandon Judell: These girls were a mixture of lipstick, chutzpah and angst. In the right Edith Head gown, they convinced you they could conquer the world. These stars could make men quiver in their loafers. Yet while their stark red lips seemed capable of kissing away life's most perturbing problems, their eyes showcased their vulnerabilities. These ladies were sort of like gay men but with breasts, shoulder pads, and a Hollywood agent.

Jeanine Basinger: In the old days in Hollywood, they weren't fooling around with this stuff-they were trying to build a stardom that would last. We only had the movies then; went you went to the movies, it was magic. Those close-ups with silver nitrate film . . . they made room for a gay sensibility when nobody else would. We don't get faces like that today. And in fan magazines then, it was presented as fantasy. Joan Crawford would be photographed "at home" in full gown and jewels. The business wanted to manufacture iconography. It's a throwaway business today-a star doesn't last.

Lypsinka: I'm not that certain that young gays are enthralled by these ladies from the past! If they are, I suspect it's their vulnerability and sexuality to which they respond. And the fact that these women are also outsiders, either because of their talent or their beauty or their out-sized personalities and manufactured star images, or all of the above!

Hedda Lettuce: Today's actresses are quite dull; styles are much more naturalistic. It's a different ballgame. No one is distinct enough to impersonate. I mean, how would you do Renee Zellweger-a sourpuss look on your face? Or Julia Roberts-a big clown mouth? The old stars had a very opulent look. They were gay men in a sense, the way they related to men. And let's not forget the lines; gays like snappy dialogue in a pretty package. I'm thinking of the line in "Female on a Beach": "How do you take your coffee?" "Alone." That's the bitchy queen at the end of the bar!

EDGE: Gays today seem to be more often making singers their icons of choice: Mariah Carey, Beyonc?, Britney Spears, etc., instead of film actresses. Why do you think that is?

BJ: MTV and YouTube videos have replaced the celluloid features of the past. And what films have glamour nowadays? Also, these musical ladies such as Madonna and Fergie are often imitating the Monroes and the Harlows that their older gay brethren once treasured.

JB: Music videos are closer to what we used to have in the movies. And there is a sense in the videos that you are seeing their real personas-which was cultivated in the movie stars of old.

L: It seems to me that in the earlier part of the 20th Century, moving images of women were, in part, more glamorous because they were not so easily attained. You had to leave your house to see them. Television changed that, and as it became more common to see moving images of beautiful women in one's home, the women became more common too. Singers, however, still do something that not everyone can do: sing.

HL: Madonna is the Joan Crawford of pop music-she will not let go. If you have enough money and are deluded enough, you can hang on . . . I like Katy Perry, who is theatrical with a sense of whimsy.

EDGE: Are there any actresses today who inspire gay worship?

BJ: I don't know, these new actresses don't parody themselves. They really haven't developed a larger than life persona to embrace.

JB: Penelope Cruz is emerging strongly . . . when she enters "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" the movie comes to life. And certainly in the Almod?var films. Angelina Jolie is a glamour diva. She has the face of an old-time movie star and she can do action, drama, glamour. She has the chops for it.

L: Kidman and Jolie have some mystery, although both of them are over-exposed. The others have no mystery.

HL: Cate Blanchett has a drag sensibility and kind of an old Hollywood look-but there is no one gesture that defines her.

EDGE: What about Meryl Streep, who has been playing a lot of gay-friendly roles lately?

BJ: But she's always different, no one persona.

JB: Her performance in "Doubt" is an invitation, a wink. I think she understands that she needs to be a gay icon in order to be a legend.

HL: Any drag queen worth her salt would have loved to play that part. She's not trying to underplay it and she's enjoying it.

L: A sense of humor helps.

EDGE: Is it possible the gay icons aren't needed today?

BJ: With gay liberation and with many "out" stars, gay men and lesbians no longer have to fantasize any more about their desires. There are enough openly gay films to calm them down.

JB: Well, who needs new ones if the old ones work? For kids today, there's no old and new. With all the media, they look at everything. Joan Crawford is just as alive as Julia Roberts. And it's possible that the younger gay population doesn't feel the need of the secretly coded gay icon figure because it's now more open. The role of the gay icon is no longer needed so we don't manufacture them. Back then, there were the restrictions of polite society. Subtext was everything. It was like a secret conversation with viewers. When things are not open, not free, people find ways of getting messages to one another.

EDGE: Can you think of any modern iconic female screen performances that have captured the gay zeitgeist?

L: Do Faye Dunaway and Joan Collins count as modern? Well, in my book they do!

BJ: Kidman in "Moulin Rouge," Madonna in "Evita," the cast of Francois Ozon's "Eight Women," and Aretha Franklin at the Obama Inauguration.

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).