A roll in the hays
The Red Scare, moral panic, and a T.V. set in every living room: in the 1950s, Hollywood was looking over its shoulder. How would it respond?
When the legendary film director Billy Wilder was asked about his memories of 1950s Hollywood, his answer was quick, sharp, and owed more than a little to the opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. “It was the best of times,” he said. “It was also the worst of times.”
Wilder surely knew whereof he spoke: after all, he bookended the decade with two imperishable mainstays of the all-time greats lists — 1950’s Sunset Boulevard and 1959’s Some Like It Hot. But if you took a look at some of the other movies released during that storiedperiod—RomanHoliday(1953),OntheWaterfront(1954), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), 12 Angry Men (1957) or Vertigo (1958) — you could be forgiven for thinking, Well, where’s the beef ? Weren’t those 10 years a golden roll-call of stone-cold classics populated by a pantheon of immortals (Brando, Hepburn, Monroe, Kelly, Stewart, Grant, Fonda) unmatched before or since? Well, yes and no, according to Wilder. “Studios!” he exclaimed. “You couldn’t make pictures with ’em, you couldn’t make pictures without ’em. And they were always running scared of something — their talent, their rivals, their own shadows. But in the 1950s that bloomed into full-scale paranoia.”
It got personal, in Wilder’s case. While he was writing the script for Sunset Boulevard, he pretended he was adapting a (non-existent) short story called ‘A Can of Beans’ in order to put Paramount off its bite-the-hand scent; after all, the story of the deluded recluse Norma Desmond, holed up in her Beverly Hills redoubt and sustained only by long-past glories, could have been a metaphor for the studio system itself. “We were expecting it to get canned or scuttled as soon as any of the suits got a whiff of it,” he recalled, many years later. “It still seems like a small miracle that it got past the gatekeepers and made it out intact. But I guess they had a lot of other stuff occupying them at the time.”
Indeed they did, not least the fact that a landmark 1948 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court — United States versus the very Paramount Pictures that Wilder was busily attempting to goose — had single-handedly struck down the industry’s prized vertical integration,byrulingthatthestudios’ownershipofthemoviehouses in which they distributed and exhibited their wares was a violation of antitrust laws.
Meanwhile, the Red Scare was in full Cold War swing, with more than 300 actors, screenwriters, directors and other industry stalwarts placed on Joseph McCarthy’s suspected commie blacklists and hounded off lots (those deemed insufficiently patriotic included Charlie Chaplin, Luis Buñuel, Zero Mostel, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Seberg, Danny Kaye, Leonard Bernstein, Paul Robeson, Ruth Gordon, Edward G. Robinson, and Gypsy Rose Lee).
External woes added to the self-inflicted wounds, with the coming of television perceived by some as an existential threat to moviegoing, particularly as take-up of sets had gone from negligible in the 1940s to half of all American households by 1955. Beset on all sides, the studios doubled down on what remained of their intellectual property — their stars.
While some of the best movies of the fifties, from A Streetcar Named Desire to Vertigo, explored hitherto taboo themes of homosexuality and psychopathology, albeit often in encoded form, studio contracts still stipulated that the images of their leading men and women should be soft-scooped into the purest vanilla, and deployed a formidable PR machine to ensure that everyone stayed on-message, not to mention a shadowy team of fixers and finaglers to step in when those selfsame stars, chafing at their mandated innocuousness, sought out more piquant flavours.
The crime writer James Ellroy — obsessed with the sleazier side of Hollywood in general and the Black Dahlia murder case in particular (a 1947 cause célèbre, still unsolved, in which the aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short was found mutilated, her body bisected at the waist, in Los Angeles’ Leimert Park neighbourhood) — has produced an extensive alternative Hollywood history, full of “rogue cops, sleazoid private eyes, shakedown artists and pimps”, all triangulating between the studios and gossip rags like Confidential magazine (which existed from 1952 to 1978, and was nicknamed the ‘Porno-Graphic’ by fans and detractors alike for its unwavering emphasis on sex, crime and violence) to determine which scuttlebutt would and wouldn’t reach impressionable mid-century ears. “The 1950s to me is darkness, hidden history, and perversion behind closed doors waiting to creep out, ”Ellroyhassaid,“whereasthe1950stomostpeopleiskitschand Mickey Mouse watches and all this intolerable stuff.”
Perhaps the actor who best exemplified the schizoid relationship between studio and star in fifties Hollywood was Montgomery Clift. He’d already made a splash in 1948’s Red River, where his plaintive, pleading eyes and sensitive mien provided a stark counterpoint to his granite-hewn co-star, John Wayne. He was also a mould breaker, negotiating a three-picture deal with Paramount that allowed him total discretion over projects. “From the start, Clift was framed as a rebel and an individual,” wrote Anne Helen Petersen in her book Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema. “The embodiment of fifties youth culture along with Brando, rebelling against conformity and all that Americans were supposed to embrace.” Despite his sultry chemistry with Elizabeth Taylor in 1951’s star-crossed lovers saga A Place in the Sun, Clift remained defiantly unattached, sending out obfuscatory smoke signals (“I like it lonely!” he allegedly wrote in Motion Picture magazine) and provoking the gossip press into headlines like, ‘Monty Clift: Woman Hater or Free Soul?’
The answer, of course, was neither. Clift’s homosexuality remained a secret into the 1970s, a decade after his death from years of alcohol and drug abuse. Many still paint him as a queer martyr to deadening fifties conformity, but the truth is a little muddier than that. “How to remain thin-skinned, vulnerable and still alive?” he once scribbled in his journal, and he certainly blew open the door for the likes of Brando (whose incendiary performance in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire is impossible to imagine without Clift’s bruised, brooding blueprint), Dean and Newman, and their more nuanced studies of movie masculinity.
As far as his closeted peers like Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter were concerned, however, the bolts and brackets stayed firmly fastened. Hudson, perpetually harried by Confidential magazine, embarked on a short-lived lavender marriage to his agent’s secretary, Phyllis Gates, in 1954, and would eventually be one of the first high-profile victims of Aids, in 1985. Hunter, the blond, clean-cut heartthrob who was ‘paired’ by Warner Brothers with Natalie Wood in the mid fifties, when he was actually having an affair with Anthony Perkins, at least attempted to atone somewhat by appearing in a brace of 1980s John Waters films, hamming it up alongside Divine.
For women, the strictures were even more stringent, and the perils more palpable. A ‘special report’ in a mid-fifties edition of Picturegoer magazine breathlessly enumerated the latter. “More than glamour, gloss, glitter and glory, newcomers are faced with HEARTBREAK, TEMPTATION, near POVERTY, but above all, TEMPTATION,” it frothed (caps lock, and creaky reiteration, very much theirs). The casting couch was a soft furnishing item that invariably had to be negotiated for those who wanted any kind of viable career; witness Natalie Wood, again, who reportedly had an affair with Rebel Without a Cause director Nicholas Ray — she 16, he 44 — to secure her role as Judy alongside James Dean (the pair would rendezvous in abungalowattheinfamousChateauMarmont).
Female agency was considered more than a little de trop, as in the case of Ingrid Bergman, still more than bankable after Casablanca, who provoked moral outrage — and calls from The New York Times for a boycott of her films — after having the temerity to fall pregnant via the director Roberto Rossellini before her divorce from the neurosurgeon Peter Lindström was final. Meanwhile, Judy Garland, Lana Turner and Joan Crawford were just some of the marquee names said to have submitted to clandestine studio-sanctioned abortions, many reportedly arranged by Howard Strickling, the head of publicity for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from the 1920s to the sixties.
There was double jeopardy afoot in the case of Dorothy Dandridge, the first African-American film star to be nominated for the best actress Oscar, after she became pregnant by the film’s white director, Otto Preminger. The latter refused to leave his wife, and 20th Century Fox forced Dandridge into a termination, citing the effect on her career of a mixed-race child; it was no idle threat when interracial marriage wouldn’t become legal in the U.S. until 1967.
Read the full story on Issue 90, available now.