This article is a part of the Daily Arts “Canceled” b-side. For a full look at our b-side pieces exploring this theme, click this link.
The clickbait-y corners of the internet are rife with dubious articles about closeted stars of Hollywood’s past, salacious stories about long-dead icons of film: Greta Garbo, Montgomery Clift, Joan Crawford, Marlon Brando. These stories share an unsettling subtext: the intimation that non-heterosexuality reflects poorly on these men and women or that their illustrious careers and contributions to the history of film are somehow diminished by their sexualities. One such article, posted on Medium and written under the ironic pretense of celebrating Pride Month, is particularly deplorable for its homophobia and tabloid-style headlines (one of which calls Montgomery Clift “a fussy and hard to please bisexual”). While 21st century celebrity coming-out announcements may be met with more praise than condemnation, we need not look far into the past to find ridicule of Golden Age icons that borders on “cancellation.”
I adore Tennessee Williams, and Elia Kazan’s film adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” will always be one of my favorite films. Accordingly, Marlon Brando, who so brilliantly inhabits the role of the emotionally volcanic, brutish and sweaty Stanley Kowalski, is one of my favorite actors. Which is why I remember a number of articles published in February 2018. It all began with an unfiltered interview with legendary music producer Quincy Jones in Vulture, in which he remarked of Brando that, “He’d fuck anything. Anything! He’d fuck a mailbox. James Baldwin. Richard Pryor. Marvin Gaye.” This “allegation” which supposedly “sent the internet into a frenzy,” according to TMZ, was corroborated by comedian Pryor’s widow Jennifer Lee Pryor. “It was the ’70s! Drugs were still good, especially Quaaludes,” Pryor said. “If you did enough cocaine, you’d fuck a radiator and send it flowers in the morning.”
This story was widely reported by the likes of the Guardian, USA Today and the entertainment glossies. Pryor’s daughter Rain and Brando’s son Miko both denied Jones’s claims, adding fuel to the fire and longevity to the story. There is no dearth of Brando smut on the internet, which all begs the question, who cares? In an unsigned opinion article from South African news broadcaster eNCA responding to the February 2018 Brando brouhaha, the author accurately noted that “in the feeding frenzy which has followed Jones’s interview, we have also learned (once again) how deep the roots of heteronormativity and homophobia still run.” With particular disdain for Jennifer Lee Pryor’s statements about Quaaludes and cocaine, the author wrote that “We are asked to understand any sex between Pryor and Brando as the consequence of drugs, not as an aspect of the men’s exploration of being human. In fact, both men are compared to objects, thus domesticating the threat their human sexual interaction poses to heteronormativity.”
Jennifer Lee Pryor’s dehumanizing aside, the media obsession with Jones’s claims reflects a belief that homosexuality is aberrant. That there is something “dirty” about the secret that has been exposed. This is no new phenomenon. In the 1950s, the tabloid Confidential “called out celebrities who were in the closet, in rehab or having marital problems,” purportedly to “show the real image of America,” said journalist Henry Scott, an image hidden by the films these very celebrities created. But glorifying Confidential as breaking barriers and fighting Hollywood idealism hides the ugly truth: It was a mechanism for “cancel culture,” that innate human drive to excommunicate that which we perceive to be harmful to our society. In 1955, agent Henry Willson “learned that Confidential was planning to out Rock Hudson, who still was one of his clients,” said Tab Hunter, a former client of Willson, “so he cut a deal with them to keep Rock out of their pages, feeding them dirt on me instead.” The gossip magazine suggested that Hunter had attended a “gay orgy,” leaving Hunter fearing for his career. It took a cover story in another entertainment publication, in which he was celebrated alongside Natalie Wood, to blunt the impact of the Confidential story.
This culture persists. In a 2010 interview with the BBC, actor Rupert Everett said that after coming out, “‘Nothing very much (happened in terms of Hollywood reaction). I just never got a job there … after (coming out).’” When singer/songwriter Sam Smith came out as non-binary in 2019, they faced criticism and backlash. In fact, it was a leaked text message to their family that outed Smith, forcing them to make a public statement. And when Harry Styles appeared on the cover of Vogue in an outfit deemed feminine by pundit Candace Owens, she started the hashtag #BringBackManlyMen. I suspect Owens’ pathetic war to preserve gender roles is rooted in the same anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment that turns Sam Smith’s personal texts into media ammunition and makes Marlon Brando’s libido newsworthy.
While sexuality and gender do not have a causational or even necessarily correlated relationship, the two are linked in the image of the 20th century capital-M Man. It is this “manliness” Owens desires, a manliness long embodied by Brando. In a 1966 article for the Atlantic, Pauline Kael paints Brando as emblematic of a new, post-war Man, who “was antisocial because he knew society was crap; he was a hero to youth because he was strong enough not to take the crap.” He had “swagger and arrogance that were vain and childish, and somehow seemed very American. He was explosively dangerous without being ‘serious’ in the sense of having ideas … he didn’t care he was a big man.” Oddly enough, this “not caring” is precisely how I’d describe Styles’s fashion choices (“What women wear. What men wear. For me it’s not a question of that,” Styles said in a 2019 interview with the Guardian). In 1999, Brando was described in a New York Times article about the mutability of masculinity as possessing a “bad-boy sexuality.” And in 2018, when the internet learned that Brando’s own desires might not have aligned with those of Kowalski or the other bad-boy roles he wore, the result was one of shock and consternation.
Brando is likely the sort of Manly Man lauded by Candace Owens. Kael called his masculinity thoughtless and arrogant, even dangerous. And these are the sorts of characters he played. Which begs the question: are the puritanically anxious reactions to unexpected details of Brando’s sex life really the result of a sort of cognitive dissonance between actor and role? Is the shocking allure of celebrity sexuality gossip really just a result of our disbelief that Stanley Kowalski could be bisexual? The fact that we, the public, do not know these stars as people has developed into a dangerous notion, that Hollywood’s leading men must resemble the characters they play. Rooted in the cult of Celebrity and an unhealthy confusion of actor and role, it is this idea that the scripted masculinities of the silver screen are real and right that preserves toxic masculinity, a force that poisons real human relationships and instills in our culture rigid and allegedly inviolable gender roles.
While posthumous outing might not threaten to mar an actor’s career like being outed by Confidential in the 1950s, the very desire to publish these “revelations” is reflective of cancel culture and the harmful idea that a celebrity’s sexuality is “property” of the public consciousness as an extension of the characters they play. We believe that if a celebrity does not actually fit the mold that we imagine for them, the mold of their character, they’ve somehow wronged us. So long as we define our culture in terms of its stars, a dangerous proposition, we must be certain to divorce actor from role, the celebrated from Celebrity. Because it is their conflation which burdens real people with the full weight of our cultural norms — and should they falter under pressure, we are all too quick to “cancel.”
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at email@example.com.