Watch: When Gay Actors Were Cast in Gay Roles

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Monday October 18, 2021
Originally published on January 18, 2021

When Russell T. Davies was casting "It's a Sin," his six-part miniseries that chronicled the impact of AIDS on a crew of young Londoners in the 1980s, he and his team insisted on casting only LGBTQ actors. described it to IndieWire as "an interesting decision because, obviously, you're not allowed to ask whether an actor is gay or not. That's a very good employment law... that stops the head of a supermarket banning lesbians from being on the tills. But what it creates is a circumstance where we could just be open and say, 'We're gay. This is gay. Come join us....The doors are open if you want to come to share experiences, and tell us about your lives."

His recruitment idea worked and he found a cast of Millennials Olly Alexander is 30, Lydia West is 28, and Callum Scott Howells is 22, to name a few of the out actors who answered his call.

His approach disproved the long-held theory that LGBTQ actors needed were either too much in the closet to audition, too unknown to get a role, or not as good as their straight competition. Perhaps Davies approach will be taken up by other casting directors when casting gay projects. As EDGE observed earlier this year when this article was first published. No one wants to repeat the disaster that accompanied Netflix's "The Prom" when James Corden played a New York stage director as a tired stereotype. It became a firestorm in the debate over whether straight actors should play LGBTQ roles.

The question was also raised in assessing how writer-director-producer Viggo Mortensen cast himself as a gay man in "Falling," as well as Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan starring in "Ammonite," the story of the passionate relationship between two 19th century British women. Mortensen even joked that perhaps he isn't so straight after all; and after seeing the steamy sex scene between Winslet and Ronan, you wonder: When does acting end and real passion begin? Adding a note of humor to the debate is bi actor Daniel Newman volunteering to take over the role of Star-Lord from Chris Pratt. The reason? He's hot and bi, while Pratt is hot and straight.

That the debate is even raging is due to the fact that there are more LGBTQ roles out there, not only in films, but in virtually every series, limited or otherwise: "The Queen's Gambit," "Industry," "Euphoria," "We Are Who We Are," "The Flight Attendant," "Ratched," "Lovecraft Country," "Penny/Dreadful: City of Angels," "Hollywood," "Hightown," "Love, Victor," "Dickinson," "Vida," and "Pose" to name some. Upcoming films include the first Marvel gay superhero ("Phastos") in "The Eternals" (coming out in November); "Sheer Qorma," a Bollywood lesbian film; "Good Joe Bell," with Mark Wahlberg atoning for bullying his gay son; "Cinderella," with Billy Porter playing a genderless fairly godparent; "Benedetta," Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's biographical film about a 17th century nun who has an affair with another nun in an Italian convent; and a sequel to "Call Me By Your Name" that retains director Luca Guadagnino and stars Armee Hammer and Timothée Chalamet.

But what of Hollywood's past? LGBTQ characters are pretty much non-existent in films until this century, though toward the end of the last the current trend towards representation began with independent films such as "My Beautiful Laundrette," "Maurice," "Longtime Companion," "The Crying Game," "The Living End," and "The Watermelon Woman." Prior to that, LGBTQ characters were either pushed to the margins for comic effect, used as villains, or dead by the final reel. They were rarely the main characters in films. But there have been a number of exceptions, made more interesting by the fact producers and directors often cast LGBTQ actors in the roles. Below are some examples, in chronological order.

Morocco and Queen Christina

Watch this clip featuring Dietrich and Garbo in these signature roles

There were no bigger 193>0s stars than Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, both of whom were known to have relationships with members of both sexes; and both appeared in two pre-code films in which they played bi characters. In the Josef Von Sternberg's "Morocco," Dietrich is a nightclub performer dressed in male drag who kisses a female patron on the lips — a thrilling queer moment that would soon be forbidden in Hollywood films.

In "Queen Christina," another pre-Code classic, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, Garbo plays the renegade Swedish monarch who, during her tumultuous life, abdicated her throne because she didn't want to marry, cut her hair, and moved to Rome. Some said she was a hermaphrodite, but more than likely "she was an unabashed lesbian who frightened people because she forgot to brush her hair, enjoyed riding and hunting, and preferred pants to corsets," writes a 2016 profile of Christina on the website Medium. The pre-Code film invented a romance between Garbo and John Gilbert, but makes a nod to Christina being a lesbian. "It is true that Christina was deeply annoyed by the constant pressure to marry — not least because she was passionately in love with her lady-in-waiting, Ebba Sparre," wrote the Guardian in a 2008 look at the film. "Being pre-censorship, the film casts a glance that way. Garbo greets Ebba with a big kiss on the lips, and throws a strop because she wants to marry a man."

The bisexual Dietrich famously had relationships with Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, French star Jean Gabin, actress/writer Salka Viertel, and Cuban-American writer Mercedes de Acosta, the latter two said to be Garbo's lovers. Garbo was said to be bisexual, and (no surprise) scrupulously private. In a letter to the New York Times in May, 1995, Garbo's friend Raymond Daum wrote that she once told him what she thought about homosexuality and privacy: "Homosexual love without discretion and dignity, if flaunted, is sordid." To which he added, "Garbo was haunted by a private code of conduct, trapped by the mores and traditional old-fashioned values of her generation." While Dietrich and Garbo claim they never met, writer Diana McLellan wrote in her book "The Girls" that the two did have an affair in Berlin in 1925, an event that would alter Garbo's life. Follow this link to read how McLellan unearthed the affair.

The Man Who Came to Dinner

Watch this clip of the best quips from "The Man Who Came to Dinner"

When Bette Davis saw George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's hit on Broadway with its original star Monty Woolley, she immediately saw it as a movie for herself and John Barrymore. But years of drinking caused Barrymore to drop out, and in 1942 Warner Brothers, after looking at such actors as Orson Welles, Laird Cregar, and Charles Laughton, took a chance on its stage star.

It was an inspired choice, but one that almost didn't happen due to executives fearing Woolley would come across as too gay onscreen. His character, Sheridan Whiteside, is the urban outsider who is forced, due to an accident, to recuperate in a small-Midwestern town, terrorizing his hosts with his rapier wit and intolerant attitudes about their middlebrow ways. He is really the gay who came to dinner.

The bearded, rascally Woolley also was gay in his private life -- a great bud of Cole Porter, whom he met at Yale and remained close to throughout his life. "They enjoyed many amusing disreputable adventures together in Manhattan and on their many foreign travels together," writes a bio of Woolley on the World of Wonder website. "Woolley often joined Porter to cruise New York City's waterfront bars and recounted that one night, a young sailor they approached by car asked outright, 'Are you two cocksuckers?' Woolley responded: 'Now that the preliminaries are over, why don't you get in and we can discuss the details?'"


Watch the trailer to "Laura"

Like Monty Woolley, Clifton Webb was an unlikely movie star. He was a Broadway musical comedy star famed for his sophisticated manner throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and was over 50 when Otto Preminger cast him in his 1944 film noir "Laura." He got the role of Waldo Lydecker, something of the dark complement to Sheridan Whiteside, over the objections of 20th Century Fox exec Darryl F. Zanuck, who considered Webb too effeminate. "He doesn't walk, he flies!" the head of casting told Zanuck, wrote IndieWire.

In "Laura" it is apparent that Lydecker, a powerful journalist, has no sexual interest in the titular character (Gene Tierney), but wants to control her. "I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom," he sneers at one point. His acidic performance netted him an Oscar nomination and a Hollywood career in which he played fussy, middle-aged men with great comic skill. And with Lydecker, he brought the gay villain out of the closet, ushering in a line of characters whose sexuality was coded to those in the know. Hitchcock would do so a number of times: Mrs. Danvers in "Rebecca," (though it pre-dates "Laura"), Bruno Antony in "Strangers on the Train," and Leonard in "North by Northwest," the latter played by Martin Landau as James Mason's sinister puppy-dog. For his part, Webb remained a bachelor living in Hollywood with his mother. When she died at the age of 91, Webb's friend Noël Coward remarked: "It must be terrible to be orphaned at 71."

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Watch the trailer to "The Picture of Dorian Gray"

"I have been haunted by 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'," Hurt Hatfield once said in an interview. "New York, London, anywhere I'm making a personal appearance, people will talk about other things, but they always get back to Dorian Gray." In 1945 the then-unknown Hatfield was cast as the titular character in Albert Lewin's lavish MGM adaptation of Oscar Wilde's famous novel about a young man who stays eternally young while his portrait ages. The film was a huge success. But, Hatfield later lamented: "The film didn't make me popular in Hollywood. It was too odd, too avant-garde, too ahead of its time. The decadence, the hints of bisexuality and so on, made me a leper! Nobody knew I had a sense of humor, and people wouldn't even have lunch with me."

He was so identified with the role that he was often asked if he had a portrait hidden in his attic. Nonetheless, he faced critical brickbats at the time for his minimalist performance. "Hurd Hatfield, yielding plainly to direction, is incredibly stiff as Dorian Gray, and walks through the film with a vapid and masklike expression on his face. (Apparently somebody figured that was the only way to show it doesn't change.)," wrote Bosley Crowther in the New York Times upon the film's release. "No," Crowther continued, "to use Mr. Wilde's purple phrasing, his chiseled lips don't even curl in exquisite disdain." Lewin's stately adaptation plays like a Victorian melodrama with some fantastic touches that break the black-and-white film with flashes of lurid color when showing the portrait.

Unlike subsequent adaptations his lascivious behavior is kept offscreen, and Gray's bisexuality is only hinted at in one scene: When he blackmails a gay doctor to destroy the body of his murder victim. Still, with George Sanders dropping some of Wilde's cleverest epigrams, and a touching Angela Lansbury as one of Gray's first victims, the film bursts with a gay sensibility. Hatfield and Lansbury became life-long friends. She was influential to him moving to Ireland in the 1970s, where he lived for nearly 25 years before passing on Boxing Day in 1998. The secretive actor never acknowledged if he was gay, but was said to have had affairs with Yul Brynner and Michael Redgrave, and he never married.


Watch the trailer to "Rope," with footage not seen in the final film

The sensational 1924 trial of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the Chicago queer thrill-killers, was labeled the "trial of the century" and made the men infamous. 25 years later, audiences likely remembered their crime when it was used as the framework to Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope." British playwright Patrick Hamilton had used the crime for his 1929 play, "Rope." Hitchcock's film used a version that Hume Cronyn adapted and Arthur Laurents turned into a screenplay. In it, the story is updated and reset to New York's Upper East Side. They introduce a number of new characters and streamline the three-act play into a taut single act, while retaining its central conceit: A gay couple — Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Phillip Morgan (Farley Granger — murder a friend out of some mistaken Nietzschean belief, hide his body in a chest, then have the victim's parents to dinner.

One reason for Hitchcock's interest in the property was the idea of making the action continuous, as in the theater. In actuality, there are 10 cuts in the film, but they are done in such a way as to appear continuous. Central to the film is the triangular relationship between the young couple and their mentor, Rupert Cadell (James Stewart), the prep school teacher who introduced his students to Nietzsche's theories.

Stewart, in the first of four memorable collaborations with Hitchcock, was straight, but the actors cast as Phillip and Brandon were both gay. Farley Granger was one of Hollywood's rising stars in the late 1940s, but his unwillingness to conform to Hollywood pressures, stymied his career. "Granger refused to play the publicity or marrying game common among gay and bisexual stars and turned down roles he considered unsuitable, earning a reputation — in his own words — for being 'a naughty boy,' " The Guardian wrote in the actor's 2011 obituary. Granger famously abandoned Hollywood for Broadway, where he had some success; then moved to Rome, where he appeared in some films. By then he was partnered with Robert Calhoun, with whom he wrote his 2007 autobiography "Include Me Out: My Life From Goldwyn to Broadway." When Calhoun died the next year, they had been together 45 years. Granger died at 85 in 2011.

He made no secret of preferring live theater to film. "I love getting laughs," he said in an interview in 1982, in the midst of a substantial run as a replacement Sidney Bruhl in "Deathtrap" on Broadway. "Next to sex, laughs are the best things in the world."

John Dall's life proved far less happy. He made his film debut with 1941's "The Corn is Green," and was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar. He would follow "Rope" with arguably his best performance: The marksman-turned-criminal in "Gun Crazy," which, as in "Rope," had a creepy intensity that made him difficult to cast in subsequent films. "According to music journalist Phil Milstein, at the time of his death Dall had lapsed into alcoholism and was living with his partner, actor Clement Brace," reads his Wiki entry.

Rebel Without a Cause

Watch the trailer to "Rebel Without a Cause"

In the seminal 1955 teen drama "Rebel Without a Cause," high schooler Sal Mineo's Plato has a pinup photo of Alan Ladd is his locker, an image that telegraphed to audiences that his character was gay. The actor later said that he played the first out teen in Hollywood history, and the chemistry between himself and object of his affection James Dean is palpable. During filming, Gore Vidal, then in Hollywood, speculated in his memoir that director Nicholas Ray had an affair with Mineo, as well as with Natalie Wood, who also starred in the film. Dean was said to have told the 16-year old Mineo, "Look at me just the way I look at Natalie," and their bromance is one of the film's more enduring features. "Critics call the relationship between James Dean's rebellious Jim Stark and Sal Mineo's lonely Plato the first to depict gay desire in a mainstream Hollywood film," wrote Dan Avery in 2016 on the website NewNowNext. Adding, "as Judy, Natalie Wood played one of filmdom's first fag hags."

In real life, Mineo was often bullied as a young teen when he commuted from his Bronx home to midtown Manhattan after getting his acting break on Broadway. Once his Hollywood career was established with an Oscar nomination for "Rebel," his baby-faced good looks made him a pinup for many teenage girls (and, likely, boys). He dated women while being closeted, and was nearly outed when, according to a 2020 report on the website Back2Stonewall, he was discovered by his girlfriend, actress Jill Haworth, in bed with another actor. Rumors of his being gay stymied his career, which troubled him. "One minute it seemed I had more movie offers than I could handle; the next, no one wanted me," the actor is quoted as saying in Michael Gregg Michaud's "Sal Mineo: A Biography." "I had a choice to make. I could sit back and feel sorry for myself, blaming Hollywood for having exploited me, or I could live. I decided to live and to forget about self-pity."

He came out as bisexual in 1972, worked steadily on television, and returned to the stage, notably in an acclaimed production of "P.S. Your Cat is Dead," in which he played a queer cat burglar. While appearing in an LA production of the play in July, 1976, he was murdered outside his apartment by a mugger.

Pillow Talk

Watch this clip from "Pillow Talk" featuring Rock Hudson and Doris Day.

In the early 1950s, Rock Hudson ushered the new leading man — masculine, but sensitive and self-effacing. His image as a sexy, stolid leading man came with a series of dramas he made with director Douglas Sirk ("Written on the Wind," "All That Heaven Allows"), and the megahit "Giant," for which he received his only Oscar nomination. But by the end of the decade his career was waning, so he took a chance on a romantic comedy with Doris Day, which turned his career around. By this time, Hudson was married and divorced, and his homosexuality was effectively kept under wraps by his agent Henry Willson, who killed a 1955 expose by Confidential Magazine (a popular scandal sheet of the time) that would have outed him.

In 1959's "Pillow Talk," his first film with Day, he plays a decidedly straight playwright who impersonates a wealthy Texan whose disinterest in Day, along with some well-placed stereotypical clues, suggests he's gay. "So here we have a gay man, playing a straight man, pretending to be a gay man — it's like a meta queer turducken," wrote Lester Fabian Brathwaite in an essay on the film on the website NewNowNext.

It was, for some, an in-joke that alluded to Hudson's gay private life. Day and Hudson made two other films, including "Lover Come Back," which also had a gay subtext in which Tony Randall has a bromance with Hudson that borders on something stronger. Their final appearance together was when Hudson, physically ravaged by AIDS, guested on Day's television show in 1995. "I hardly knew him," Day told People in 2015. "He was very sick. But I just brushed that off and I came out and put my arms around him and said, 'Am I glad to see you.' " Hudson died ten weeks later.


Watch the trailer to "Victim"

In the 1950s, the strikingly handsome Dirk Bogarde was the epitome of a British movie star, and toward the end of the decade was on the cusp of Hollywood stardom. It never happened. He was featured in just two films when he went there in the late 1950s, and he vowed never to return when he headed home to England. One reason, his Wiki entry surmises, is it "is possible that Bogarde's refusal to enter into a marriage of convenience was a major reason for his failure to become a star in Hollywood, together with the critical and commercial failure of 'Song Without End,'" (one of his two Hollywood movies, in which he played composer Franz Liszt).

Then, in 1961, Bogarde made a career-altering decision: To play a London lawyer being blackmailed for being gay in the neo-Noir thriller "Victim." The film was groundbreaking for being the first time the word "homosexual" was spoken onscreen in Britain, as well being a strong statement against the laws surrounding homosexuals. At the time, homosexuality was illegal in England, which was legislated in law in the 1885 The Labouchere Amendment. Oscar Wilde was tried under the law, as was Alan Turing. It was overturned in 1967 with the Sexual Offences Act, which made homosexuality legal between consenting adults, and the success of "Victim" is cited as one of the reasons.

Bogarde went on to become an international star in art house films by such directors as Joseph Losey, Luchino Visconti, Alain Resnais, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, often playing gay characters, such as in "Death in Venice." He also went on to become a successful novelist and memoirist. But he stayed in the closet until his death in 1999, even destroying his private letters beforehand. "Bogarde wrote seven volumes of memoirs without once mentioning that he was gay or anything at all about Forwood (his manager with whom he had a long-term relationship). As a matinee idol who's [sic] adoring fans probably could not deal with their favorite actor being queer, Bogarde kept his private life very private," writes the website World of Wonder in their assessment of his career.

In 1961 he was asked in a television interview about taking the risky role in "Victim." "You must feel very strongly about this subject to risk losing possibly a large part of your audience by appearing in such a bitterly controversial film?" He deflected the question's inference, saying: "I don't think so, no. This is a marvelous part and in a film I think is tremendously important because it doesn't pull any punches: it's quite honest. I don't have to use any old tricks for the fans, it's a straightforward character performance," reported The Independent in a story about Bogarde's hidden life in 2011.

Walk on the Wild Side

Watch the trailer to "Walk on the Wild Side"

It can't be said for certain that Barbara Stanwyck was gay, "but there are enough innuendo and speculation about the Golden Age's actress's personal life that it seems pretty likely Stanwyck was at least open to girl-on-girl action," reads a story about Gay Hollywood on the website Medium. "Biographer Axel Madsen says, 'Unearthing the truth about Stanwyck's sexuality would remain impossible,' he continues in saying, 'people would swear she was... Hollywood's biggest closeted lesbian." ' Actor Clifton Webb once called Stanwyck 'My favorite Hollywood lesbian.'"

Late in her career she played a lesbian madam in the potboiler "A House is Not a Home," described in a 1962 review in the New York Times as a "lurid, tawdry, and sleazy melodrama." At the time she was admonished by gossip columnist Louella Parsons for taking the role, to which she said, "What do you want them to do, get a real madam and a real lesbian?"

In the film she is infatuated by a prostitute, played by Capucine. according to the Advocate Capucine said that while making the film, Stanwyck "did not flirt with me, I'm not sure if she even liked me, she was very businesslike. I think at that time, she had a lady friend, and she was not looking for someone else. And being such a big star, so known to everybody in Hollywood, she would have to be very careful." The film's title is better known from Lou Reed's 1972 song with its allusions to Andy Warhol's superstars Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling.

The Boys in the Band

Watch this clip of scenes from the 1970 film "The Boys in the Band"

In 1970, when Hollywood adapted Mart Crowley's groundbreaking off-Broadway play into film, it put the then-unknown director William Friedkin at the helm. Friedkin insisted upon casting the original actors. He told the New York Post some 48 years later: "I told Mart, 'We're not going to cast anybody but them.' " He did, and his film was a surprise box office hit.

History repeated itself some 50 years later when the play made its Broadway debut in a hugely successful production that featured a starry cast of out actors who repeated their roles in a second film version (available on Netflix). The off-Broadway production featured a cast of eight actors, five of them gay (Kenneth Nelson [Michael], Leonard Frey [Harold], Frederick Combs [Donald], Robert La Tourneau (Cowboy), and Keith Prentice [Larry]), and three straight (Cliff Gorman [Emory], Peter White [Alan] and Laurence Luckinbill [Hank]), who were all advised not to do the film. In a sad footnote, the five gay actors died of AIDS-related complications.

The Music Lovers

Ken Russell remains one of the most daring directors of the 1970s, and one of the most reviled. When his film biography of Russian composer Pyotr (Peter) Ilyich Tchaikovsky, "The Music Lovers," premiered in 1970, Pauline Kael scathingly wrote, "Ken Russell seems to have invented a new genre of pornobiography." She later went on to castigate the film in an interview: "You really feel you should drive a stake through the heart of the man who made it. I mean it is so vile. It is so horrible."

Russell's film is a dark fantasia on the composer's life that suggests he sublimated his homosexuality into his music, and few films use a composer's music as effectively as Russell does here (Kael be damned). Composer and conductor Andre Previn (who conducted the music for the film) called it "The best film ever made about a composer." "Russell did something with this biopic about a composer that no one had done to this degree (and rarely at all): He let the music shape and drive the film itself, approaching this project more as if he were directing a musical," wrote critic Ken Hanke when assessing the film when it was shown at the Asheville Film Festival.

What has long made the film worth seeing is its openness about the closeted Tchaikovsky's sexuality, which was a refreshing change from most Hollywood musical biopics. Also daring was the casting of Richard Chamberlain as Tchaikovsky; at this time in his career, Chamberlain was famous for playing Dr. Kildare on television, but was living a closeted life. His casting could be seen as a way for him coming out, though he didn't do so officially until 2003, after being outed in the press in 1989. "I was a gay man in the closet. I was hiding it at that time. I suppose it did flavor what I did in the film because he [Tchaikovsky] was really in agony," Chamberlain said in a Huffington Post report on a 2010 screening of the film in which he appeared with Russell. In an interview with the Telegraph that year Russell said, "The film I'm most proud of is 'The Music Lovers' (1970), which featured the music of Tchaikovsky, because it was a masterpiece. It was the best film I ever made and I wouldn't change it in any way."

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].