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Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910-1969 Hardcover – October 15, 2001

4.3 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

If your last piece of golden-era Hollywood gossip is that Greta Garbo and Cecil Beaton kissed at a rooftop party, you need to steep yourself in William J. Mann's social history of gay Hollywood, a treasure trove of fresh anecdotes and observations of a period and place in which homosexuals enjoyed tremendous freedom and influence--within certain obvious limits. In choosing subjects for his study, Mann cast his net widely, hauling in a great number of uncelebrated but essential workers in the "queer" areas of the film industry--mainly costume design and props, but also writing, directing and acting. This is not principally a look at famous figures, in other words, but at a subculture as a whole, in which Dorothy Arzner, George Cukor, and Charles Laughton are just part of larger circles of gay life and work. Certain to become essential to gay film studies, Behind the Scenes provides a rich, accessible history of pre-Stonewall Hollywood. --Regina Marler

From Publishers Weekly

"Come next week if possible. Kathleen giving supper Sunday the 27th. Will ask her to include you and Gary. Want both to occupy one guest room? Answer soon as possible." An insignificant query? Not when you know that it was sent in 1929 to openly gay actor Anderson Lawler, and that "Gary" was none other than beautiful Hollywood newcomer Gary Cooper, Lawler's constant companion. While he doesn't skimp on the details of who was sleeping with whom (Mary Martin and Janet Gaynor; Claudette Colbert and Marlene Dietrich; Cary Grant and costume designer Orry-Kelly), historian and cultural critic Mann (Wisecracker) also delivers an astute and groundbreaking study of the impact of gay and lesbian actors, set designers, writers, costume designers, editors and producers on studio-era Hollywood. Without directly correlating sexual identity and artistic production, Mann applies sharp, original research and interviews to re-create the intricate lives and work of "gay Hollywood," offering a new lens for examining the complicated, sometimes contradictory relationship between sexual activity, identity and work. Treating his subjects with great integrity, he argues that it is inaccurate to label stars like Colbert, Cooper and Grant "gay," because they had a far more fluid sexuality. Yet he makes a cohesive and persuasive argument for how their varied sexualities transformed Hollywood and the movies. Mann also covers a wide range of ancillary topics e.g., the history and aesthetics of set design; the rise of Los Angeles's "pansy clubs"; and the special role of Jews (who were more likely than gentiles to be open about their sexuality). This intelligent and accessible study marks a major step for gay, gender and film studies. Agent, Malaga Baldi. (On-sale Oct. 15)

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1st edition (October 15, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670030171
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670030170
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #285,082 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If Neal Gabler's "An Empire of Their Own" dealt with "How the Jews Invented Hollywood," then William Mann's "Behind the Screen" could be also be called "How Gays and Lesbians made Hollywood!" Mann's book is a serious chronological of the golden age and the people who created it; they just happened to be gay. A very informative book, research extensive, it covers new territory with wit and style dealing with something new in Hollywood history; it is an excellent read. Mann's interviews are astute with survivors of this golden age, a history of a Hollywood movie gay life, that was both creative and glamorous, never to be seen again. It covers the totality of a gay experience in studio era Hollywood and Mann has captured the influence of these men and women behind the screen. Not just movie stars, the book deals with gay directors, that reads like a who's who of Hollywood's creative best, along with the gay set and costume designers who gave Hollywood a look and influenced the taste of the entire world. The material is rich and covers gay producers, character actors, writers, cameramen, agents, executives, etc. It is all enthralling and provides a long needed important volume in Hollywood history. It also chronicles gays who played a part in union organizations, at a time when the studio bosses only concern was profit and greed, along with mentioning their meritorious service during World War II. It makes such contemporary military follies as "don't ask, don't tell," an insult to the memory of these valliant Americans. It is greatly recommended to anyone interested in the movies and how people with great taste and style, something so lacking today, influenced an entire period of our culture.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book does an admirable job of documenting gay Hollywood. Not just the stars, but the directors, clothing designers, set decorators, etc. The shifting climate for gays in Hollywood is documented along with its apparent impact on gay people working in the industry. The one drawback is the muddled summation of what it all means---the author takes a romanticized, separatist view, in which the more closted eras in Hollywood are seen as building community and doing more for gay identity. I rather doubt that people who lived through that would feel the same way and his own research seems to contradict this analysis. Not a book for those looking for fresh gossip or innuendo, but entertaining, as well informative and well-documented, nonetheless.
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Format: Hardcover
I believe that I have read all of William J. Mann's published works and really enjoyed them. So it was with great expectation that I approached his new work "Behind the Screen". Sadly, I left the book disappointed and somewhat confused.
Mann's attempt to write a comprehensive history of gay Hollywood was admirable, but somehow, he's gotten in the way of his own work. One of my problems with the book is the way in which it was written. As you read any biography, there is a risk of proposing too many names for the reader to handle. Right in the first chapter, as he explains early gay stars, we are innundated with so many names that it is virtually impossible to keep track of anyone after awhile. Talking about people is very important to a biography, but when the reader has little to no knowledge or connection with the names, they merely blend together in a confusing mass of lexiographic confusion. I'd hope it would improve, but sadly, found each successive page more frustating than the last, and I failed to get through chapter three.
However, I found a somewhat easier way to read the book. I began looking up celebrities I wanted info on, and just reading those sections. He still manages to litter each page with an abundance of names, but because you may know the celebrity, there is something more to hook into.
Mann has an ability to write books that are amazing. Just read "Wisecracker" and "The Biograph Girl", both which celebrate early morning lore. Maybe he should try to concentrate on writing more about individual celebrities than a sweeping work that leaves us confused and frustrated.
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Format: Hardcover
I found this book sort of a difficult read. I can usually zip through a book very quickly, but I found myself hanging on every other sentence. The author seemed to cram almost too much meaningful information into every paragraph.
From start to finish, this book chronicled the influence of a somewhat externally closeted gay Hollywood community on the total output of work from the film industry. This wasn't all that much of a revelation to me. On one level or another a lot of film historians and movie hounds have always pretty much assumed that fact.
My biggest problem with this book was that it really was two or three separate books crammed under one title. It was almost too much to absorb on the first take. I kept re-reading chapters to make the connections complete. If I had been the editor working on this book I would have divided this book by decades and gone with at least two separate volumes and had it fleshed out with additional supporting information.
I recommend this book as an insightful study of the gay Hollywood film community and their contributions to the motion picture industry. I also caution most potential readers that this book will not be necessarily a quick take. You will miss a lot unless you proceed with caution. It is a lot like a runaway train moving at a very fast speed.
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