A little while ago I was in the car with my mother and found myself trying to explain to her why Julianne Moore means so much to me. It’s always been something that’s difficult to articulate, the pull many gay men feel towards female performers and the roles they take on. What, exactly, is it about put-upon mothers and women on the verge of nervous breakdowns – both on screen and in real life – that seems to conjure an affinity with queer experience?
The modern concept of the actress as gay icon is generally traced back to Judy Garland, whose iconic role in The Wizard of Oz partially inspired the legendary euphemism ‘friend of Dorothy’. Coming off the back of the social liberation of the 1920s, a decade in which gay men and women gained both greater visibility and a degree of tolerance, Hollywood began to acknowledge the existence of gay men in a way they hadn’t before.
Following the transition to talkies, Hollywood enjoyed a period of relative liberalism before the enforcement of the Hays Code which saw studios’ output held to a strict standard of morality. During this time, known as Pre-Code Hollywood, homosexuality would be openly acknowledged by characters, though often for comedy, as in Lady For a Day (Frank Capra, 1933) in which a gay man is permitted to enter a woman’s bedroom with a gruff, “Oh…Pierre.”
Witness, too, the below excerpt from a scene from Call Her Savage (John Francis Dillon, 1932), which starred little-known icon Clara Bow, set in a gay bar:
The fact that the sharp right turn towards social repression in the 1930s affected both gay man and women, then, is likely no coincidence. When it’s impossible to see yourself on screen, you seek out the next best thing. And at the time, the closest gay men could come were famous women, and the most famous women were, typically, actresses whose job it was to perform at all times. This is something, naturally, that queer people identify very strongly with.
Actresses, with Garland being the most prominent example, also glowed with the lustre of tragedy, a quality in women that often catches the eye of gay men. It was performers like Bette Davis and Marlene Dietrich who took the status of ‘gay icon’ in another direction. Davis’ cold, aloof manner and performance style is endearing in its power – it’s no surprise that her everywoman performances tend not to be her most remembered.
Her famous rivalry with Joan Crawford, famously encapsulated in hagsploitation masterpiece What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962), and the sexual ambiguity afforded by her hardness is further evidence of the way she was able to seem both knowing and unaware of the camp sensibility she exuded. Crawford and Katharine Hepburn similarly bore themselves with a certain masculinity that never really positioned them as starlets in the conventional sense. On the other hand, Dietrich’s fluid sexuality was essentially part of her star persona, her alluring yet mysterious sensuality distilled into code through song, dance and shadows.
There are any number more Golden Age actresses – Elizabeth Taylor, Mae West, Lucille Ball, Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe among them – whose identity as a gay icon is distinctly textured, just as there are many between then and now.
Today, however, the notion of the ‘gay icon’ is becoming increasingly fractious. Status as a ‘gay icon’ is becoming increasingly confused with ‘advocate’ and applied more often to basic pop stars than actual stars. You know the types, your Katy Perrys and your Ariana Grandes. But the contemporary actresses who have or are earning their icon status have done so onscreen more than off.
This brings us back to Julianne Moore, whose diverse career, built on playing powerful, complex and tragic women, epitomises the modern gay icon in a way few other actresses do. There’s a reason Nathaniel Rogers, who runs the film blog The Film Experience, coined the term ‘actressexuality’. The actresses gay men celebrate today – Streep, Kidman, Winslet, Close, Dern, Witherspoon, Chastain, the list goes on and on – embody the term Actress empirically, despite its unfashionability. They’re a different breed of performer. They’re more than mere actors.
The bottom line is that the criteria for what constitutes an Actress is invisible, and in most ways comes down to instinct. And these instincts change – we respond differently to 2008 Amy Adams than we do 2015 Amy Adams. An Oscar is valuable but so are nominations without a win; underdog status can get you very far, just ask Laura Linney. As I said to my mother about Julianne Moore, “There’s just something about her”. And sometimes it’s no more complicated than that.
So naturally gay men’s identification with actresses is heavily subjective, and of course there’s any number who don’t identify with actresses at all (though lord knows what they talk between December and February if not awards season). But for those of us who feel that unique thing, that surge of endorphins as we watch Charlotte Rampling crumple at the centre of 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015), know how it feels when something blasts past appreciation into reverence. It’s spiritual. There are no false idols here.