Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Hollywood and the changing face of modern morality

Values change over time and it is considered a greater crime today to cover up an offence, or misdemeanour, than to commit it. Yet covering up, when something went wrong or didn't look good, was once considered the best course of action.

Take Hollywood: when the great moguls were in charge — Louis B Mayer, Sam Goldwyn, Jack Warner — they ‘fixed’ everything.

If a star got into a brawl, the studios hired their best lawyer to get him off the hook. Alcoholism was often covered up, until the star died from it, such as Alan Ladd.

Pregnancy could be a big problem, as studios didn't like their actresses pregnant. Joan Crawford had numerous abortions.

One of the saddest cover-ups was the case of Loretta Young, a big star in the 1940s. She gave birth to a baby, fathered by Clark Gable — hiding her pregnancy and disappearing abroad. She left the baby in an orphanage.

But while studios conformed, outwardly, to a morality code, life was seldom moral. Ronald Reagan's autobiography claims promiscuity was so rife “among hopeful starlets” that his studio had an on-site abortion clinic “to deal with the consequences”.

But the studio bosses did not tolerate out-of-wedlock pregnancy, or sometimes any pregnancy. Reagan's first wife, Jane Wyman, chose to adopt rather than have a second pregnancy, which would have ruined her career.

Marilyn Monroe's most recent biographer claimed that she had 13 abortions. When she longed for a baby, subsequently, she suffered repeated miscarriages.

Hollywood couldn't accept unmarried parenthood, but divorce was fine. Most great stars were multi-married and multi-divorced.

Cyd Charisse was considered extraordinary to be married to the same man — singer Tony Martin — for 60 years, until her death.

Race was a tricky issue and Mexican and black actors had tough experiences until at least the 1960s. Lena Horne, a beautiful black singer and actress, was denied many leading roles because of her race — she was suggested for the musical Show Boat, but Ava Gardner got it because Hollywood decided audiences would not accept an African-American.

Sammy Davis Jnr had a big romance with Kim Novak, which was broken up by the studio bosses, while Merle Oberon, of Anglo-Indian origin, had to pretend her Indian mother was her maid. Kirk Douglas (95) is a courageous man, and insisted on giving the former communist writer Dalton Trumbo a credit on the movie of Spartacus, although Trumbo had been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Many things have changed in Hollywood, as elsewhere: unwed parenthood is no longer stigmatised, black or Latino actors no longer face prejudice and there is at least an aspiration to honesty.

The revelation that Rock Hudson was gay — he died of Aids — made showbusiness more open about homosexuality and many performers today no longer conceal their orientation.

Yet, Hollywood still won't allow a megastar who is openly gay. Kevin Spacey says that a big box-office film actor has to portray a fantasy and that fantasy cannot be undermined by too much real life.

Which is certainly a fair representation of Hollywood's philosophy: fantasy — and box office.

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