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Film Actors: Lesbian  
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From the days of silent films through the present, lesbian actresses have played a significant role in Hollywood--both in the movies themselves and outside of them--but their contributions have rarely been recognized or spoken of openly.

While female bisexuality and homosexuality are gradually becoming more acceptable in the film world--and sexual identity more of a pressing issue--many actresses still fear that openness will damage their careers. The "lavender marriage," a term coined to describe nuptials between gay male and lesbian stars for reasons of career insurance and social approval, is by no means only a relic of the past.

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Early Films and the Advent of the Hays Code

The private lives of early film stars Alla Nazimova, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Tallulah Bankhead have long been fodder for public speculation and gossip. Many actresses of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were part of what were then termed in gay argot "sewing circles," a phrase allegedly coined by Nazimova to describe discreet gatherings of lesbians in Hollywood. Unable to be open about their sexuality, these women--with varying degrees of secrecy--nevertheless formed romantic and sexual relationships with each other.

The bisexuality of Nazimova, a Russian stage actress who moved to New York City shortly after the turn of the twentieth century to pursue a career in acting, was fairly well-known in the film community, despite her long-term involvement with (gay) actor Charles Bryant. In 1918, she moved to Hollywood, where she bought a large Spanish-style house that would later become the Garden of Allah, a hotel and apartment house where a number of Hollywood luminaries would live.

In the 1920s, Nazimova became one of the most popular movie stars in America. Her film career began with the silent film War Brides (1916) and continued through such movies as Camille (1921) and culminated in The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1944). For a while she was Metro's highest paid actress and later formed her own motion picture company, which produced a famous (but financially disastrous) all-gay film version of Oscar Wilde's Salomé (1922), the failure of which effectively eroded her status as a Hollywood power broker.

Nazimova's lesbian relationships with writer and lover of female celebrities Mercedes de Acosta, stage actress Eva Le Gallienne, butch film director Dorothy Arzner, and Oscar Wilde's lesbian niece Dolly, earned her a reputation as something of a ladykiller.

But her film career finally dried up, not only because of the spectacular failure of Salomé, but also because of the formation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in 1922, which was to institute the infamous Motion Picture Production Code in 1929, and the rise of the studio system.

The Code--also known as the Hays Code after the man who drafted it, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and Postmaster General Will H. Hays--was a major boon to advocates of censorship. It decreed that there would be no "immorality" or "impropriety" on screen--only chaste kisses and heterosexual characters.

Worse, the Code was applied to actors' private lives; and drug use, adultery, sexual promiscuity, and especially homosexuality were grounds for blacklisting. The consolidation of the movie industry into a few powerful studios rendered gay and lesbian actors particularly vulnerable.

The name Alla Nazimova, with its lesbian connotations, became known as "unsafe" in Hollywood. In an increasingly repressive climate, many lesbian actresses retreated ever more deeply into the closet, dating or even marrying men in order to appear heterosexual.

Yet several actresses in the decades to follow--such as the openly bisexual seductress Marlene Dietrich and the irrepressible Tallulah Bankhead--appeared unconcerned about the gossip surrounding their sexuality. They seemed even to encourage it.

Golden Age Actresses

The underground network of lesbians and bisexual women in the film industry during Hollywood's golden age illustrates how many upper-class lesbians adapted to the restrictions imposed on them. Unlike working-class lesbians, whose socializing largely took place in bars and who had less glamorous careers to lose, Hollywood lesbians tended to socialize at private parties, where they could safeguard their "secret" lives. Absentee or gay husbands made it easy for these women to meet regularly.

Nazimova hosted many a soiree at her home. Salka Viertel, a lesbian screenwriter, also threw notable parties. She is rumored to have been the only person with whom Greta Garbo discussed Marlene Dietrich.

(If legendary screen sirens Garbo and Dietrich had been involved romantically with each other, they were tight-lipped about it to the very end. In fact, throughout their careers, the two women publicly denied having ever met. But according to Diana McLellan, the two appeared together in the silent film The Joyless Street [1925] and enjoyed a brief affair.)

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Bisexual actress Alla Nazimova in Marionettes (1911). Nazimova was both a successful actress and Hollywood power broker until her company released an all-gay film version of Oscar Wilde's Salomé (1922), a financially ruinous project.
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