Macho, Macho Man
In her 2004 autobiography, ‘Tis Herself, legendary screen actress Maureen O’Hara claims to have been witness to two infamous romantic encounters between Hollywood stars.
She was having lunch with actress Lucille Ball when Lucy first saw her future husband, Cuban musician Desi Arnaz.
And she writes that she had just returned from another lunch when she caught filmmaker John Ford in a major lip lock with “one of the most famous leading men in the picture business.”
Not that that’s a bad thing.
Yep, partner, that’s the John Ford, one the most critically acclaimed of all American directors, the man responsible for such rock ’em-sock ’em classics (albeit with a sensitive side) as The Lost Patrol, The Informer, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, How Green Was My Valley, My Darling Clementine, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Portland’s John Ford. The man celebrated with a statue on the edge of the Old Port District. The man honored here last week with the First Annual John Ford Film Festival.
With his cinematic portrayals of cowboys, Indians, soldiers, sailors, working men and law men, Ford could have been the creative director for The Village People. (If only there’d been a leather man in The Grapes of Wrath.)
Long before Miss O’Hara’s 2004 “outing,” film historians were studying Ford in a gay light. Surely his macho images were the stuff of countless homoerotic fantasies for gay men growing up in the ’40s and ’50s.
A common denominator in many of Ford’s films is the exploration of male-on-male relationships. The 1948 film Fort Apache is one of the best examples of this.
“The relationship between Kirby York (played by John Wayne) and Michael O’Rourke (played by John Agar) is one of many Ford relationships between a mature man and a young, good looking guy,” wrote film commentator Michael E. Grost. “Just before the final attack, York sends O’Rourke off to carry a message. This is York’s attempt to preserve O’Rourke, who he worships. The thought of O’Rourke’s beautiful body being harmed by violence is anathema to York.”
“These relationships are in most ways gay love stories, although Ford never makes this fully explicit,” Grost continued. “They tend to be the heart of Ford films in which they appear. Such connections are a source of hope and growth for the society, even its main chance for survival, if the society will allow such a reaching out to take place and flourish.”
That flourishing may finally be upon us. Gay cowboys will be all the rage later this year with the highly anticipated release of Brokeback Mountain. Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Ang Lee, and starring Hollywood hunk Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback tells the love story of two young men, a ranch-hand and a rodeo cowbow. Yeehaw.
Ford had nicknames like Pappy, Coach and Uncle Jack, and was sometimes credited as Commander or Rear Admiral Ford. There’s a telling camp value to his early films, which include Strong Boy (1929), Bare Fists (1919), Bucking Broadway (1917), Just Pals (1920), The Prince of Avenue A (1920), Ace of the Saddle (1919), The Gun Packer (1919), A Fight for Love (1919), Three Mounted Men (1918), The Craving (1918), The Secret Man (a.k.a. The Round Up, a.k.a. Up Against It) (1917), Straight Shooting (1917), Cheyenne’s Pal (1917), and Wild Women (1918).
Ford’s approach to filmmaking also embodied a certain sense and sensibility gays and lesbians might recognizable. While working on a film, he would go home at night to listen to his favorite classical composers, conjuring up his images while listening to period music.
According to his Hollywood contemporary, scenarist Frank Nugent, Ford “worked something like a painter, selecting his colors and doing a palette – blues, greens, yellows, he lays them all out in his mind.”
Ford’s sensitive side was hardly the image known by the public. He was perceived as a hard-drinking man’s man. His acid temperament was well documented. He is said to have alternately brutalized and coddled John Wayne, molding him into one of cinema’s biggest stars while mocking his walk and making jokes about his manhood behind his back.
“He’s a very cruel man, ” Wayne told Sam Goldwyn, Jr. “Did he tell you I walk like a fairy?”
According to writer Allen Barra, “All his life Ford engaged in vicious, anti-gay remarks, while in person befriending and sometimes employing gays. ‘Doesn’t everyone have a gay cousin?’ he once remarked.”
Ford’s relationship with O’Hara, according to The Hollywood Reporter, was bumpy, to say the least. He once punched her, often spoke badly about her to other directors, and even arranged for her to be arrested at customs when she was returning from a trip to Mexico.
Still, he called her his favorite actress, kept employing her, and wrote her numerous love letters, several of which are printed in her book.
O’Hara theorizes that Ford’s professed love for leading Hollywood actresses, like Katharine Hepburn and herself (she denies she was ever Ford’s girlfriend) and the romances between fictional characters he created in his movies were an attempt to save himself from his repressed homosexuality.
Now, before you get your chaps in a bunch, know that I’m bringing this material forward as an extension of last week’s Ford celebration. Perhaps this would make a good seminar topic at the Second Annual John Ford Film Festival.
And perhaps we should consider a new starting point for next year’s Pride parade: the statue of the man sitting at the intersection of Danforth and York streets.
A semi-retired arts promoter, Richard Lawlor is co-founder of GFPM (Gay Fun In Portland Maine) Enterprises. His column, Citizen Dick, will run biweekly beginning Oct. 10.