Closeted gay stage & screen actor
While his pervasive unhappiness may have contributed to his accomplishment as an actor, it adversely affected his personal life. Tormented throughout his career by suppressed homosexuality and self-loathing, Laughton died in Hollywood in 1962, still deeply ashamed of his homosexual longings. He never publicly discussed or declared his homosexuality, except to his wife, Elsa Lanchester, an actress whom he married in 1929.
In addition to acting and directing, he embellished his career by becoming a noted orator and story-teller, giving hundreds of readings in wildly popular one-man shows.
According to Richard Bartone, “To dissipate his loneliness, Laughton sought the companionship of beautiful young men, many of whom began as his masseur or personal assistant. With a few of them, he developed long romantic relationships. He was happy and productive when involved in these affairs, but when certain men parted, work was disrupted and loneliness returned.”
Although Laughton trembled at a possible public scandal, he always brought lovers onto the sets of films to help him relax. Laughton's worst fear materialized while directing Henry Fonda in the play The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1954). Fonda, angry at the play's development and execution, lashed out at Laughton by sneering. "What do you know about men, you fat faggot?"
Although Laughton generally played unsympathetic characters, he did so with passion and imagination. Some of Laughton's internalized homophobia was alleviated in 1960, after he and his wife bought a house in Santa Monica next door to gay writer Christopher Isherwood and his artist companion Don Bachardy. The two couples became close friends, and Isherwood's and Bachardy's gay militancy and pride helped Laughton achieve a degree of acceptance.
Following Laughton's death in 1962, Elsa wrote a book alleging that they never had children because Laughton was homosexual. She claimed that she and Laughton had never had sex, but she had not known Laughton was homosexual when they first married. “Remember,” she once commented. “He was a GREAT actor.”
In any case, it was known that Laughton greatly disliked children. Because of his disdain for them and the fact that he had to work with them while directing the film The Night of the Hunter (1955), most of the scenes with the children were directed by star Robert Mitchum, who had three children of his own. Mitchum stated that Laughton was the best director he had ever worked for. Laughton was severely disappointed by the commercial failure of The Night of the Hunter, which is today regarded by critics as one of the best films of the 1950s. It has been selected by the United States National Film Registry for preservation in the Library of Congress.
Laughton and Lanchester remained a couple, however, and their marriage was considered one of the most touching relationships in Hollywood, in spite of Laughton’s torturous emotional problems and the rumors that Lanchester herself had lesbian tendencies. Perfectly convenient.