Role models of greatness.
Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.
Saturday, June 2, 2012
Silent film star Novarro (right in photo above) as Ben-Hur (1925), his most famous role.
Mexican born Ramón Novarro (1899-1968) was Hollywood’s silent-film Latin superstar. While he was still a teenager his well-off family moved to California to flee the Mexican Revolution, and Novarro immediately found work in films, accepting nine uncredited bit parts. Possessed of a fine voice, he supplemented his income by working as a singing waiter. Novarro then worked in three silent films under his real name, Ramón Samaniego, and at age 22 he appeared in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), a major studio release which starred Rudolph Valentino. Rex Ingram, that film’s director, worked hard to make Ramón a star and suggested that he change his surname to Novarro. By 1922 studio publicity was calling Novarro “the next Valentino.”
Photo below: In The Midshipman (1925) Novarro’s co-star was Joan Crawford.
Then two things happened that changed Novarro’s life forever. Valentino died of a ruptured appendix in 1926, and Novarro appeared in the title role of the critically acclaimed Ben Hur (1925), an epic film that took the country by storm, making Novarro a major star. Ben-Hur, which cost between $4-6 million in the mid-1920s, was the most expensive film ever made, adjusted to today’s dollars. Its original theatrical release lasted for years, and the film was re-released in 1931 with added music and sound effects. Great successes followed with The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) and the talking film Mata Hari (1931), opposite Greta Garbo. He made a successful transition to talking films and played opposite some of Hollywood’s greatest female stars, including Joan Crawford and Myrna Loy.
Novarro, who had appeared in Ben Hur “as naked as the censors would allow”, brought to the screen a delicate masculine body and a boyish eroticism that unsettled many male viewers. Although his screen persona was usually that of "a boy in love," he displayed a certain androgynous quality quite similar to Valentino's. Novarro was less pretentious than Valentino, however, and there was a natural style to his acting that distinguished him from others; critics praised the ease and charm of his performances. By the mid-1920s Ramón Novarro had become the romantic idol of Hollywood silent films, earning $100,000 per film, a fortune at the time.
Here is a clip from Mata Hari, with Novarro helplessly enthralled by Greta Garbo.
Ramón Novarro shows his flirtatious charm in Cat and the Fiddle (1934) with Jeanette MacDonald:
However, Novarro’s homosexuality brewed trouble for his career. MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer demanded that Novarro marry to cover up his true sexual orientation, but Novarro refused. He defiantly shared a home with Herbert Howe, his publicist, enjoying a romance in a house they sold to Joan Crawford. Novarro, a devout Catholic, had difficulties reconciling his sexuality with his deep religious convictions. Along with the pressures and demands of Hollywood, these factors led to the actor’s eventual alcoholism, which ruined his career. When Novarro's contract with MGM Studios expired in 1935, the studio did not renew it.
His next career moves resulted in one failure after another. He pursued a career as an opera singer, planned to reinvent himself as a star of the stage and accepted smaller and smaller film roles in grade B movies. During the last ten years of his life he worked as a guest star on TV episodes. He appeared as a priest on NBC’s western series The High Chaparral the year of his death (see photo at left).
What happened next was a great tragedy. Because Novarro had made wise investments at the peak of his career, he was able to live out his life in a comfortable style, in spite of the collapse of his career. During his last years he lived as a near recluse in his fabulous home, usually drinking until he passed out. For sexual gratification, he set up liaisons through male escort services. In late October, 1968, 70-year-old Novarro was brutally tortured and beaten to death by Paul and Tom Ferguson, two brothers/hustlers who believed that the actor had a large sum of cash in his home. Finding just $20 in the pocket of Novarro’s bathrobe, they left the actor to choke on his own blood. The sordid press coverage of the murder outed Novarro as a homosexual to those who did not already know.
In this clip Novarro sings “The Night Is Young” in a highly-accented tenor voice. Novarro fashioned himself as possessed of a voice capable of an operatic career, an opinion held by no one other than himself. Fortunately, the clip offers a fine series of photographs that play up the actor’s great good looks.
Information for this blog entry was gleaned from writings by André Soares, Peter J. Holliday, Richard C. Bartone and Jesse Monteagudo.