July 1, 1899 – Charles Laughton:
“I have a face like the behind of an elephant.”
An all-around genius, Laughton was a talented actor of stage and film, a screenwriter, a producer, and a director.
From a wealthy strict Roman Catholic family in England that planted the seeds for the torment and guilt he lived with because of his queerness. His great love was Theatre, and after his father died, he left the family business behind and took up acting. He trained in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and found success by the time he was 25 years old. Laughton enjoyed careers on stage and in films simultaneously in London, New York, and Hollywood. Laughton loved the USA and became a naturalized citizen in 1950.
He created a career as one of the best character actors. A leading man he was not. He probably used his deep melancholy for his acting, but he suffered throughout his career, suppressing his gayness and drowning in self-loathing.
Laughton’s final credits rolled in Hollywood in 1962, still deeply ashamed of his queerness. He never publicly discussed or declared that he was, except to his wife, Elsa Lanchester, an actor who was his equal. They met when they were both cast in a play, and they were together in life and art until he was gone.
In the film The Private Life Of King Henry VIII (1933), he starred as the King opposite Lanchester as Anne of Cleves. For this performance, he won an Academy Award for Best Actor, and the movie won Best Picture.
He excelled at playing crazies, monsters, and royalty. He was an eccentric, outlandish Captain Bligh in Mutiny On The Bounty (1935), and the lead in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939), a role Laughton was reluctant to take. Having long loathed how he looked, the character of Quasimodo was perhaps a little too on the mark, but it became his most celebrated performance.
He loved to work, acting, directing, and storytelling, doing hundreds of popular solo shows, where people paid money to just sit and listen to him read the works of Charles Dickens, The Bible, or Lincoln‘s Gettysburg Address.
Laughton hired hot guys as masseurs or personal assistants, and on occasion they would become long-lasting romantic relationships. He was happy and productive during these affairs, but when they were over, he became unable to work and would fall into despair. His first meaningful relationship with a guy was with David Roberts, a handsome young actor whom Laughton met in 1941. Their relationship lasted until 1950, when Laughton was performing in The Cherry Orchard in England. Roberts remained friends with Laughton after the affair ended. He was even a pallbearer at Laughton’s funeral.
Most of the people that Laughton worked with knew he was gay, cast and crews were polite, it was never a big deal on set or stage. But Laughton felt that being gay made him vulnerable. On the Mutiny On The Bounty set, Clark Gable‘s homophobia made things so strained on set, producer Irving Thalberg had to step in and set things straight, so to speak.
Laughton often played unsympathetic characters, and he took them on with intensity and imagination.
The great gay filmmaker, James Whale, a fellow Brit, enjoyed working in Hollywood, with a lucrative long-term contract. In her memoir, Lanchester, who worked with Whale in Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) writes that the self-loathing Laughton shared her opinion of that Whale was a great director, but that he was a snob. Lanchester: “Jimmy Whale said, ‘You will love it here in Hollywood, Charles. I’m pouring the gold through my hair and enjoying every minute of it!’. Charles was horrified by that. But Jimmy did love money. He came from a poverty-stricken family.”
Always anxious about scandal, he still brought his men to film sets to help him relax. Laughton’s worst fear was realized while directing the Broadway production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1954). The star, Henry Fonda, was pissed about the play’s progress and sneering at Laughton, snapped: “What do you know about men, you fat faggot?”
Finally, Laughton’s internalized homophobia eased up in the early 1960s, when he and his wife bought a house in Santa Monica next door to the great gay writer Christopher Isherwood and his partner, artist Don Bachardy. The two couples became the best of friends, and Isherwood’s and Bachardy’s gay openness and dignity helped Laughton find some self-acceptance.
Long after Laughton’s death, Lanchester published Elsa Lanchester Herself (1983), a memoir where she writes that the couple never had children because Laughton was gay. She claimed that she and Laughton had never had sex, but she had no idea that he might be queer when they got married, saying: “Remember, he was a GREAT actor.” Laughton’s good friend and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame co-star Maureen O’Hara denied this, and claimed that Laughton had told her that the reason he and his wife never had children was because of a botched abortion that Lanchester had early in her career when she was working in Burlesque. In Charles Laughton: An Intimate Biography (1976), biographer Charles Higham writes that the reason they did not have children was that she did not want any.
It worked out because Laughton famously disliked children. While directing the film The Night Of The Hunter (1955), most of the scenes with the kids were directed by the film’s star, Robert Mitchum, who had three children. Mitchum stated that Laughton was the best director he had ever worked with. The Night Of The Hunter is Laughton’s only film as a director. He was discouraged by its commercial failure and never went back to being behind the camera. In my humble opinion, it is a masterpiece. Today it’s rightly considered by critics and film historians as one of the Best Films of the 1950s.
Laughton’s and Lanchester’s unconventional marriage is considered one of the most touching relationships in Hollywood, despite Laughton’s emotional problems, and it seems that Lanchester had her own same-sex liaisons on the side. How comfortable and convenient. Late in life, Laughton told his wife that he craved spending time with Isherwood and Bachardy because they were of his “own kind”.
Among Laughton’s best film performances are in The Barretts Of Wimpole Street (1934), as the malevolent father of Norma Shearer‘s character, although Laughton was only three years older than Shearer; Ruggles Of Red Gap (1935) as a very English butler in 1990s USA; the title role in Rembrandt (1936); Jamaica Inn (1939), where he is shipwrecked with O’Hara and Robert Newton, and as megalomaniac press tycoon in The Big Clock (1948). I am a fan of his comic turn as a doomed dead man in The Canterville Ghost (1944) based on a short story by Oscar Wilde.
Both Laughton and Lanchester received Academy Award nominations for their performances in Witness For The Prosecution (1957), Laughton for Best Actor, and Lanchester for Best Supporting Actress, but neither went home with an Oscar that night.
In 1951, Laughton and the closeted Paul Gregory produced a concert reading tour of Don Juan In Hell, Act Four of George Bernard Shaw‘s Man And Superman, which is not part of the DC comic universe. Laughton directed and played the Devil, with Charles Boyer, Cedric Hardwicke, and Agnes Moorehead in the cast. After it was a sold-out success, Laughton and Gregory booked a reading tour of John Brown’s Body (1953), adapted by Laughton from Stephen Vincent Benet‘s poem. In the company were Tyrone Power, Judith Anderson, and Raymond Massey, all of them playing multiple roles directed by Laughton.
In 1959, Laughton met Bruce Ashe (real name Terry Jenkins), a model/actor, and fell in love. Their relationship lasted until July 1962, when Laughton had surgery for the collapse of a vertebra that was revealed to be cancer of the spine. He died at home five months later. Isherwood wrote to Ashe in New York City that Laughton was in a coma, and saying that things had become messy, suggesting that Ashe stay away from the funeral, which he did. Laughton is now at Forest Lawn Memorial Park-Hollywood Hills. You can visit him there; I have.
Daniel Day-Lewis, who knows something about acting, said of Laughton:
“He was probably the greatest film actor who came from that period of time. He had something quite remarkable. His generosity as an actor, he fed himself into that work. As an actor, you cannot take your eyes off him.”