One of the biggest “forgotten” stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, William Haines, has edged back into public consciousness due to William J. Mann’s biography “Wisecracker.” That tome now has a short screen spinoff from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, the docu duo whose prior efforts (“Party Monster,” “The Real Ellen Story,” “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) anticipated this one only in the vague overlap of gay/camp/scandalous terrain. Results are not an ideal match, but AMC-produced featurette should whet appetites for revival of Haines’ long-unseen pictures.
Commissioned to fit a 45-minute timeslot, docu expectedly suffers (especially in comparison to Mann’s thorough book) from lack of breathing room. Some simplifications seem inevitable, while others — most notably the recasting of Haines as a martyr to “born again” Hollywood homophobia — are over-rigged to reflect current attitudes rather than Haines’ own milieu. The book finds much less evidential certainty that Haines’ career was sabotaged by Louis B. Mayer solely because the star refused to dump his male lover for a “beard” marriage.
Glossed over here to support the victim scenario are the headaches that Haines’ oft-wild carousing (and lifelong heavy drinking) caused studio PR flaks and legal reps, among other less than flattering characteristics.
Nonetheless, his was a classic Hollywood Cinderella story. The black-sheep progeny of a wealthy Virginia family, Billy fled the manse at an early age to live large — landing smack in tres gay Greenwich Village just as the Roaring ’20s were revving up. (His roommate for a time was one Archibald Leach, later known as Cary Grant.) Haines’ good looks and breezy manner caught a film agent’s eye, which promptly led to passage westward.
Haines hit his screen stride as “Brown of Harvard” (1926), the first of many comedy-dramas in which he played callow, cocksure collegians invariably redeemed in the last reel by a stiff dose of go-getting resolve, the Girl’s love and some healthy humble pie. Combining romantic lead appeal with an all-American delight at deflating pretense (not least his own), Haines was hugely popular, topping numerous exhibitor as well as fan polls through 1930.
Despite that gold-plated record, Haines chafed at his copycat Metro assignments, while the studio fretted over his fluctuating girth, fits of temperament, over-the-top partying and less-than-discreet domestic partnership with Jimmy Shields, a fey ex-sailor he’d met in NYC. (Joan Crawford, befriended by Haines well before she reached stardom, later pronounced the men’s half-century relationship “the happiest marriage in Hollywood.”)
Prudish boss Mayer was no fan, and when Haines’ box office clout appeared to ebb, the mogul reportedly seized the moment to give his contractee an ultimatum: Get a “real” wife and lose the she-male, or else. Haines refused, making his final feature (for a Poverty Row studio) in 1935.
Like his contemporary, “It Girl” Clara Bow, Haines was pegged as a limited talent suitable only for the assembly-line formula pics an effervescent personality could juice with surefire zip. Having already weathered the silents-to-talkies changeover, thesp might easily have found a berth in later 1930s products — Lee Tracy-type roles in screwball comedies or Warner Bros. backstage musicals would have been ideal.
Yet he seems to have suffered little in the demotion to civilian life. Building on an amateur passion, he became the leading “Hollywood Regency” stylist of interior decor for socialites from Carole Lombard to Nancy Reagan.
“Out of the Closet” strains to view its subject as a rebel who lived a truly authentic life. The reality was more complex: Money, privilege and a tacit “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy among A-list cronies (Reagans included) made Haines and other gay stars immune to censure, so long as their proclivities remained private. (Before his 1973 demise, he supposedly voiced disgust at the new phenom of out-and-proud “gay libbers.”) His drunken, promiscuous offscreen escapades (continuing well after Shields moved in) attracted police attention more than once, a fact as likely key to his MGM fall as the potential gay-cohabitation scandal.
One wishes that in “Out of the Closet” more attention had been paid to Haines’ short but heady first career and less to his hindsight “heroism.” Unfortunately, docu’s budget couldn’t accommodate MGM’s costly film library, so clips showing Haines in screen action are in short supply. The few on tap suggest a dashing, self-mocking comic persona worth reassessment.
Decision to deploy actor Christopher Lawford as a middle-aged Haines looking back on life is more distancing than engaging; this arch bitch-quipper comes off like a stock character on AMC’s fiction series “The Lot.” Commentators range from the insightful (biographer Mann, Christina Crawford) to the irrelevant (latter-day gossip Michael Musto). Stockard Channing’s narration sounds like an uninterested rush job.
Lamentably, helmers use wholly inappropriate techno-style music throughout, with scarcely a period tune soundtracked.