Alan Ladd in "The Blue Dahlia"
Art, Music, Books & Film

Coming Up Short

In Rebel without a Cause, Sal Mineo—who at 5’ 8” was as short as I am—keeps a photograph of film noir’s glacial tough-guy Alan Ladd in his locker. Critics say it is one of several subtle pointers to the homoerotic sub-text of the film. I would have thought that keeping a picture of another guy in your locker—any guy except maybe a brother who’s a solider in a war zone—is anything but subtle and pretty much seals your reputation for the rest of your high school years. It certainly would have at my high school. Maybe things were different in the 1950s. But I still wonder why Ladd? Why Ladd when there was such beefcake alternatives such as Sterling Hayden and Jeffrey Hunter around?

True, Ladd was popular at the time. The actor had just starred in the Western Shane, one of the highest grossing films of the period and one of Ladd’s best roles. The year before Rebel was shot, Modern Screen magazine had given Ladd and Barbara Stanwyck their Star of Stars Award as their reader’s most popular actors of the decade.

But even still, Ladd, who once described himself as a man with “the face of an aging choirboy and the build of an undernourished featherweight,” was an odd idol for a teenage boy attracted to guys. At 5’ 6” he was even shorter than Mineo. He was called “Tiny” in school. Even when he started swimming and diving in high school, apparently getting good enough to become West Coast diving champion, Ladd stayed skinny and the nickname stuck. Ladd’s leanness was not the spare and sinewy compactness of a boxer or dancer but the ethereal slenderness of the ‘cold angel’ a critic once called him. All in all, not your typical pin-up guy.

I wonder sometimes whether the choice of the pin-up photo was an even more abstruse comment on Mineo’s character that played on Ladd’s deeply closeted homosexuality. A screenwriter’s insider joke that only the similarly closeted Hollywood writers and actors who were often with Ladd at George Cukor’s Sunday afternoon pool parties would know.

Ladd was a fighter and survivor in many ways, except for the one that may have the most difference. He grew up with an alcoholic mother (who later committed suicide by ingesting ant poison that Ladd at her request had bought), in poor enough circumstances to oblige him to work picking fruit and delivering newspapers, which may explain in part why he finished school two years later than his classmates.

‘Tiny’ isn’t the worst of nicknames but I imagine it was miserable enough as monikers go. But Ladd seems to have had a highly ironic and self-deprecating sense of humor. He called the hamburger stand he opened to make some money while trying to work his way into the movie business “Tiny’s Patio”. When he was told he wasn’t likely to get into pictures because of his height, he got jobs as a grip. He worked in radio, where it didn’t matter how tall or short you were. His break finally came when talent scout (and future wife) Sue Carol arranged for some bit parts in movies and eventually landed him a screen test for This Gun for Hire, where he made his mark as the disturbed but principled killer Raven.

To a naïve viewer, Ladd’s short stature isn’t immediately apparent. His co-star for his three classic noir films, Veronica Lang, was even shorter than he was. Once you know it, however, you start seeing the concessions directors made to Ladd’s height. You know that when Ladd stops on his way up the staircase, he’ll do it one step higher than the cop or crook he turns to talk to. You can’t hide being short all the time. But he made pictures, more than 50 of them, and at the peak of his fame, around the time Rebel was filmed, he was among the top five box-office draws.

Ladd was found dead in January 1964 from a lethal combination of alcohol and sedatives. Most accounts claim it was accidental, though Ladd had attempted suicide just two years and was reportedly depressed, presumably because of the break-up of an affair with June Allyson.

William Mann, in his Lambda award-winning biography of William Haines, the courageous actor of the silent screen who was blacklisted for refusing to choose a sham marriage over continuing his relationship with his male lover, has a different story to tell. In his Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s first Openly Gay Star, Mann reports that like Haines—and Somerset Maugham and Cary Grant’s secretary Frank Horn—Ladd was part of the inner circle of Hollywood’s (mostly closeted) homosexual men that would gather at George Cukor’s home.

Ladd’s death could well have been an accident, and his depression a result of neurochemical imbalance and the chronic insomnia he suffered from. But it may just as well have had something to do with the cost of concealing his sexuality. I wonder at times how differently the story would have turned out if, like his shortness, his attraction to men was something he could not conceal. Something he would have had to come to terms with.

I’m not naïve. I know it would have been a much more difficult struggle, and the names he would have been called in high school much more hurtful than “Tiny”. Kids don’t get thrown out of their houses by their parents or beaten up by their peers for being short. Short teenagers are not four times more likely to attempt suicide than their tall classmates. Still, I like to think that with his scrappiness, ingenuity and perseverance Ladd could have dealt with the intolerance and harassment. He almost certainly wouldn’t have had the career he did, but he may have eventually had the kind of satisfying life-affirming relationship that Haines had had with his lover of fifty years.

In a twist of fate, Mineo, who would later come out as a gay man, would have wound up acting with Ladd, had the latter not turned down the offer to play the part of Jeff Rink in Giant. It’s hard not to speculate what might have happened if they had. The part eventually went to James Dean.

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Image: Alan Ladd in “The Blue Dahlia”

Discussion

3 responses to ‘Coming Up Short

  1. Nicholas Ray most likely used Alan Ladd’s photo (in Sal Mineo’s locker) because blonde tough guy Ladd served as an older version of James Dean (the film’s star, who Mineo’s character takes on as a surrogate father figure).

    As to Mann’s book … it attempts to smear many classic Hollywood stars as “gay” (including many who were known to be very hetero).

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    • The way Plato looks at Jim is anything but filial; there’s an indisputable longing in his gaze. Indeed, for the mansion scene, Dean reportedly told Mineo “look at me the way I look at Natalie.” Granted, the scene can be interpreted as an image of an alternative family, with Plato falling asleep at the couple’s feet. But note Plato’s reaction when he wakes up. In fact, Mineo later said his role at Plato was the first portrayal of a gay teenager on film. See Sam Kashner’s feature article on the film in Vanity Fair. For me the homoerotic undercurrent of the film is hard to miss. Given the confines of the Hays Code this subtext was probably as explicit as Ray could get.

      I hope your use of the word ‘smear’ (to say bad or damaging things about a person with the intent to hurt their reputation) was an oversight, and not intentionally offensive. Mann’s book and others, too (notably The Celluloid Closet, which also discusses Cukor’s gay parties) are an attempt to reclaim the gay identity of actors who felt obliged in the virulently homophobic climate of Hollywood at the time to conceal their sexuality.

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