White Bear Theatre, London – until 25 November 2017
At one time Billy Haines, the subject of Claudio Macor’s play, The Tailor-Made Man, was as big as Clark Gable, Ramon Novarro and Montgomery Clift (look ’em up if the names mean nothing to you). A clean cut, Hollywood matinee idol, at the advent of talkies, he was feted and adored. But his career was buried, and his films locked away, when the press outed him as being gay. It had been an open secret in the industry but public exposure was too much for right-wing homophobe, his studio boss, Louis B Mayer.
While other gay actors towed the studio line, often being forced to marry to protect their reputations and box office bankability, Haines not only refused to leave his lover, Jimmie Shields, but he also chased anything in trousers that took his fancy. The Kevin Spacey controversy is never far from your mind while watching Macor’s riveting, incisive and tragic play, which opened last night at London’s White Bear Theatre.
To say that this 25th anniversary revival from Eastlake Productions is prescient is an under-statement. It has been 85 years since Haines’ fall from grace and Hollywood is still determinedly and superficially straight.
Today the name Billy Haines means nothing to movie-goers, me included, but his is a fascinating story about the hypocrisy and tawdry double standards behind the glittering facade of the Dream Factory. In the 1920s this handsome and ambitious young buck, winner of a ‘new faces’ contest, was given a contract, groomed and polished, then thrust before the MGM cameras as a rising star.
His good looks made him perfect for heroic and romantic leads. But, off camera, he was unashamedly gay at a time when it was not only illegal but film studios were morally beyond reproach. Any whiff of scandal could cost them millions.
Swept up in the glamour and celebrity, Billy spent the nights doing the social whirl while his reserved and very private boyfriend, Shields, waited at home.
Billy was the life and soul of the parties, publically playing to perfection the studio’s darling while privately cruising notorious pick-up areas and enjoying himself with any number of handsome young men.
Macor’s play, directed with real panache by Bryan Hodgon, follows the rise and fall – and ressurection – of the maverick Haines with the ensemble cast giving outstanding performances throughout.
This play about cinema, and those who were a part of its creation, is wonderfully well observed with some terrific one-liners and appearances by some of its larger-than-life stars.
At its heart Hollyoaks & EastEnders actor, Mitchell Hunt, exudes charisma as the confident, ambitious and determined Haines.
A young Matt Damon with a megawatt smile, Hunt gives a spellbinding turn as the charming and gregarious young actor who is used, abused, but unbroken, by those in a position of power.
And his bold performance contrasts nicely with the more sensitive portrayal of Shields by Tom Berkeley.
Dean Harris roars as Mayer, the former scrap metal merchant and Jewish emigree, who became the most powerful man in Hollywood.
“We must kerb this evil that is poisoning the movies,” he growls. “I will not be sunk by the perversion of my stars.”
Harris, his voice a rasping whisper throughout, is enthralling as Mayer opens his heart, during a rare moment of candour, to talk of the business he built from nothing. Just a man with a dream who built an empire and wasn’t prepared to lose it.
The appalling dishonesty of the profession meant that actors and actresses could sleep around with the opposite sex with impunity, often forcing the overworked studio PR team to cover up abortions, alcoholism and drugs scandals, but homosexuality was banned.
Yvonne Lawlor as Randolph Hearst’s squeeze, actress Marion Davies, and Rachel Knowles, playing Carole Lombard and Pola Negri, sizzle in their fearless and funny turns as the notorious Hollywood divas.
And they look sensational thanks to designer Mike Lees’ painstaking restoration of their gorgeous original 1920s and ’30s frocks.
There is an incredible postscript to Haines’ banishment with the actor making an astonishing comeback – albeit in not quite the way imagined.
Yet a shocking revelation gives the show a profounding poignant conclusion.
The production, overall, is absorbing, exhilarating, outrageously witty, and revelatory. It is also, sadly, a ferocious and astute allegory of the business world at large.
After 100 years of mistakes you would have thought it had grown and matured physically and emotionally.
Unfortunately little has changed and workers are still treated as little more than a commodity to be bought, sold and discarded.