Magazine article The Spectator

Design for Living

Magazine article The Spectator

Design for Living

Article excerpt

One of the most intriguing tales from Hollywood Babylon, the underworld of movie-star sexuality through the century, has always been that of William Haines, the silent-screen star of a dozen Twenties hits who successfully survived even the coming of the talkies. Then, however, he was caught in bed with a sailor in a downtown Los Angeles YMCA, whereupon all studios blacklisted him and even destroyed prints of his films.

Undeterred, Haines became Hollywood's first star interior decorator, transferring what he had learnt on movie sets of carpets and curtains to the homes of the stars who succeeded him; this second career lasted 30 years and was crowned in 1960 by the invitation to decorate the American Ambassador's home in Regent's Park, where some of his work can still be seen. He died in 1973 aged 73; precisely a year later his lover of 50 California summers, Jimmy Shields, committed suicide on the grounds that life without Bill was no life at all.

It's a good story, not only for what it tells of the birth of the interior-decorating trade in America but also for its awful Hollywood warning to gays. Had Haines not been blacklisted, stars from Cary Grant through James Dean and Montgomery Clift to Rock Hudson might have been able to lead sexual lives of less terror and secrecy and suppression and confusion.

Unfortunately, The Tailor-Made Man, a play written and directed by Claudio Macor at the Cockpit in Marylebone, only goes skin-deep into the affair, offering ludicrous cameos of Louis B. Mayer and such Haines supporters and early clients as Carole Lombard and Marion Davies. Only when the script turns to simple historical narrative is there any real dramatic interest, though James Innes Smith (as Haines) and Adrian Sharp (as Shields) do have the right period looks; but the script never even manages to connect what Haines had seen of film-set decor with his own later designs for living.

The Pulitzer Prize for playwriting has always been thoroughly erratic, but Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles won seven other major playwriting awards in 1989 including the Tony, and now that we finally have it at Greenwich the mystery remains unsolved: 1989 must have been an unusually terrible year for other new American plays.

The pattern here is one vastly better achieved by such near-contemporary films as The Way We Were, Beaches and Rich and Famous - take a young woman of the 1960s, follow her through into the 1980s and let's see what happens to her and her nation along the way. …

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