San Fran Bay Times
Bruce Is the Best!
By Jan Wahl
March 4, 2021
He’s often called “a gay icon.” The internet lauds him as a six-time Emmy winner. His appearances on Hollywood Squares and writing for the Academy Award shows are the stuff of comedy legend. To get the details of the work of Bruce Vilanch, find Get Bruce, a 1999 documentary with everyone from Lily Tomlin to Nathan Lane, Whoopi Goldberg, and so many more explaining working with this man who supplies them with comedy, magic, and wit.
After another night with a fundraiser for one of my favorite organizations, the Richmond Ermet Aid Foundation, Bruce and I chatted about showbiz from his unique point of view. We began with a couple of famous actors, both in the closet and both miserable for it. He also told me the kind of movies he enjoys now: “I go for special effects, superhero movies because the guys sleep with me afterward. Go with a Marvel guy and you get laid. There is a whole new generation that worships Britney Spears and Taylor Swift. Who gives a rat’s ass? Britney is a big ol’ Ann Margaret knockoff. Madonna is, all the same, the Judith Anderson of rock and roll.” (See Anderson in Rebecca.)
Of course, we had to get into some recent controversy surrounding one of my favorite movies recently, The Prom. He said, “I saw The Prom on Broadway; it was much sharper. The movie was pitched to a different audience. The edges were shaved a bit.” When I asked about the idea that James Corden, who is straight, should not play a gay character, Bruce replied, “That is anti-art. Liz Taylor should only play someone married seven times? Zachary Quinto is a great Spock. Who knew Spock was gay? You play characters you are not.”
Over the years, Bruce has worked or known everyone (OK, maybe not William Haines or Gable, but close!) “I knew Rock Hudson,” Bruce said. “He was such an unhappy person; he made others unhappy. He was so conflicted, could never be authentic. Paul Lynde was absolutely hateful to people; his career didn’t happen the way it had to his colleagues. Also, he drank. Two drinks and he turned into the Nazi High Command.”
When I worked with Lynde, I had the exact experience. I also agree with Bruce that sometimes meeting stars today is not terrific. “The stars I meet now are submissive or exhausted,” he said. “But it always depends when you meet them. I met Katharine Hepburn and instead of Pat and Mike I got Coco Chanel. [Hepburn played Chanel in the Broadway musical Coco.] Bette Davis was more bitterness than Margo Channing. But Elizabeth Taylor was amazingly funny and all the things I wanted her to be.”
Bruce wrote for Olivia de Havilland. I like to think Olivia and Errol Flynn got between the sheets, or “in the feathers,” as Ava Gardner called it. He didn’t get to that with her, but did ask Alexis Smith (costar in my favorite Flynn flick Gentleman Jim) a similar question. “She didn’t let on, of course. She was a lesbian.”
That led to a few quips on the subject of marriages between gays in Hollywood. At a time when being out of the closet was nearly impossible, Bruce referred to these as “a lavender marriage, twilight tandem, a Boston marriage.” Janet Gaynor and Adrian, Lilyan Tashman and Edmund Lowe, Hudson and Phyllis Gates. There are many examples.
“I had two pugs named Tallulah and Hattie,” Bruce said. “But I think McDaniel’s and Bankhead’s relationship was mythical. I don’t think they were part of the same lesbian underground. It seemed unlikely, but who knows?” Bruce and I both loved the Netflix series Hollywood (“fantasy and reality”) that has sequences with the two women together. For more information on this and other LBGTQ in Hollywood stories, one of my favorite books ever is Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910–1969 by the gifted William Mann.
I am waiting for more to come from Bruce. He is working now, of course, but we always want more from this warm and wonderful man!
Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian, film critic on various broadcast outlets, and has her own YouTube channel series, “Jan Wahl Showbiz.” She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at www.janwahl.com