by Tim Miller
For many months in 1997, William J. Mann's debut novel, The Men From the Boys, topped the gay best-seller lists. Inspiring legions of readers who had felt "left out" of gay lit-gay men of that sandwich generation between the Boom and the X, struggling with the promise gay liberation was supposed to bring-the novel painted an engaging, sexy slice of gay life at the end of the last millennium. It was a world familiar to many but one that had not often been chronicled: the world of open relationships, longterm commitments, circuit parties, tricking, safe-sex negotiations and the evolution of relationships-in an era both beautiful and fleeting, before the Rise of Protease. That was the key to the book's success: documenting a world of a particular time and place.
With The Biograph Girl, Mann has done it again, only this time there are many worlds in his ouevre. Influenced, perhaps, by his second book, 1998's Wisecracker, the biography of gay actor William Haines, he has set his new novel in Hollywood, both then and now, for an unsparing look at fame, fortune and the pursuit of dreams. He evokes Tinseltown at both the dawn of the twentieth century, when it was just coalescing into the shaper of the world's imagination, and Hollywood today, when the dreams it inspires have often turned lethal. And once again he casts a sharp and knowing eye on gay life-post-protease and The Men From the Boys-when the life-and-death struggle is not nearly so stark, but even more complex.
His star this time is a 107-year-old actress, Flo Bridgewood-who, as Florence Lawrence, was the world's first movie star back in 1908. An actual historical character, Flo in reality committed suicide in 1938 by drinking a poisoned cocktail of ant paste. But Mann has imagined that she somehow survived-just how she did so is the book's central mystery-only to turn up in a Catholic rest home in New York in 1998. Discovered by a gay man (of course) Flo is brought back to a new kind of fame.
TM: Okay. So where did this come from? Isn't Flo a bit of a leap from Jeff O'Brien, the angst-ridden Boston gay boy of The Men From the Boys?
WJM: I guess she is. Partly I wanted to write something as far afield from my own life as possible. Everybody assumed Jeff was me and I was Jeff, and while there were similarities, he was a fictional character. By getting inside the mind of Flo, a 107-year-old straight woman, I was pushing myself as a writer. And I loved it.
TM: Well, she's a wonderful character. The cigarettes, the scarlet nails, the sass. No Norma Desmond here.
WJM: That was important. I didn't want to write Flo as some crazy forgotten star, Baby Jane in a rest home. The whole point of the book is that the illusion of Hollywood is very different from the reality. Those who can't separate the two are in for trouble. Flo is a very wise lady, and saw that separation, although almost too late.
TM: Why use a real historical figure? Why not simply invent a character?
WJM: I had always been fascinated by Florence Lawrence. I guess I have a habit of finding these obscure figures in Hollywood history and trying to resurrect them, like I did with William Haines. I always felt Flo got a bit of a raw deal from historians, who mention her only in a footnote usually before going on to Mary Pickford and the rest. Yet she was the very first movie star of all time, the very first who had her name revealed to the public and the first to have a huge publicity campaign set up around her. I have her say in the book several times, as she looks around at the paparazzi and the media circus: "I'm the one who started all this." And it's true, she did.
TM: So by using her, someone who really has a place in Hollywood history, you were able to comment more precisely on the nature of fame and celebrity.
WJM: I suppose that's true. Because if people knew Florence Lawrence at all, they knew her as the forgotten star who killed herself with ant poison. She was huge, the first of them all, and ended up doing walk-ons. By saving her from that fate and imagining that she escaped to find a real and fulfilling life, I was making some comment on Hollywood's values.
TM: Hmmm. Then are you indicting Hollywood and the culture of celebrity? You seem to also have a great love for it.
WJM: I do. And while I guess I am indicting it in a way, I'm also celebrating it. Hollywood is both a killer and a creator. It's made beauty and it's made tragic messes of people's lives. There's always been that real dichotomy in Hollywood. In the book, I have Roddy McDowall, who I use as a character, say that Hollywood is really myth and magic and ghosts and illusions, and that such things can actually be as real as anything else. It's only by understanding the reality of the myth, however, that you can grasp the truth.
TM: You use a lot of real-life people as characters in the book. Oprah, Rosie O'Donnell, John Waters, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable...
WJM: Yes, they kind of do cameos. You can't write about Hollywood and celebrity without referencing real people.
TM: Earlier you called Flo a straight woman. But she's got a bit of a lesbian streak. You even have a producer in the book tell the guys who want to make a movie of her life to cut out any lesbian stuff, that they're not making Fried Green Tomatoes here.
WJM: Exactly. It's just what a Hollywood producer would say. Yes, Flo definitely falls in love with Linda Arvidson in the book, which was a total invention on my part. I wrote her as an independent woman in a man's world who didn't like the rules she was handed. So falling in love with Linda actually was the first time she defied what was expected of her, and it gave her the first insight into the difference between the "applause" of fame and the real love that she so very much wanted in her life.
TM: The Biograph Girl is certainly not a "gay book" in the way The Men From the Boys was, and yet it certainly seems queer.
WJM: My original publisher actually said it wasn't gay enough. I replied that we've got five principals, two of whom are gay, plus several supporting characters. And besides, the title character is an old movie actress who wears caftans and smokes cigarettes in long holders and loves to scandalize people with dirty talk. She's an honorary gay man. Practically a drag queen. But if you're looking for sex at the piers and rest stops-which was all through The Men From the Boys-you won't find it here. Sorry. Maybe next book.
TM: It's odd, isn't it, that a publisher would say a book wasn't "gay enough"? Isn't it usually the opposite, that it's "too gay"?
WJM: Well, I think they looked at the numbers for The Men From the Boys, which were very good-and because of the book's content, largely all gay, they thought, 'Well, we can get these numbers again if he writes a book just like this one.' In a way, I can understand their reluctance. But my new publisher is being very smart, marketing the book to both the gay market and to mass-market readers. I doubt very many straight women in middle America could really get into The Men From the Boys. But they can The Biograph Girl.
TM: The two main gay characters, Richard and Rex, are lovers. They discover Flo, and she actually helps crystallize for them some pretty significant issues in their relationship.
WJM: Yes. Rex has AIDS, and a few years ago, like so many, he almost died. But the new drugs brought him back, and now he and Richard are struggling with a whole new set of issues. Rex develops the hump on his back, puts on some weight, and Richard freaks, thinking the drugs are failing. He can't imagine going through the pain again that he felt when Rex nearly died. I think, in fact, this is one of the first times these issues have been dealt with in fiction. It's very timely.
TM: Is writing about AIDS important to you? It was a major theme in your first novel.
WJM: It is. My best friend and mentor, who died just as the new drugs were coming in, taught me that as writers, gay writers, we have an obligation to chronicle the plague. it's not fashionable anymore in some ways. I'm not surprised that Richard and Rex are the first couple in fiction to tackle the new issues of AIDS. It's just not being written about anymore. Maybe people just needed a breather. But I had one reader who looked at an early draft of The Biograph Girl and asked if I really needed to make Rex HIV-positive, if it wouldn't be nice to have a gay couple with no fear of ADS hanging over their heads. But almost as soon as the question was out, he realized for himself that such a reaction simply showed why it was really important to have Rex have AIDS, and to be dealing with these new issues. It'll be interesting to see how straight readers respond to what Richard and Rex are going through.
TM: Once again, it's being marketed as a summer beach read.
WJM: Yes, and I think that's good. You reach more people that way if you position your book as accessible. I don't take myself too seriously. I think writers who do are really asking for trouble. I want to write books that make people laugh and cry and look forward to turning the page. I want to give them an escape. That's what The Biograph Girl is, after all is said and done, after all the ruminations on fame and celebrity and Hollywood illusion. It's a fun book. Kind of a mystery. I want people to just escape into Flo's world.
TM: You hop around not only in time, going back to early Hollywood, but also in place. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco...
WJM: All three cities are very important in the book, and serve a real function. So does the Greek island of Santorini, which is one of my favorite places on earth. So it's one of Flo's, too.
TM: Publisher's Weekly called the ending "fittingly cinematic."
WJM: Yes. I definitely wanted that. Not to give it away, but the ending just came to me. As I was writing the first outline of the story, I just said, 'Of course. That's how it has to end.'
TM: I can definitely see this as a movie.
WJM: The movies have been my biggest influence, so I certainly write as if the scenes are playing out in my head like a film. It would be wonderful if someone bought the film rights, but who knows? These things take time. We sold the rights to Wisecracker two years ago, and if it happens, it happens.
TM: And up next?
WJM: I'm finishing another nonfiction book, due out next year, looking at the gay experience in the Hollywood studio era. Not to sound too immodest, but I think it will be a real groundbreaking book. It's been fascinating to research. After that, well, I might take a little break from Hollywood-themed writing.
TM: Another Men From the Boys?
WJM: Possibly. I imagine at some point I'll write another book set within an exclusively gay world and populated by only gay characters. I hope that's the direction publishing is moving towards, offering writers the ability to write what's in their hearts and not only what can be directed at a particular niche. I'm much more optimistic than some about publishing, although I can certainly see the decreasing opportunities and venues for a lot of gay and lesbian writers, and there are times that's scary. But I think as we infiltrate-notice I didn't say integrate-the culture more and more, our stories will continue to find ways of being told.
Tim Miller is a performer and the author of Shirts & Skin, published by Alyson.
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