Who’s the biggest Hollywood A lister you’ve never heard of? Almost certainly that would be William (Billy) Haines whose career began in 1922, blazed brightly for a little over ten years and was then suddenly extinguished. Haines’ downfall came about because he was gay and refused to compromise his principles even when he was ordered to by studio big boss Louis B. Mayer. Instead he lived pretty much openly in a relationship with Jimmie Shields for fifty years rebuilding his life as an interior designer employed by some of his Hollywood friends. Joan Crawford called their relationship “the happiest marriage in Hollywood”. Meanwhile despite the actor’s huge screen successes, Mayer ordered all of Haines’ films to be confined to a vault where they stayed until the 1990s; hence his largely forgotten status.
This is the story told in The Tailor-Made Man, a play about the golden days of Hollywood. The play first saw the light of day in 1992, almost made it onto our TV screens and in 2013 was turned into a musical. This current iteration was filmed in 2017 at The White Bear Theatre when a 25th anniversary production was mounted. Claudio Macor’s script works through this particular piece of cinema history reasonably efficiently, though some of the scenes do overstay their welcome instead of moving on when the point has been made. A cast of eight recreate the characters though with Haines so little well known it is impossible to say whether Mitchell Hunt’s portrayal is an accurate one. It is certainly winning, however, and the relationship formed with Tom Berkeley comes over as genuine and believable without being sugar coated – these were, after all, difficult times in an America which was deeply conservative in its views on sexuality. Such views are embodied by Dean Harris who is every bit the big studio boss as studio head Mayer. He has built himself and his business up from nothing and is not about to see it all crumble because of what he sees as extreme sexual deviancy. I did find the portrayal a trifle ponderous at times, but Harris is otherwise entirely convincing as the movie mogul who tries to force Haines into a lavender marriage with Pola Negri. The latter is played with appropriate high camp by Rachel Knowles who is clearly having great fun with the role. Knowles also doubles as a fun-loving Carole Lombard who supports Haines in his later transition to designer. Knowles forms a great double act with Yvonne Lawlor playing Marion Davies, actress and partner of newspaper magnate Randolph Hurst – there are a number of cheeky references in the play to “Rosebud” from Citizen Kane, based on Hurst’s life.
Lawlor and Knowles certainly look the part in their gorgeous costumes which gives the play a real sense of the 1920s/30s glamour of Hollywood in its heyday. Mike Lees has done wonders, on what was presumably a limited costume budget, and makes similarly creative use of The White Bear’s limited space to give us multiple locations in the California of the era. Clever use of minimal furniture and some striking lighting changes (no credit appeared at the end of the video) take us from film sets, to the homes of the stars, to the beach and so on – all without a single thing being moved or changed. In a play about an industry famed for creating artifice out of nothing this is entirely appropriate. The set is dotted with subtle references to the art of film making and this is enhanced by director Bryan Hodgson’s decision to have each scene start with the cry “Action” and end with the command “Cut”. My only gripe is that some of the scenes needed a bit more editing and that the pace needed picking up – admittedly watching the production on video may have had a detrimental effect on these aspects.
Recent OnComm recipient, The Tailor-Made Man is a well-crafted drama with an important message at its centre which is worthy of attention. It seems that the film making industry has always been embroiled in potential and actual scandal since its inception. The play raises arguments about whether those in the public eye have a right to conduct their personal lives without interference or whether, somehow, these people become public property with a conferred right for all and sundry to pass judgement. However, there is also a note of hope in the story’s outcome as it shows how taking on the system does not necessarily lead to personal disaster. In fact, this play might make a really good movie, and that’s a wrap!
Production photos by Andreas Lambis
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