Why Golden Girls Is Still the Gayest Show on TV

7.14.2014

By Michael Musto

Plus: Who was gay in old Hollywood?

Hello. My name is Michael and I’m addicted to Golden Girls. (Hello, Michael.) I have to confess that although I cover nightlife and celebrity events for a living, some of my fondest moments of all are sitting alone at night and watching reruns of that show for the umpteenth time, on Hallmark, TV Land, and Logo. It’s just so damned enjoyable, and I never grow tired of the interplay between the four mature ladies, whether they’re in a nudist colony, a dive bar, a montage, or a fantasy sequence.

The show’s continuing omnipresence gives me great comfort, as well as ammunition against those who look down on my fascination with something allegedly obsolete. “Obsolete?” I’ll reply, raising my bushy brows as if channeling Dorothy Zbornak. “Last time I looked, it was on three channels!”

And it’s no wonder the sitcom endures like properly assembled wicker furniture. A brilliantly cast ensemble of flawed but lovable people who forge a family—including even those who already are a family—the Susan Harris-created show brimmed with wisecracks, warmth, and appliquéd blouses from 1985 to 1992. What’s more, it spotlighted older women of the type who were usually anathema to prime time, unless they were presented as obnoxious kvetches or anemic biddies.

Putting three widows and a divorcee together in a Miami house and letting them be flinty, funny, and even sexual proved to be a genius recipe, and one that has eternal gay appeal because of its groundbreaking content. True, the gay cook only lasted one episode, but he was so negligible anyway—a real fly-by-night with a lazy spatula. I could also do without the bitchy caterer who snaps at Dorothy (“Well, excuse me for living, Anita Bryant!”), as well as the running gags about Dorothy’s cross-dressing brother Phil, which always seemed a little cheap (though it was too delicious when the seemingly boring politician played by John Schuck turned out to be a female-to-male trans person). But the show really triumphed when dealing with Blanche’s brother’s gayness and his right to marry whom he pleased, not to mention the great episode where an old friend of Dorothy’s turns out to be a lesbian who develops a passionate crush on Rose, while Blanche wonders why it isn’tshe who’s the object of the lady’s craving. “Some people like girls instead of guys,” responds Sophia, nonchalantly—and she’s also the one who tells Blanche to get over her qualms about her brother’s sexuality. How perfect that the crusty old lady is the one to break down barriers and speak sense in order to educate the others (and the audience).

Other serious topics were delved into on the show, occasionally in cringe-worthy ways that made you feel the girls should go back to the cheesecake, but often with a nerviness that was extra courageous in Reagan’s denial-prone America.

And what a cast they assembled to deliver those messages. The indelible tightness of the ensemble was proven when Bea Arthur split the premises, leaving the other three ladies to star in a spinoff called The Golden Palace. It was a dud, and it would have also failed if any of those three had left instead. All four women were essential to the chain—that’s how cleverly their intertwining personalities had been developed through the savvy writing and acting. As a unit, they were irresistible. With one link missing, they were nothing.

But let’s talk about Golden Girls, not Golden Palace. One of the funniest episodes has Rose mistakenly booking Blanche and Dorothy on a talk show where they’re introduced as lesbian lovers. When the two ladies go along with the ruse, it’s not for any corny, inspirational reason—it’s because if they don’t do it, Rose will lose her job and spend all her time at home, telling boring St. Olaf stories. Still, their pseudo lesbianism becomes a little bit touching, and it ends up helping Blanche’s love life when a buffoonish guy wants to lure her away from sapphism by showing what a “real man” is like in the sack!

Intriguing gay references are sprinkled throughout the series, which is no surprise considering that one of its writer/producers was Marc Cherry, the openly gay TV force who went on to do the equally pink Desperate Housewives. It was pretty special when Rose revealed that St. Olaf’s most noted author, Hans Christian Lukerhuven, wrote the immortal fable “Hansel and Hansel” or that the town’s most fabulous hairdresser was none other than Mr. Ingrid.

But I happen to know the real reason why gay guys have always responded so feverishly to the show: the Golden Girls are basically gay men in dresses! Dorothy (Beatrice Arthur) is the bitchy queen who’s armed with sarcasm and slow burns, but who can give you a shoulder pad to cry on when need be. Blanche (Rue McClanahan) is the slutty gay who validates himself via how many men want him and what they’ll do to get him, though deep down he’s just longing to be loved. Rose (Betty White) is the ditsy twink—not dumb, exactly, just endlessly naïve and literal minded, and rather sweet on top of it, especially useful on those occasions when sincerity is called for. And Sophia is the old gay in the corner, the one telling stories of the golden days in between saying devastating things that are often spot-on truths based on experience.

The characters grew in dimension as the show went on, making for a more diverse family with a few more surprises in store. Meanwhile, their leisure activities became gayer and gayer, as they put on shows, dabbled in the art world, and wrote love songs to Miami Beach, all while wearing outfits only a gay man—or his mother—could love. Before Will & Grace existed, Golden Girls was the gay show to watch, and it still is, thanks to those three channels that know how to purvey timeless magic with a big, old twist of LGBT spice in the spaghetti sauce.

So thank you, Golden Girls, for being a friend. Thanks for giving us a gay schooling for nearly three decades, providing a veritable lifetime of snappy devotion and great lines. Alas, after all those years of dutifully eating cheesecake every time you gals did, I’m now going to have to cement our aesthetic bond by wearing some very loose-fitting caftans. Yes, I’m addicted to cheesecake too.

WHO WAS GAY IN OLD HOLLYWOOD?

As long as we’re traipsing down memory lane in very light loafers, let me tell you about the gay content in Diane McBain’s new memoir Famous Enough: A Hollywood Memoir. McBain played a great bad girl in the 1962 drama Claudelle Inglish, but she could also serve up a frosty-blond ice queen, as she veered from Hollywood soaps to Elvis movies, always superior to the material. Her ultra readable book offers the following tidbits:

*McBain was linked to all kinds of beaus in the press, but she hadn’t even met most of them. “Anyone who knew Tab Hunter (who was a nice man) knew he didn’t date women,” she writes. “Jack Haley, Jr. wasn’t interested in the opposite sex either.”

*In Laurence Harvey’s Beverly Hills hotel room, McBain tried to seduce the handsome British actor, “but discovered he was interested in the same thing as Tab Hunter—men. I should have known something was up when he introduced me to James Woolf (his manager, and rumored long-term lover), with whom he shared his suite.”

*In 1963, McBain did a Kraft Suspense Theatre with Scott Marlowe, whom she loved, the two commiserating about their need to take charge of their career trajectories. “He was gay,” writes McBain, “and the revelation of his affair with Tab Hunter a few years earlier was too much for him to overcome professionally.”

*In 1968, she did a summer stock production of Star Spangled Girl with Carleton Carpenter, who she says is gay, and Edd “Kookie” Byrnes, who she says is straight but had been kept by an older man when he was younger. McBain loved Carpenter but despised the smug Byrnes.

*And this isn’t gay per se, but McBain had an unfortunate run-in with camp queen Joan Crawford while making 1963’s hospital drama The Caretakers. “Crawford was a miserable woman, filled with jealousy and bitterness,” reports McBain, who’s no doubt understating things. Seething with jealousy over McBain’s sexy allure, Crawford managed to have most of the younger actress’ scenes axed. Yes, axed, Blanche!

TIDBITS, TIDBITS

What former child star serves the following monologue by way of dressing room conversation: “Mickey Rooney once grabbed me inappropriately…I did coke with Liberace, but I didn’t know what it was….Diahann Carroll is a c**t….”?

Which country star with a hunky husband is scheduled to show up at the weekly gay bash My Chiffon is Wet this Thursday night (at Eastern Bloc in NYC’s East Village) and do a meet and greet? Free answer: LeAnn Rimes. Let’s hope she brings the husband!

And finally, how great was my last column, the one about the alleged death of the show tune? Well, there’s hope so quickly. The New York Musical Theatre Festival just came around to debut a variety of singing and dancing oeuvres that could change our theatrical futures. I saw part of Cloned!, a likeable show about a wacky scientist who accidentally duplicates himself, and I caught Somewhere With You, a Texas-two-stepping country rock musical (pictured left) that spans issues like meth usage and the war in Iraq. Even more unlikely targets turned up in Epic Fail: Broadway’s Future Flops!, a satirical look at imagined musical versions of famous movies—from that miserable Mommie Dearest singing “Spare the wire hanger, spoil the child” to an adaptation of There’s Something About Mary, with lyrics like, “There’s something on Mary.”

By the way, every show in the festival is preceded by a pre-recorded announcement from Kinky Boots’ Billy Porter saying, “Now lookee here. Turn off yo’ cell phone.” Oh, you already did? Thank you for being a friend.

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