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Armond White

Before Glee, There was Mr. Belvedere

Before Glee, There was Mr. Belvedere

Sitting Pretty

Clifton Webb's triumph over the Hollywood system.

Of all Hollywood'sgreat sissies, Clifton Webb played the most talented and experienced, the wittiest and most beloved, in the classic 1948 box-office hit Sitting Pretty. Webb's achievement--overcoming the underestimation of homophobes--casts a bright light on contemporary gay characterizations.

During the American film industry's 20th-century peak, the practice of stereotyping and marginalizing queerness produced several performers who acted "effeminate" (Grady Sutton, Franklin Pangborn, Tony Randall), always without on-screen love lives or acknowledged partners. Their reputations endure as "character actors," distinctive-looking eccentrics who made an art out of representing the country's hoi polloi: neighbors, co-workers, and shopkeepers you run into every day without ever participating in their personal lives. They were the comic relief in a big-screen feature.

Sitting Pretty (the title itself proposes Webb's unique cultural position) won the secret heart of American moviegoers who admired gay men whether or not laws or local customs delegitimized them. Webb received a third Oscar nomination for it, this time for Best Actor (he'd already received two for supporting actor). He "normalized" gay masculinity when his character Lynn Belvedere became the "baby-hating" manny to the white suburban King family's three little terrors. He teaches them civility (when Belvedere dumped porridge on an unruly toddler's head, the object lesson became one of the most famous post-WWII moments in American movies), and teaches the breeder parents (Robert Young and Maureen O'Hara) to trust their romantic instincts.

Belvedere also instructs the Hummingbird Hill suburb about tolerance by writing a best-selling novel that exposes community bigotry and hypocrisy. He appeals to their appetite for salacious gossip, but this tactic also recalls Voltaire's maxim that "nothing human is alien to me." It makes queerness a normal part of society. Lynn Belvedere (the King couple initially think his application letter came from a woman) makes Sitting Pretty more than a sitcom; he represents the pre-Kinsey spectrum of sexuality.

Standing up for All-American sexual acceptance is Webb's special triumph. This began with the 1944 murder mystery Laura, in which the former Broadway dancer played radio gossip Waldo Lydecker. He's introduced having a decadent bath while being interviewed by studly homicide detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews). Critics mistakenly cite Laura as a gay romance when, in fact, Lydecker villainizes queerness. But in Sitting Pretty, when Belvedere jokes that he pens his best seller using a quill, he quotes a line from Laura in which Lydecker writes with "a quill dipped in venom." One popular hit influenced the other's progress.

Sitting Pretty is the film that made Webb a star. It established his popular acceptance (two sequels followed, Mr. Belvedere Goes to College and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell) without sacrificing his punctilious, supercilious, precious, fey personality. Its influence can be seen in the gay characters on TV's Glee and Modern Family (and, of course, in Mr. Belvedere, the 1980s sitcom based on the film). Webb's specialty was spreading shade, but he made it a hallmark of gay male self-sufficiency. His farewell film role, as the heroic priest who undermines Mao's Communist regime in Satan Never Sleeps (1962), confirmed the spiritual seriousness of his career choices.

Webb is best remembered for Belvedere's florid witticisms ("If more people just sat and thought, the world might not be in the stinking mess that it is"). But his "I am a genius!" declaration speaks to the singularity of gay intelligence that goes beyond convention, and Hollywood's standards, to ethical behavior and quality taste. Webb's sissy is a cultural paradigm. You might object to him at first, but you'll wind up proud.

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Armond White