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On This Gay Day | Sir John Gielgud was born

Sir John Gielgud was born in 1904

Sir John Gielgud was regarded as one of the finest actors of the 20th century. Born in London in 1904 his career on stage and screen spanned the decades from the 1920’s through to his final role in the year 2000.

In the 1930’s he garnered acclaim for his delivery Shakespeare’s Hamlet and he was a fixture in dramatic productions in the West End. He also began appearing in films, and traveled to America where he performed on Broadway.

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In the 1950’s he made his first Hollywood film appearing in Julius Caesar alongside Marlon Brando and James Mason.   

Gielgud never publicly came out, but he quietly donated funds to LGBTI rights groups, and lived with his partner Martin Hensler for four decades. In his latter years he said to the actor Simon Callow, “I do admire people like you and Ian McKellen for coming out, but I can’t be doing with that myself.”

Documents released in 2024 show that the British government was wary of giving Gielgud a knighthood because of his sexuality.

In the 1950’s, shortly after he was knighted in the Queen’s Coronation Honours, he was charged and convicted with a homosexual offense. At the time same-sex activity was still illegal in Britain. The actor had been caught cruising in a public bathroom. He feared it would end his career.

At the time Gielgud was set to appear in a new play A Day By the Sea which was opening in Liverpool. On opening night the actor was reportedly overcome with fear at the prospect of going on stage following the incident being reported in the press.

His co-star Dame Sybil Thorndike took him by the hand and walked on stage with him, to everyone’s surprise he received applause and a standing ovation. The incident showed that the British public’s attitudes to homosexuality were changing.

As the 1950s and 60s progressed Gielgud found further success with a new wave of avant-garde playwrights, and he appeared in new works from Alan Bennett, Peter Shaffer and Terrence Rattigan.

As he entered his later years his film work really took off as he appeared in Murder on the Orient Express, The Elephant Man, Plenty, Caligula, Gandhi, Chariots of Fire and many other films. In 1981 he won the Best Supporting Actor award the Academy Awards for his role as the butler Hobson in the film Arthur.

Further acclaim came for his TV miniseries Brideshead Revisited and his lead role in Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books. His final feature film appearance was in 1998 playing Pope Pius V in Shekjar Kapur’s film Elizabeth.

His partner Martin Hensler passed away in 1999, and Gielgud’s health also deteriorated. He died on 21 May 2000, aged 96.

‘The Boys in the Band’ opens on Broadway

Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band opened in New York on this day in 1968. The production is recognised for its groundbreaking depictions of male homosexuality. Described as a game changer the play, which debuted off-Broadway, depicts the social lives of a group of gay men who gather for a friend’s birthday.

Premiering in the pre-Stonewall era, the play was controversial when first staged but has gone on to be performed regularly around the globe. Originally the play was only scheduled for five performances, but it went on to play over 1,000 shows in its initial run with the Stonewall riots fueling discussion about homosexuality.

The original production struggled to find actors who were willing to play gay characters, those who did take on the roles were later featured in a film version of the play in 1970 directed by William Friedkin.

In the 1960’s Crowley met film star Natalie Wood while she was filming Splendour in the Grass she hired him as her personal assistant, and he worked with her while she was filming West Side Story. Wood encouraged him to write the play.

Crowley wrote most of the play over five weeks while he was house sitting for actress Diana Lynn, but it took him several years to get it into production. Once it was a success in New York, most of the cast transferred to a London production.

The play had an Australian run in 1969 with Henri Szeps, John Krummel, John Norman, Charles Little, Gerard Maguire, Ross Osterlin, Kuki Kaa, Mark Albiston and Vern Todd in the cast.

The Boys in the Band has been revived off Broadway several times in 1996, and 2010. In 2002 Crowley wrote a sequel set 30 years later, The Men From The Boys Failed to find the success of the original play.

In 2018 a new production directed by Joe Mantello celebrated the 30th anniversary of the play. While many of the cast members of the original production had been gay, none of them were confident to come out during the plays run.

For this new production every cast member has publicly shared their same-sex attraction. The cast included Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto and Andrew Rannells. The production won the 2019 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. The cast then went on to make a film version which was directed by Ryan Murphy.

Simone de Beauvoir died on this day in 1986

French writer, activist, feminist and philosopher Simone de Beauvior was born in Paris in 1908. Her 1949 book The Second Sex is seen as a key text in the feminist movement. Alongside her non-fiction works de Beauvior also found success with her fiction penning several best-selling novels.

She was bisexual, having an open relationship with philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, she also had a long-term relationship with Sylvie Bon that lasted from the 1960’s to the author’s death in 1986.

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