Screen god Burt's sex life set the stage for Hollywood gay scene
By DANIEL JEFFREYS ON SCREEN, even his critics said Burt Lancaster looked like a god. The rugged film idol with the chiselled profile makes...
ON SCREEN, even his critics said Burt Lancaster looked like a god. The rugged film idol with the chiselled profile makes today's leading men seem effete and insubstantial.
Lancaster's greatest talent in films like From Here To Eternity, whose erotic love scenes in the surf with Deborah Kerr scandalised Hollywood censors in 1953, was to capture the essence of manly heterosexuality.
Yet, even in the 1950s, when his career was at its peak, Lancaster's second wife Norma and his many mistresses talked darkly of his passion for all kinds of sexual activity and partners, male or female. Now, documents released by the FBI and his family this week reveal that Lancaster, troubled by bouts of insecurity and depression, had an intensely predatory sex life which included many affairs with men.
Lancaster, who won an Oscar in 1961 for his portrayal of an errant evangelist in Elmer Gantry, came under FBI surveillance after director J Edgar Hoover regarded the actor as a threat to US security because of his sexual inclinations. In one batch of the newly-released documents, dating from the 1950s, FBI agents placed Lancaster at a slew of homosexual parties that became ever more debauched and extravagant.
According to these reports, Lancaster, along with his friend Rock Hudson, laid the foundation for the open and promiscuous lifestyle many gays in Hollywood live today.
What the FBI documents reveal is a star with an overwhelming appetite to consume those around him through physical conquest. He was, in short, a sex addict who, like all addicts, found in his addiction a release for his insecurities.
It was Lancaster's early life in the slums of 1920s New York City that undoubtedly helped shape his intense appetites. His mother, Lizzie, was a domineering matriarch who thrashed her sons into shape.
So insistent was Lizzie Lancaster that her sons rise above poverty and crime that Lancaster was beaten once by his mother for failing to return five cents in incorrect change to a grocery store.
Certainly, his mother's driving ambition for her son combined with a physique which was already turning heads, had already pushed Lancaster to the brink of an acting career.
For years, until he entered World War II as a US marine, Lancaster struggled to become a circus star. Eventually, he was reduced to taking his increasingly-threadbare circus act to burlesques, performing between striptease acts, and posing nude for male meat magazines. The war saved Lancaster from further career indignities. He vowed, once the war was over, never to be humiliated again and he swore to turn Hollywood into his personal playground. Lancaster soon broke into the movies and he soon became one of the world's most recognisable stars.
But those who worked with Lancaster noticed the new power and wealth were accompanied by an intense anger and an overpowering need to control those around him. He would become depressed or elated for no particular reason.
This mercurial tendency may have been the legacy of his domineering mother, his flight out of poverty and the years of humiliation in the circus. Whatever the true cause, the demons in Burt Lancaster found their truest expression in sex.
Lancaster had married Norma Anderson in 1946 but was soon rumoured to have had affairs with a platoon of make-up girls, production assistants and actresses, including Marlene Dietrich.
Because he was the biggest star in Hollywood and seen as an all-American male, Lancaster came under the scrutiny of the paranoid, Cold-War obsessed, FBI. What they discovered, and documented, was a sexuality out of control.
In January 1960 there was a report of a joint police and military raid on the home of a millionaire who frequented Hollywood night spots and was a notorious homosexual. The millionaire's mansion, surrounded by a high wire fence and guarded with an electric alarm and shocking system had been organising large-scale homosexual orgies at which guests were surrepitiously photographed. The raid was organised by the American military because the orgy was allegedly attended by an admiral and 250 marines. The FBI report on the raid names many prominent individuals revealed as participants including Lancaster and Rock Hudson.
Lancaster never stopped looking for love on both sides of the gender fence. The cause was probably narcissism. Lancaster's body was something he preened and protected all his life.
According to Norma Anderson he needed the intimacy of constant sex to force others to know they had been touched by a god.
Tragically for Lancaster, his final years gave him plenty of time to reflect on the frailty of his godly flesh. Just after his 1989 marriage to his third wife, Susan Martin, he suffered a stroke and spent his last four years confined to a wheelchair, struggling to communicate.
His life appeared to have been a search for something he could never find in places where it had never been.