The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after censor/stick-in-the-mud Will Hays, regulated film content for nearly 40 years, restricting, among other things, depictions of homosexuality. Filmmakers still managed to get around the Code, but gay characters were cloaked in innuendo, leading to some necessary decoding.
Otto Preminger’s Laura turns the film noir on its ear while still weaving one of the most engaging and stylish mysteries to ever grace the silver screen. It’s remembered today for its classic theme song, but what makes it truly interesting is Clifton Webb’s portrayal of the acid-tongued dandy Waldo Lydecker. A vicious queen with an arsenal of $10 putdowns at the ready, Lydecker is another in a line of Hays-era villainous homosexuals who end up dead in the final frame, but his motive for murder is his love for a woman.
Or it’s a kind of love. More of an obsession. When he first meets Laura Hunt, played by the stunning Gene Tierney, she’s a wide-eyed copy editor with a face that won’t quit.
He takes her under his impeccably tailored wing, dressing her, refining her, and treating her very much like a human doll.
She became his favorite accessory, and his jealousy of other men is not sexual in nature. He’s a vain, possessive child who gets upset when other boys play with his toy.
In the 1942 book of the same name on which Laura is based, Waldo Lydecker was an obese, effete writer based on noted wit and raging cunt Alexander Woollcott. Preminger found Lydecker to be the most interesting character and expanded his role for the film. He had Webb in mind for the role, even though the 55-year-old thesp hadn’t made a film in some 15 years and had retreated to the resounding applause of the stage. 20th Century Fox head Daryl F. Zanuck preferred Laird Cregar, known for his villainous roles, but Preminger argued that Cregar would draw suspicion too early.
Zanuck was unconvinced and felt that Webb was too effeminate for the role. “He doesn’t walk, he flies!” the head of casting told Zanuck.
The studio chief demanded Webb take a screen test, but diva was having none of that. Preminger then tricked Zanuck into going to Webb’s performance in the Noël Coward play, Blithe Spirit, secretly taping it for Webb’s screen test. Upon seeing it, Zanuck was convinced. And so was everyone else. In addition to scoring his first of three Oscar nominations, Webb revitalized his film career on the strength of his performance.
Webb’s homosexuality was well known in Hollywood or by anyone with an eye or an ear. He never married, never had children and lived with his mother until her death at age 91, leading Webb’s dear friend and shady sister Noël Coward to remark, “It must be terrible to be orphaned at 71.” Robert Wagner considered Webb a mentor and noted in his autobiography, “Clifton Webb was gay, of course, but he never made a pass at me, not that he would have.”
Webb wasn’t the only queen on set. A young, mustache-less Vincent Price plays Laura’s no-goodnick boyfriend Shelby. In addition to being a camp icon, Price was also bisexual and so his interactions with Webb add a layer of intrigue.
Writing about Laura in More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts, film scholar James Naremore discusses the film’s considerable campiness: “Where Laura is concerned, the camp effect is at least partly intended–any movie that puts Clifton Webb, Judith Anderson (the villainous dyke Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca) and Vincent Price in the same drawing room is inviting a mood of fey theatricality.”
I saw this film in the theater a few weeks ago in Chelsea, hosted by classic film lover and verdant vixen Hedda Ledduce, and its camp factor was never queerer. Clearer. It was never clearer than in a room full of queens cackling at the black & white shade as it flew. Lydecker is so brilliantly acerbic, he opens the library from the very first minutes of the film and continues to read everyone till the very end.
Still, Lydecker’s blatant homosexuality doesn’t distract from the believability of his love for/obsession with Laura. As any thing of beauty, he wants to possess her and his jealousy may not be reserved solely for the men in her life, but for Laura herself. For the attention she commands and the devotion she inspires in men. Modern queer viewers can see the way Lydecker looks at and interacts with Shelby and Det. McPherson (a terrific Dana Andrews) and draw their own conclusions. Hell, the first time we see Waldo, he greets McPherson half-naked in a bathtub.
McPherson is pleasantly amused at seeing the naked Waldo Lydecker, but Clifton Webb was not; diva nearly had a heart attack upon realizing that the camera adds ten pounds and a comparable amount of years:
“When I saw myself sitting in the bathtub looking very much like Mahatma Gandhi. I felt I might vomit. After it was over Dana [Andrews] saved my life with a big swig of bourbon. The first shock of seeing myself had a strange effect on me, psychologically, as it made me realize for the first time that I was no longer a dashing young juvenile, which I must have fancied myself being through the years in the theater.”
Lydecker is (probably) not trying to seduce McPherson, but he does attach himself to the detective and to Laura Hunt’s murder, further complicating matters. in a way, Waldo Lydecker is more a femme fatale than Laura Hunt. His seductive powers lie in his pen — that goose quill dipped in venom. As a villain, his sexuality sets him apart, but it can appear to be inconsequential because the object of his affection is a woman. But Waldo Lydecker is dangerous because he’s brilliant, connected and sophisticated; and he’s brilliant, connected and sophisticated, at least in part, because he’s gay.
As such, he has to die, but not before giving us one of the greatest gay characters in cinema. You almost root for him despite his imperious snobbery because he’s still the most interesting person in the room. And if you need further proof of Laura’s enduring queerness, rumor had it composer David Raksin had the name “Judy” in mind when he wrote the film’s classic theme song. He was in love with Judy Garland at the time.