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Van Johnson: The Gay Boy Next Door

Van JohnsonIf you live in the Los Angeles area, you may be wondering why the American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre will devote the evening of February 26, 2009, to screen two movies as a tribute to someone called Van Johnson, an old-time actor who died at 92 in Nyack, NY, on December 13, 2008.

Well, though hardly remembered nowadays, the tall, red-headed, freckle-faced Van Johnson was a major box office attraction in the United States in the second half of the 1940s. In mid-decade, while MGM's Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, James Stewart, Robert Montgomery, and others were embroiled in the war overseas, Johnson rose from the ranks of MGM's B-unit to (briefly) become the studio's biggest male attraction.

His meteoric rise almost didn't happen. A serious car accident as he and best friends Keenan and Evie (Abbott) Wynn were on their way to a screening at MGM was to leave the former Broadway chorus boy away from the studio for months (and out of World War II for good). Among other injuries, Johnson suffered a fractured skull and had bone fragments piercing his brain. He was left with a severely scarred forehead and a metal plate several inches long on the left side of his head.

Once healed, however, nothing could keep him away from romantic entanglements with June Allyson, Esther Williams, Lana Turner, and other MGM leading ladies — much to the delight of the bobby-soxers of the period. (Johnson's scar was carefully hidden by the make-up department; however, it's clearly visible in the 1954 court-martial drama The Caine Mutiny, in which Johnson plays a somewhat unsympathetic character.)

Irene Dunne, Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson in A Guy Named Joe

Johnson's first big hit was the syrupy A Guy Named Joe (above, 1943), in which he gets the girl at the end (Irene Dunne, 18 years his senior), while leaving to heaven the film's nominal male star, Spencer Tracy's ghost. (Dunne and Tracy reportedly demanded a halt to filming until their young co-star fully recovered from his injuries.) The following year, Johnson became a major box office attraction after the release of Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), playing opposite June Allyson and Gloria DeHaven.

Among Johnson's biggest hits of the war and post-war years were Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), also starring Tracy; the Grand Hotel remake Weekend at the Waldorf (1945), opposite Lana Turner; Easy to Wed (1946) and No Leave No Love (also 1946), with Esther Williams; the military drama Command Decision (1948), opposite Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon; and William A. Wellman's highly conventional — but highly praised and highly successful — war melodrama Battleground (1949).

Van Johnson, Deborah Kerr in The End of the Affair

With the possible exceptions of Robert Pirosh's Go for Broke! (1951), about a Japanese-American unit fighting in World War II; Richard Brooks' romantic melodrama The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), with Elizabeth Taylor; and Edward Dmytryk's Oscar-nominated The Caine Mutiny, made at Columbia, Johnson's films of the 1950s were lesser efforts.

Among those were The Big Hangover (1950), also with Taylor; Grounds for Marriage (1951), with Kathryn Grayson; the musical Brigadoon (1954), supporting Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse; the melodrama The End of the Affair (above, 1956), with Deborah Kerr; and less successful rematches with June Allyson (Too Young to Kiss, Remains to Be Seen) and Esther Williams (Duchess of Idaho, Easy to Love).

By the end of the 1950s, Johnson was no longer at MGM and no longer a star, appearing in minor fare such as Kelly and Me (1957) at Universal and The Last Blitzkrieg (1959), distributed by Columbia.

Van JohnsonTelevision (e.g., Fantasy Island, The Love Boat; the TV movies Man in the Middle and Call Her Mom; the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, which earned him a best supporting actor Emmy nomination), low-budget European productions (e.g., Murder in an Etruscan Cemetery, Killer Crocodile), sporadic supporting roles in Hollywood films (e.g., Divorce American Style, Yours, Mine and Ours, The Purple Rose of Cairo), a few Broadway shows (e.g., Come on Strong, opposite Carroll Baker; La Cage aux Folles, as the drag queen's husband), and lots of dinner- and regional-theater appearances kept Van Johnson busy until his retirement following a minor role in the 1992 Australian production Clowning Around.

 

Van Johnson, Esther Williams
Van Johnson, Esther Williams

Van Johnson: The Boy Next Door

In a 2003 Los Angeles Times interview, June Allyson remembered Johnson as being "very, very down-to-earth. I think he was the man every girl would like to marry. I just loved working with him. He was delightful, he was funny, and he was always prepared." Indeed, Johnson's popularity rested on his appeal to young women who bought into his image as the Boy Next Door.

Though I've never found him an actor of great depth and despite the fact that I despise apple-pie wholesomeness, I actually like Van Johnson, whom I've always found a charming and capable light comedian. In fact, I'd much rather watch Van Johnson — I've seen about 20 of his 70 or so film appearances — than, say, Van Heflin or Vin Diesel.

Adolphe Menjou, Van Johnson, Angela Lansbury in State of the Union

Johnson is fun (in a stiff kinda way) singing and dancing in a guest spot in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946); he is a good match for June Allyson (another personable, charming, and much underrated performer) in Two Girls and a Sailor; and he's perfectly fine as the (light-heartedly) cynical reporter "Spike" McManus in the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn vehicle State of the Union (1948, above, with Adolphe Menjou and Angela Lansbury).

Also, I remember enjoying him eons ago in a minor 1963 comedy, Wives and Lovers, co-starring Janet Leigh and Martha Hyer, and in his brief appearance in Woody Allen's bittersweet comedy The Purple Rose of Cairo.

That said, what I find more than a tad revolting is the "Boy Next Door" bullshit, in which the purveyors of the lie shove it down the throat of a willing public, ever eager to gulp it down so as to perpetuate their delusional sense of both ethical behavior and reality. (Consider the recent Michael Phelps scandal, the latest All-American Poster Boy, because the guy dared to smoke a joint at a party. While you're at it, check out David Sirota's incisive essay on the hypocrisy surrounding L'Affaire Phelps at Truthdig.)

Johnson himself seemed to have believed his studio's propaganda machine — or at least he felt obliged to keep the machine going while in public. "It was one big happy family and a little kingdom," he said in 1985, recalling his years at MGM. "Everything was provided for us, from singing lessons to barbells. All we had to do was inhale, exhale and be charming. I used to dread leaving the studio to go out into the real world, because to me the studio was the real world." Well, no wonder, considering what Johnson's "real world" was like.

He was born Charles Van Dell Johnson on Aug. 25, 1916, in Newport, Rhode Island, to a Swedish-born father — variously described as a cold-hearted and/or aloof plumber — and his wife, an alcoholic who abandoned the family when her son was 3.

Keenan WynnThings get even more apple-pie wholesome in 1947, when Johnson married the "ambitious and assertive" former actress Evie Wynn, the ex-wife of his best friend, Keenan Wynn (right), four hours after Evie had obtained a Mexican divorce. (The year before, Ed Wynn, Keenan's father, had commented, "I can't keep them straight. Evie loves Keenan. Keenan loves Evie. Van loves Evie. Evie loves Van. Van loves Keenan. Keenan loves Van." Paramount's actor-comedian Eddie Bracken, however, recalled "ferocious" arguments when the trio got together at the Wynns' home across the street from him.)

Johnson and Evie became parents in 1948, but the marriage was hardly a match made in Hollywood heaven. In 1960, Evie sued for divorce, citing cruelty and blaming him for "grievous mental suffering." A few weeks later she filed another suit, this time for "fraud and breach of contract" in their property settlement and for failing to pay child support. (Johnson would refer to her as "The Dragon Lady.") The couple briefly reconciled, but separated again in 1962. They were officially divorced in 1968 — ironically, the year after Johnson appeared in a supporting role, looking as jovial and light-hearted as ever, in the comedy Divorce American Style.

And if Johnson looked perennially affable in his MGM films, or while remembering the good old days, or in recollections such as those of June Allyson (the All-American Girl Next-Door who had an affair with Dick Powell while he was still married to Joan Blondell, and who later developed a serious alcohol problem), Johnson's stepson, Ned Wynn, remembered things rather differently in his book of memoirs, We Will Always Live in Beverly Hills: Growing Up Crazy in Hollywood.

“His tolerance of unpleasantness was minuscule,” Wynn wrote. “If there was the slightest hint of trouble with one of the children, or with the house, the car, the servants, the delivery of the newspaper, the lack of ice in the silver ice bucket, the color of the candles on the dining room table, Van immediately left the couch, the dinner table, the pool, the tennis court, the party, the restaurant, the vacation, and strode off to his bedroom.”

More cracks in Johnson's Boy Next Door image came about in 2005, when his estranged daughter, Schuyler Johnson, wrote an unflattering first-person account of him, "My Life as a Hollywood Princess," which was published in the London tabloid Sunday Mail.

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24 Comments to Van Johnson: The Gay Boy Next Door

  1. Bob

    Although I had heard rumors, until reading this, and in particular, Schuyler Van Johnson's comments, I had never seen or heard confirmation that Van Johnson was gay.
    Not that I care or would have cared back in the 1950's when my dad managed a theatre in Seattle and my brother and I got to be entertained by Johnson and all the others stars of that age. As a teenager, I found myself intensely attracted to girls (although like a lot of boys, a little afraid of them) and found it hard to understand why any male would choose another man over the softness and beauty of women. Logical analysis finally led me to the conclusion that, if there could be people born with with genitalia from both sexes then it must also be possible for people of either sex to be mentally wired to prefer same sex relationships. In any event, Johnson's movies were and are entertaining. It's too bad he lived a somewhat of a sad life both because of his childhood and that he had to hide who he was for fear of his career being ruined. Having said that, today I think too much is made of everyone's sexual proclivities and that all of us, including hetero and LBGT(?), should be a little more private.

  2. Rosemarie

    I have loved Van Johnson since I saw a promoted movie that was thrown
    under my street door. I was 13 years old and I still have him in my heart,
    even after his death in 2008 and in my senior yeast.

  3. Marco

    I can't understand why is it that every single bigoted moron out there can't spell. But clearly, much like bigotry is an off-shoot of either madness or ignorance (or imbecility), so is illiteracy an off-shoot of bigotry.

  4. seso

    I haven't saw this guy on many things, but he seemed homosexual on Murder She Wrote. He looked and acted in a camp way. I think people are a wee bit naive if they can'tt believe he was gay.
    But can people stop saying it doesn't matter whether he was gay or straight – off course it matters – it matters to the person in question – his sexual partner/s -his family – everybody. Most people don't want to think about two men having sex together, and that isn't because of prejudice, that is because of the natural human nature to like some things and be disgusted by other things.

  5. RobNYNY

    I live on West 55th Street in Manhattan. I would occasionally visit an old style haute cuisine restaurant on the same block, La Caravelle. There were always stars from them 1930's there: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Kitty Carlisle, Fay Wray, and Van Johnson. When that generation of stars died out, so did the restaurant.

  6. twoodruff

    Everyone has a right to pursue their sexual preferences…It's a choice….Do whatever turns you on…Mr. Johnson was an incredible actor. I'll always be a fan.

  7. All I know is that he's a great actor no matter what. He's an inspiration!

  8. Traci Melton-Symon

    Van Johnson, regardless of his preferences, was a fine actor. That aspect is what should be focussed upon. All one has to do is look at a cross-section of his work and you can see the capability and sensitivity. If you're not familiar with Mr. Johnson, just take a look at the following films:

    A GUY NAMES JOE
    30 SECONDS OVER TOKYO
    THE HUMAN COMEDY
    COMMAND DECISION
    BATTLEGROUND

    He was the quintessential boy-next-door to the gal-next-door and the perfect World War II soldier. You can't take any of that away from him.

  9. S. Victoria

    I will tell you that Schuyler ,I called her Sally was a dear friend of mine in Aspen colorado in the late 70s as well as her brother tracy Wynn and his wife at the time. Schuyler loved her father with all her heart,She was so devastated when he told her he was gay,I remember she wanted to go stay with him .I believe she said he was living in New York at the time and didn't want her to come or have anything to do with her. I drove from Snowmass to her place in Aspen, and we just felt so very sad for her pain of the rejection of her father,Schuyler really needed her Dad.

  10. rmwayne

    Although I despise the homosexual agenda, I will say that Van Johnson was in a lot of good movies like The Caine Mutiny and numerous TV shows. I remember him well as one of the villains in ABC's Batman series when I was a kid in the mid '60s.

  11. I_Fortuna

    I have been watching Van in a "Murder She Wrote" episode and was inspired to look him up on the internet. I was happy to see that he lived a long life. I was very disappointed to read that Van was estranged from his daughter. How sad. I cannot imagine not being there for my father at the end of his life. Indeed, I was, and happy to have been. My father was no angel but I loved him dearly and still do. It would have been enlightening to read in Schuyler's post why she was not there for her father if this is true. I love Van's movies and television appearances. Whenever I see him I stay tuned to that movie or episode just because he is in it. What a wonderful persona and charisma he had. I certainly understand his preference for being with a gentleman that probably understood him and befriended him and was a relief from all the couch hopping, ladder climbing actresses of the time, someone he obviously trusted. Many actresses must have tried to be with him because they would try to ride on the coat tails of his success. Why make someone's personal preferences define them? It is a small part of the lives of many people it is not the sum total of who they are.

  12. Rebeca

    I am from Brazil.And I am a newswoman and I started being in love with Van Johnson because of my mother who is a fan of him since 1944 and I think that he was the most charming,handsome and wonderful man that I saw in my life.I dont believe that he was gay and if a man that is dead still pertubing some people it is because these people are very ugly and sick!

  13. Schuyler Van Johnson

    I hasten to assure one and all I am not spoiled nor was I ever a brat; (although many uneducated, uninformed people choose to believe so, for their own petty purposes) for one thing both parents instilled in me excellent manners and respect for adults at all times. As to calling my father gay, I myself never stated that, although it is true. My mother is the first person to confirm the rumors and that was when I was fourteen, but at no time, ever, did I ever state he was gay. His long time companion was Allen Foshko who was also his business manager.
    Van was a lot of fun and always entertaining, but life was not always a bed of roses, but then, whose life is?
    He never treated me cruelly and most of the time he was wonderful. The few bad times I attribute to his cold isolated lonely childhood and his mother leaving when he was only 3 years old. I have tremendous respect for him emerging from this childhood as well as he id. I remember how proud he was of his success in Hollywood and his father cvoming to visit and Van wanting to take him around town and show him a good time. Every single time they went to a restaurant Van's father ordered a tuna fish sandwich. Every restuarant. It was embarrassing, frustrating and annoying for Van and I can well understand why. His father was a very cold, taciturn man and I never cared for him.
    One of my favorite incidents was having lunch at an outdoor restaurant with Van and my brother Tracy, who was thirteen at the time and going through a rough bout with acne, when this woman barged over and went off on Van for bringing Tracy into a public place with his skin in that condition. Van let her rant and when she stopped to take a breath he put down his fork, looked at her and said "Madam, my son's skin will clear up and he'll be very handsome (which turned out to be true) but you'll be ugly all your life." She left without another word.
    So, to those who think me a spoiled brat and spreading rumors about Van's sexuality, I cannot be responsible for what you choose to believe; people dislike having their gossip interrupted with facts, but you are as wrong as you can be. But hey, whatever makes you happy! Enjoy!

  14. Bob Skiba

    Huh?? Since when is acknowledging that someone is or was gay "kicking them when they are down?" Being gay is a fact, not an "accusation." This is 2011, not 1955.

  15. Andre

    I think it is incredibly frustrating that people just assume that Van Johnson was heterosexual because he — like other gay/bisexual actors and actresses — played/play heterosexual characters on screen, stage, and television. And because Van Johnson was so charming and looked so wholesome. How could anyone ACCUSE him of being gay?

    To be outraged at reports/mentions of Johnson's sexual attraction to men, to affirm that's akin to an "accusation" on his character or "kicking him while he's down," says much more about the outraged ones than about any writer/journalist reporting that fact. And it's a FACT.

    But even if true, why should Johnson's sexual orientation be discussed in an obit or be mentioned at all? Well, would any anti-gay bigot ask the same question had I mentioned in the above post Johnson's (even if only rumored) love affairs with actresses?

    A few years ago, I wrote a biography of actor Ramon Novarro, who happened to be gay. I heard from more than one woman who insisted that Novarro was NOT gay — despite all evidence to the contrary. Why? Because they were obsessed with him. And he played Ben-Hur. And he made love on-screen to Myrna Loy and Greta Garbo and Jeanette MacDonald and Alice Terry and Joan Crawford. And Novarro was so charming. How could anyone in his right mind ACCUSE him of being gay or kick poor Novarro while he was down/dead?

    Well, Novarro WAS gay, as any *sane* person who knew him can tell you. And there was NOTHING wrong with that.

    If Novarro's bigoted fans couldn't get over that fact, that should be neither my problem nor Novarro's. The same goes for Van Johnson.

  16. Julie

    I think it is incredibly frustrating that people just assume that he was gay due to the fact that he was only married once and other little things that seem peculiar. It seems rather obvious to me that his daughter had some sort of spite towards him, she must have had hard feelings about something that went on, its quite possible that shes a brat and accused him of being gay just to kick him while hes down. I dont think its right for us to accuse someone of something when we really have no right to judge. Unless the name of the "lover" is known or he actually stated the fact then why are people even discussing this. He might have been a troubled guy but he had a tough child hood and being troubled doesnt make him homosexual. I guess it just frustrates me because Van is my favorite actor and i cant even learn about him without finding all sorts of crap about how people think he was homosexual. Why can't people discuss his many good points that we actually know of and not the things we suppose could be true. Or the writer of this article thinks was true.

  17. David Loucks

    In Esther Williams's book, "Million Dollar Mermaid", she had only nice things to say
    about the late Van Johnson. She liked him very much and vice versa. Even though there wasn't a sexual attraction between them, Esther was class enough to keep her
    thoughts to herself; contrary to others that she positively crucified–and perhaps
    justifiably so–in her interesting life work.
    Van Johnson, to me, was a fine actor who projected good vibes and was a "team player" in the golden age of Hollywood. Yes, I've heard that he was gay, but who cares.
    Tabloids have scewered many stars about their sexuality, and it only adds to the
    mystique, doesn't it.

  18. Don Gilbert

    Say what you may. Van Johnson was a "GREAT ACTOR". For all you young people out there who doesn't recognize his name. Watch some of the "Old Movies". Judge for yourselves. And to all those who say he was "Gay"! I don't believe that for one second. Don't kick a man when he is down.

  19. jane biggers

    I miss Van Johnson SOooooo much. Just knowing he is no longer on this earth makes the earth a wee bit more sad. He could light up a stage like none other. His entrance onto the stage was gloriously divine and all his very own. None of the stars today could come close to his live stage performances.

    Also, I am forever defending gay rights and all I wanted to know was why so much fuss over his sexual preferences? I don't believe Van was 100% gay or straight as he was like a diamond with multi-facets of personality. Yet I have to learn the name of his male lover…if he had one. I think he did love his ex wife all the rest of his life and kept it quiet.

    June Allyson was a gem as well and her voice and smile with those twinkly eyes were only hers to own. She truly loved Dick Powell.

  20. Andre

    Mean-spirited? Catty?

    Are you out of your mind? Ask most people out there. They'll have NO idea who Van Johnson was. That's fact. It's their loss as well, really. But let's not fool ourselves. If you're not an Old Hollywood lover, the name Van Johnson means nothing.

    Whatever is mentioned in this article is not "unsubstantiated gossip." If you choose not to believe the information found in it — e.g., Van Johnson's homosexuality — because of your own prejudices, that's your call. But the fault lies with you and your Technicolor view of old Hollywood movie stars, not with me.

    I've done extensive research on Hollywood history and gays in Hollywood for my book on Ramon Novarro. As anyone who has read that book can tell you, gossip, innuendo, and unsubstantiated claims are hardly my thing. Much to the contrary, I've actually been criticized for being too much of a myth/gossipbuster.

    Now, one thing I've learned during my research is how bigoted and hypocritical most people are: they have no qualms when they read about a male star's female lovers — that's fact, that's important, that's respectful — but they freak out if male lovers are mentioned. Suddenly the information provided becomes a) unsubstantiated, b) unimportant c) a hatchet job.

    By the way, the "swipes" at June Allyson — an actress I've always admired — will seem gratuitous only to those who choose to believe that the off-screen June Allyson was just like her characters in "Little Women," "Music for Millions," or "The Glenn Miller Story." In fact, the remark about Allyson was actually an indictment against people such as yourself, who choose to believe the lies fed to you by the major Hollywood studios' well-oiled p.r. machines.

  21. svein

    I don't understand why someone would sit down to intentionally write such a mean-spirited, catty piece. The title itself is shallow and childish. The first two paragraphs are insulting, not just to Van Johnson, but also to fans of classic movies. We are not "wondering why" a movie house would dedicate an evening to Mr. Johnson's work. To say that he is "hardly remembered nowadays" shows a lack of maturity or fact checking. The article goes on to rehash unsubstantiated gossip without offering any new insights or information. Not content with trashing only Mr. Johnson, the writer also takes a few gratuitous swipes at June Allyson. These seem to be included to cast doubt on positive comments Ms. Allyson made about her co-star and friend. Mr. Soares goes on to criticize mainstream news sources because they "failed to mention…his sexual orientation" in Mr. Johnson's obituaries. Maybe it wasn't mentioned because a) it was unsubstantiated, b) it was unimportant or c) the obits were written as respectful tributes and not hatchet jobs like this piece seems to be.

  22. Andre

    Actually, those "things" mentioned in this post (and the follow-up post) came out while Van Johnson was very much alive.
    Haven't watched "The Romance of Rosy Ridge," though I saw bits and pieces last night. Was disappointed that the print wasn't very good. Will check it out in the future.

  23. MeeMee

    Isnt it funny (ironic) that these things always seem to come out after a big star dies, when they can no longer defend theirself? He was an awesome talent. Just watched him last night in "The Romance of Rosy Ridge." If you've never seen it, please do so. What woman wouldnt fall in love with a man like that?

  24. jane biggers

    WHY DOES VAN JOHNSON'S DAUGHTER AND VARIOUS OTHERS KEEP ON SAYING VAN IS GAY? I WOULD NEVER SAY ANYTHING ABOUT MY FATHER AND CANNOT UNDERSTAND WHY SCHUYLER DOES SAY HE WAS GAY. WHO CARES WHICH GENDER VAN PREFERED, I KNOW I COULD CARE LESS! NO ONE HAS EVER MENTIONED WHO HIS MALE LOVER WAS AND THIS IS STRANGE TO ME. CAN SOMEONE PLEASE INFORM ME WHO VAN WAS SUPPOSEDLY INVOLVED WITH? I HAVE COLLECTED ON VAN FOR 55 YEARS AND NEVER, NEVER HAVE I KNOWN THIS TO BE THE TRUTH, ONLY HERESAY IS PRINTED.




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