La Vida Loca

Early Hollywood star shined brightly and gay By Jay Blotcher When André Soares, the author of Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro, the masterful new biography on the silent film idol, calls himself “obsessive,” believe him. The 38-year-old author has carried a torch for the actor—whose greatest triumph was the title role in the 1926 classic Ben-Hur—since Soares’ early teens in Brazil. Beyond Paradise is the culmination of the author’s fascination with Soares over 26 years. The book illuminates not only the actor’s rise and fall, but the heady era when a grove of citrus trees morphed into a star factory called Hollywoodland. Growing up in Catholic Rio de Janeiro with an early realization of his sexuality, Soares felt isolated. “I was always a lonely kid,” he recalled in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, speaking in a lyrical, Portuguese-edged accent. “I didn’t know anyone else was gay… anyone who was like I was.” Novarro’s brutal murder at the age of 69 in 1968, at the hand of two hustling drifters in his Laurel Canyon home, was as ignominious an outing as Hollywood had ever seen. In 1976, when he was 12, Soares came across a piece about Novarro’s life and death in a book, which also mentioned his homosexuality. While there was no accompanying photo, the Mexican-born Novarro was identified as a matinee idol. Soares thought, “He must have been attractive and masculine.” (And so he was; in its review of Ben-Hur, The New York Times praised the five-foot-six actor’s performance, citing Novarro as “a sturdy, handsome young chap, with an excellent figure.”) Despite Novarro’s dubious finale, Soares now had a gay role model. He became infatuated with the actor. As a gifted student learning English at the time, Soares remembers scouring library shelves for any books on him. Novarro’s films were long out of circulation, especially the silent movies that cemented his career, placing him briefly at the top of MGM’s roster and securing him the distinction of Hollywood’s first Latin American movie star. (He was groomed by studio suits to be a Latin Lover like his contemporary Rudolph Valentino.) Soares finally caught a Novarro film on Brazilian television. He eventually came out to his parents, moved to Europe, and, in 1993, to Los Angeles to study Cinema Studies. He spent countless hours at the West Hollywood Silent Movie House, becoming better acquainted with Novarro and his work. Soares began work on Beyond Paradise five years ago, and it shows in the book’s depth. He contacted libraries in Brazil, France and England to trace heretofore lost films and newspaper accounts attesting to Novarro’s international popularity, and rummaged through old studio documents. During his last year of work on the book, Soares was clocking 14 to 18 hours daily before his computer screen. “I got very wrapped up in it,” he says. The effort has yielded gold; Beyond Paradise is an indispensable tome for both fans of old Hollywood and academics. In addition to an exhaustive filmography and bibliography, Soares includes 60-plus pages of notes. Soares conjures the eras of Novarro’s life, from his uncertain beginnings in Mexico to his arrival in Hollywood, from his early screen triumphs to his brief stint as a director to his screenplay writing, to an operatic career as roles in the movie began to dry up. Novarro was a semi-closeted homosexual who nonetheless shrugged off a faked marriage for publicity’s sake, he also remained an ardent Catholic. A shrewd careerist, he became lovers with Herbert Howe, a prominent Tinseltown scribe who made Novarro a mainstay in his columns for Photoplay. After Ben-Hur, and the costume epics Mata Hari and The Prisoner of Zenda, Novarro’s instincts faltered; he opted for a string of lesser films, which prematurely dimmed his career. He ended up an egotistical, tempestuous man with a penchant for driving drunk and procuring the favors of rough trade. Soares unflinchingly traces Novarro’s downward spiral, but in empathic tones. “He became less and less accepting of himself,” Soares says. “When he was young, he was able to compartmentalize himself—homosexuality, religion, family—but as he grew older, the drinking grew worse. “I could have easily turned Novarro into a Hispanic hero or a gay hero, but he wasn’t either. He was a complex human being who happened to be gay and who happened to be Hispanic.” Despite Soares’ unimpeachable command of the material, Novarro remains stubbornly opaque as the central player. Even pieces from selected correspondence and Novarro’s unpublished memoirs, since they omit salient details about his sexuality or inner conflicts, fail to bring the man fully into focus. Until Soares’ book, our knowledge of Novarro came from Kenneth Anger’s naughty (and increasingly discredited) Hollywood Babylon, which claimed the murder weapon was a dildo given to him by Valentino. Soares’ only wish is that his book finally puts to rest the “pathetic” rumor.