Like all his films Jeffrey Schwarz’s The Fabulous Allan Carr is a documentary that should find favor with audiences, whether they’re familiar with the subject dealt within it or not. But for LGBT viewers The Fabulous Allan Carr has a special resonance. For Carr, a film and stage impresario whose career ups and downs are of roller coaster proportions inadvertently exemplifies what has happened to “Gay Culture” over the last part of the last century to those not ready to deal with it. Once “coming out” was avant-garde now “staying in” was increasingly harder to do — and far from as desirable. Carr’s career traverses a period when “Gay” stood right on the edge of being mentioned in “polite conversation” but not quite there yet. So, often as not, the rhetorical condom of “flamboyant” was slipped over it.
Allan Carr was “flamboyant” in every way and shape of his singular form — a very short fat man given to covering his avoirdupois in colorful floor-length caftans. His career highs include the lavish film version of the Off-Broadway musical Grease (1978) and the 1984 stage musical version of the 1979 French farce La Cage Aux Folles. But then there are the lows like Can’t Stop The Music (1980), his ill-advised attempt at turning the gay disco group “The Village People” into something resembling the “Mouseketeers.” Worst of all was his production of the infamous 1989 Oscar telecast in which actor Rob Lowe and an aspiring actress named Eileen Bowman, dressed as Snow White sang and danced to, for reasons Carr only knows, “Proud Mary.”
Born in 1933 Carr’s career began as one of the producers of the fondly recalled TV show Playboy’s Penthouse in which Playboy magazine editor Hugh Hefner on a set resembling a swank apartment, always filled with chic guests, hosted an evening of casual sophisticated entertainment featuring Jazz musicians, pop singers and, most memorably, comedian Lenny Bruce. It’s safe to say that Carr took his cue from this show in real life as he was an inveterate party-thrower who loved mixing highbrow and lowbrow types together.
But instead of Hef’s “Bunnies” Carr had “twinks” — male hustlers hoping a casual dalliance or threesome would be a ticket to stardom. What went on at Carr’s Havenhurst Drive home was, needless to say, “the talk of the town.” But as such “talk” was, by its very nature salacious, it stayed well within the bounds of Hollywood “gossip” only being “put on the record” with Robert Hofler’s book Party Animals (on which Schwarz’s film is partially based), which at one point notes “As his faithful publicist Kathie Berlin put it, ‘The parties were always great. Only the movies stank.’ “
“Boy Parties” were scarcely new thing in Hollywood, but in the past they were circumspect affairs and very much reserved.
The Sunday afternoon poolside get-togethers George Cukor hosted for his gay pals with male “talent” supplied by Scotty Bowers were not orgies. People could “make dates” for later but if anyone got busy on the premises, they were shown the door. This decorousness was one of the reasons why Cukor’s gayness wasn’t known to the non-Hollywood world until after his death. And the same goes for other directors in Gay Hollywood like James Whale, Charles Walters to Dorothy Arzner.
On-screen talents wouldn’t be so daring as to “out” themselves. In fact the privacy Hollywood afforded its players was one of the reasons why so many gays and lesbians wanted to get into the business to begin with. You could “be yourself” in Tinseltown — within reason — in ways other social realms wouldn’t allow.
But by the time of Allan Carr things had changed. The “closet” had big glass doors on it, and everyone was peeking inside.
While Carr knew he lived in a different world from that of Hollywood past, he largely functioned as if it were still the old one. Anyone with an eye for male pulchritude could see that Carr chose the male layers in his pop epics like Grease with homoerotic care. Yet at the same time Grease promoted an image of apple pie innocence.
That Carr thought the same sort of thing could be done with the Village People is inadvertently hilarious –especially when he surrounds his would-be stars with Valerie Perrine, June Havoc, Barbara Rush and Altovise Davis — not “love interest” just high-end “Fag Hags.” Amusing too is the way Schwarz notes the way sports star Bruce Jenner’s “masculinity” is displayed in Can’t Stop the Music. Caitlin Jenner — the woman who Bruce would become — clearly wasn’t available to be interviewed by Schwarz.
That Carr would misread public taste as drastically as he did with Can’t Stop the Music is odd in light of his career. He successfully guided Ann-Margaret from her early Bye Bye Birdie days straight through to her splashy Vegas nightclub act and her emergence as a serious actress with Carnal Knowledge. He also at one point or another handled the likes of Peter Sellers, Marvin Hamlisch, Tony Curtis, Dyan Cannon and Joan Rivers. This sort of savvy is why he was called in for advice on the debut of The Deer Hunter, which he cannily opened in two theaters (one in New York and one in L.A.) with special “tastemaker” screenings, then “breaking it wide” to a raft of theaters afterwards — thus inventing what came to be known as “platform booking.”
It should not be forgotten that in his early days Carr was responsible for the opening of the Civic Theater in Chicago, where he underwrote ”The World of Carl Sandburg,” with Bette Davis and Gary Merrill; Tyrone Guthrie’s production of ”Mary Stuart,” starring Eva Le Gallienne, and Tennessee Williams’ ”Garden District,” with Cathleen Nesbitt and Diana Barrymore. That’s quite a ways away from Where The Boys Are ’84 with Lorna Luft, Alana Stewart and the comely Russell Todd.
The simple explanation is for all his “smarts” there was an underlying level of “stupids” — especially regarding what can only be called the low end of “Camp” as reflected in his legendarily awful 1989 Oscar Telecast. Carr was enamored of “Beach Blanket Babylon” a San Francisco nightclub revue featuring “wholesome” cartoon characters involved in blackout sketches featuring giant hats depicting such sights as the Golden Gate Bridge. Carr felt he could bring this show to Oscar adding appearances by Hollywood stars of the past alongside newcomers who would be “stars of tomorrow” (eg. Rikki Lake) This was why the show featured Merv Griffin on a set reproducing Hollywood Coconut Grove nightclub signing “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Dorothy Lamour, Cyd Charisse and other eminences of yore. Carr seemed to believe their mere presence was enough. Were this was one of Carr’s parties it would have been. But the Oscars is a show, not a soiree.
Rain Man was the Oscar winning film that night, but what everyone was talking about the next day was Carr’s show — and how awful it was. In an open letter, 17 prominent Hollywood figures, including past Academy president Gregory Peck, proclaimed the ceremony “an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry. It is neither fitting nor acceptable that the best work in motion pictures be acknowledged in such a demeaning fashion.”
In effect the Oscar debacle ended Carr’s career. When he died ten years later it, rather than any of his substantive achievements made the first paragraph of his obituaries.
At the end of his life Carr was utterly alone.
As one of the boytoys who was favored by him for a short while notes in the film Carr didn’t let anyone get really close to him. It’s an excess of caution common to gay men of a previous era, even though Carr with his twink orgies was going into realms the decorous wouldn’t dare to tread. He was “out there” yet the “general public” was somehow obliged to ignore all that.
In his own mind he thought of himself as a purveyor of mass entertainment for the whole family. The Village People weren’t for the whole family. They weren’t even for the whole LGBT family. That would be RuPaul’s “Drag Race.”
Something tells me Carr wouldn’t have approved of Ru. But then at heart, like so many gay men of his generation Allan Carr didn’t approve of himself either.