1930s Hollywood lives again at Theatre 40 in Taming The Lion, Jack Rushen’s absorbing, entertaining, enlightening look back at Top 5 Box Office draw William Haines, who gave up stardom for the man he loved.
Serving as our narrator, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star escorts us back in time to “a magical mystical land that attracted two types of lowlifes, tourists and actors,” among them Joan Crawford, madly in love with Billy Haines until she realized he didn’t play on her team, preferring “pink squirrels to vodka gimlets.”
Meanwhile, seated on the MGM throne and watching over “the lot” like a hawk is Louis B. Mayer, not just a legend but (as Billy puts it), “the biggest son of a bitch that ever put his shoes in cement.”
Imagine, then, Louis B.’s dismay upon learning that studio’s top money-maker has been spotted with his “little buddy boy” Jimmy Shields pulling into the parking lot of the Beverly Hotel with two sailors who were most likely not there to “discuss a meeting of the seventh fleet.”
Needless to say, Billy’s wisecracking denial (there were not two sailors but three, one kept hidden in the trunk) not only enrages Mayer but violates the morals clause in his contract.
And it doesn’t help when Billy compares his own unwillingness to live a lie with studio execs who anglicized their Jewish names, celebrated Christmas, and excused other stars’ sexual shenanigans because they at least were cavorting with the opposite sex.
And so Mayer offers Billy an ultimatum. Marry a woman or risk permanent suspension from the MGM lot, never guessing that unlike Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Navarro before him, William Haines will choose not to put stardom ahead of the man he loves.
A true life Tinseltown tale that still rings true in 2021, Taming The Lion has been effectively directed by Melanie McQueen, and other than one casting misstep, her ensemble deliver pitch-perfect performances, most particularly leading man Landon Beatty, whose effervescent star turn as Billy captures our interest and sympathy from his first entrance and never lets go.
A powerhouse Jeffrey Winner is everything you’d imagine Louis B. Mayer to be, giving the megalomaniacal studio head a just-right mix of bluster and bravado, and Marie Broderick captures the glamour, charm, and unexpected warmth of a young Joan Crawford before later roles (and a not particularly successful try at motherhood) hardened her image.
Sean Rose is particularly effective at depicting Jimmy Shields’ lifelong devotion to Billy, his final moments on stage eliciting buckets of tears, and Jean Mackie makes the most of her brief scenes as Ida Koverman, Louis B.’s sassy executive secretary.
Kevin Dulude, on the other hand, is miscast as Hollywood “boy wonder” Irving Thalberg, and T40’s Taming The Lion is less effective for not juxtaposing Irving and Billy as contemporaries who differed only in their sexual orientation. (Both men were in their early thirties and each was in a deeply committed relationship, Thalberg with stunning 30-year-old film star Norma Shearer.)
As always, the latest from Theatre 40 looks and sounds terrific thanks to Jeff G. Rack’s classy set, one that allows quick transitions from Mayer’s office to Billy’s living room to Hollywood dining hotspots. Brandon Baruch lights Rack’s scenic design and Michèle Young’s stylish period costumes and Judi Lewin’s period hair, wigs, and makeup with flair. Last but not least, Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s sound design makes terrific use of popular tunes associated with that long-ago era.
Taming The Lion is produced by David Hunt Stafford. Don Solosan is stage manager. Phillip Sokoloff is publicist.
Though not the first play to depict the life and times of William Haines, Taming The Lion is a welcome addition to what’s already been written about a movie star who deserves not to be forgotten. I for one was charmed and delighted to make his acquaintance.