William “Billy” Haines was a movie star in 1930 because of his strong and unabashed personality on silver screens. When MGM gave him an ultimatum to choose between his career and his partner, he didn’t think twice.
In Netflix’s “Hollywood” series, a comment was made by Henry Wilson (played by Jim Parsons) about Billy Haines, the actor who was told to choose between his beloved and his career, and he chose her lover.
It turns out the story is real. William “Billy” Haines, also known as the “wisecracker”, was a major Hollywood star who was often seen at premieres and parties with his partner, Jimmie Shields.
Haine’s openness to his sexuality was quite different from that of his contemporaries who were also gay. At that time, homosexuality was a taboo subject and most homosexuals preferred to stay in cisgender marriages and pretend they were heterosexual.
Until 1930 his bold approach to his sexuality was not a problem, but the introduction of the Hays Production Code, a set of industry moral guidelines that big production studios should adhere to, changed everything.
The code was established after a number of scandals involving Hollywood stars in 1920. In an effort to rehabilitate the image of Hollywood, the list of “do’s and don’ts” and “be careful” was forwarded by the Federal Trade Commission.
The list included a ban on “homosexual behavior”. At first, Haines, due to his celebrity status, was able to remove the clause from his contract and continue to act. However, when several of his films did not perform well at the box office, he was forced to comply with the codes.
The actor, however, achieved celebrity status because his “gayness” was part of his personality. According to William J. Mann, author of “Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines”:
“The Sorcerer’ […] brought his very openly gay and shameless personality to his on-screen performances, even when he was playing ostensibly heterosexual. “
He was definitely an example of authenticity and integrity in a time when there were no role models to follow. It makes sense that when MGM pushed him to choose between his marriage to Jimmie Shields and his career as a Hollywood actor, Haines wouldn’t change to meet the expectations of others.
Even if that meant leaving behind an entire successful career. The author added:
“The fact that he was able to do that and become the best box office star of 1930 was because he didn’t claim to be anything other than who he was, and the industry knew he was. was gay. “
The rumor went like this: Haines was called in by one of the MGM producers to soften his onscreen “blazing gaiety”. However, since his films were not performing as well as they hoped, he was given the ultimatum.
MGM producer Louis B. Mayer called Haines into his office and asked the actor to find a wife and get married. His answer ? “I’m married,” and added that he would only give up his life partner Shields if Mayer abandon his wife as well.
That, of course, never happened, so Haines stepped back from his Hollywood career, reaffirming his eerie identity as part of who he was.
Haines knew from an early age who he was. Born in a very small town in Virginia, Haines left home when he was just 14 with a so-called “boyfriend”. His runaway led him to New York and some odd jobs as a model and actor.
He won a competition in 1922 by Goldwyn Studios, which helped him launch his career in Hollywood. Later, after moving to Los Angeles, he crossed paths with Shields on a trip to New York. They would be together for the next 47 years, becoming the first openly gay couple in Hollywood.
When Haines was fired for breaking the new rules, he had to reinvent himself. He quit his acting career and became an interior designer, almost by accident. Years before the incident, Haines was already part owner of an antique store.
His house had impeccable decor and it was practically a showcase of his talent. His good friend Joan Crawford became one of his first clients.
Crawford was her best friend and because she was a fan of his taste as a designer, she hired him for her first big project. She encouraged all the other Hollywood friends to follow suit, which brought her to rub shoulders with big names such as Carole Lombard, as well as Nancy and Ronald Reagan.
Haines became such an established interior designer that he even refused a return to the silver screens. Billy Wilder invited him to perform a “waxwork” on “Sunset Boulevard,” but he quickly declined.
His unique and chic taste for design made him one of the most prominent names and design references in Hollywood at the time. Haines would replace gloomy, gloomy furnishings with colorful and refined low rooms, hand-painted wallpapers, and English antiques.
Some directors have incorporated the Haines aesthetic into their films as well. The former actor’s personal art collection was used in the film “Gone with the Wind”. In Netflix’s “Hollywood” a scene from George Cukor’s dining room decorated by Haines was shown.
Haines and Shields’ love affair was far from perfect. In 1936, a mob of white supremacists attacked the two men, making the headlines. One can imagine, however, that they could have suffered other incidents that were not known to the public.
Their beautiful love affair ended after nearly five decades together when Haines died of lung cancer in 1973. His partner Shields could not bear the grief and committed suicide, leaving behind a note saying he couldn’t go on without the man. he loved.
After so many years, William Haines remains a legend and an example of authenticity. The author of his memoir said that maintaining his integrity and standing up for his truth made him recognize that there are more important things in life than material things.
Haines laid the groundwork and opened many doors for people in competitive show business to live their truth and be just themselves.