Saturday, August 10, 2013

August 10

With a side of briefs:

Hurd Hatfield's Yul Brynner Connection

Throughout his career in film, television and stage productions, American actor Hurd Hatfield (1918-1998) was always associated with the Hollywood film, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945). Playing the title role in Oscar Wilde’s tale of a vain young man who trades his soul to retain his youthful appearance made him a star. That fame was a double edged sword, however, because he was unable to shake the notoriety of the role, and just five years later he was appearing in a string of B-movies. 

"I have been haunted by 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'," he said. "New York, London, anywhere I'm making a personal appearance, people will talk about other things, but they always get back to Dorian Gray."

Born in New York City in 1918, Hatfield (1951 photo at right) won a scholarship to study acting at Michael Chekhov's Dartington Hall company in Devon, England. Returning to the United States with Chekhov's company in 1939, he began a sexual affair with fellow troupe member Yul Brynner a year later. Unlike Brynner, however, Hatfield remained exclusively homosexual his entire life. During the time the company was playing on the West Coast, Hatfield was signed by MGM and within a year director Albert Lewin’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was released in movie houses.

It is somewhat astonishing that Hatfield was even cast in the role, having made only one film prior to “Dorian Gray”. At any rate, he was thrust into the big leagues of a spare-no-expense production, and among his co-stars were the likes of Angela Lansbury, George Sanders, Donna Reed, Richard Fraser and Peter Lawford. This movie still is of Hatfield portraying Dorian Gray:

Hatfield's passive, somewhat delicate and androgynous performance was delivered with little feeling, as apparently intended, but the film’s huge success did not ignite his career. "The film didn't make me popular in Hollywood," he commented later. "It was too odd, too avant- garde, too ahead of its time. The decadence, the hints of bisexuality and so on, made me a leper! Nobody knew I had a sense of humour, and people wouldn't even have lunch with me."

It is telling that his next film for MGM was titled “The Beginning of the End” (1947), a tale of scientists working on the atom bomb. By 1950 Hatfield had decided to return to the stage. In 1952 he appeared on Broadway in Christopher Fry's “Venus Observed”, directed by Laurence Olivier, and the following year played Lord Byron and Don Quixote in Tennessee Williams's “Camino Real”, directed by Elia Kazan. He was Prince Paul in the Broadway production of “Anastasia” (1954), played the title role in Julius Caesar in the inaugural season of the American Shakespeare Festival at Connecticut, Stratford (1955) and appeared as Don John in John Gielgud's legendary production of “Much Ado About Nothing” (1959). Nevertheless, he still couldn’t shake the specter of “Dorian Gray.”

Hatfield returned to Hollywood, notably for two sexually ambivalent roles: the epicene follower of Billy the Kid (Paul Newman) in Arthur Penn's film of Gore Vidal's “The Left-Handed Gun” (1958) and a homosexual antique dealer considered a suspect in “The Boston Strangler” (1968).  He was also cast in two 1965 epics, “King of Kings” and “El Cid”, and in 1986 returned to the screen to play the ailing grandfather in “Crimes of the Heart”. He enjoyed a prolific television career, as well, including appearances in episodes of “Suspense”, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Murder She Wrote.”

Having been introduced to Ireland by his colleague Angela Lansbury, by the 1970s Hatfield was commuting between a 17th century estate in Ireland and his house on Long Island for acting assignments. Ballinterry House (above), his home in Ireland’s County Cork, was filled with the antiques and art he loved to collect. It was there that Hatfield died peacefully in his sleep at age 81, soon after having Christmas dinner with friends. Michael Garvey and Ann O'Sullivan now run Ballinterry House as a high end bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Oddly, their promotional materials make no mention of Hatfield's ownership.

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