Did These Big Screen Latin Lovers Secretly Love Men?

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

Man with a Secret

Photo by Viorel Sima/Shutterstock

Hollywood’s original Latin lovers influenced decades of filmmaking. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that some of the best known may have been LGBTQ.

Tall, Dark and Handsome

Graceful, passionate, totally at ease, Latin lovers did well at the box office. The phrase “tall, dark and handsome” (the title of a 1941 film starring Cesar Romero) referred specifically to these men. It eventually became part of the lexicon. Studio heads even changed the name of a beautiful young Jewish actor to “Ricardo Cortez” hoping to cash in on the phenomenon. But when the public found out he wasn’t really Latin, his career was ruined.

Latin lovers were valued in part because they could believably pull off a wide range of roles. This was especially important as stories traversed international borders near and far. Remember, Rudoplph Valentino’s biggest film by far was “The Son of the Sheik.”

Equally if not more important, the Latin lover archetype may indirectly result from the limitations of primitive camera equipment. Actors with very blue eyes, like Stan Laurel (of Laurel & Hardy), appeared on film to have no eyes at all. Dark hair and eyes simply photographed much better. (Though Laurel pioneered the use of eyeliner and other actors soon followed suit, giving them that distinctive silent era look.)

Rudolph Valentino, Gilbert Roland, Cesar Romero, Ramon Novarro

Rudolph Valentino, Gilbert Roland, Cesar Romero, Ramon Novarro

Rudolph Valentino: Feminizing the American Male?

Rudolph Valentino’s sexuality was relentlessly questioned by the media during his brief lifetime. He was endlessly ridiculed for wearing a wristwatch and gold bracelet – like a lady. (Men at the time sported pocket watches, not the smaller wristwatches.) Although very sensitive to criticism, he kept wearing the watch, and soon everyone else would too.

In 1926, the same year Valentino died, a reporter labelled him a “pink powder puff” and blamed him for the feminization of American men. In response, Valentino released a photo of his very athletic physique and challenged the reporter to a boxing match.

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It did not help matters that Valentino’s first wife, actress Jean Acker, was a lesbian. But Valentino filed for divorce on the basis that she refused to sleep with him and even locked him out of the bedroom on his wedding night. Although his second marriage had no such communication problems, rumors persisted.

To many American men at the time (and now), European men like Valentino look too well put together to not be LGBTQ. What looks like vanity, however, may just be the result of a higher quality of life and more stylish habits that have nothing to do with sexuality. When it comes to Valentino, we may never know the truth for sure.

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Ramon Novarro and the Red Scare

When Valentino suddenly died at the height of his career, the studio selected Ramon Novarro to fill his shoes. He soon became one of the biggest film stars in the 1920s, cast as the leading man in huge hits like “Ben Hur” and “Mata Hari” with LGBTQ legend Greta Garbo.

Novarro was gay but kept mum about it in the press. Perhaps the fact that his boyfriend was in the press helped him navigate these dangerous waters.

Born in Mexico, Novarro’s family fled the Mexican Revolution for California. So naturally he and his cousin Dolores Del Rio (called the most beautiful woman in the world by LGBTQ star Marlene Dietrich) and other stars were invited to a screening of “Viva Mexico!” by Soviet LGBTQ director Sergei Eisenstein. Foreshadowing the coming Red Scare, the stars were dropped by the studio for attending the screening of red propaganda. Del Rio signed on with another studio. Novarro quietly went into retirement.

Finally, in the late 60s, Novarro made the fatal error of hiring two drifters who occasionally prostituted themselves through an acquaintance of Novarro’s. He brought them into his house, offered them cigarettes and brandy, took one of them into the bedroom, and ended up dead at 69. The murder may have been accidental. And when another murder later happened in the same house in Laurel Canyon, the house was demolished.

Novarro was always ambivalent about his sexuality. This uncertainty may have exacerbated his life-long drinking problem. But by all accounts, he was a very decent, kind man who lived a lonely existence in the City of Angels.

Gilbert Roland: Bisexual Family Man

Gilbert Roland cobbled his screen name together from two of his favorite stars: John Gilbert and Ruth Roland. He was also born in Mexico, and also fled the Mexican Revolution. But in his case, his family only moved from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso. Essentially, the move was to the other side of the international border within the same city. Had Roland not left Mexico, he would have likely become a bullfighter like his father who owned an arena.

Inspired by Valentino, Roland hopped a freight train from Texas to Hollywood with just $3 to his name at age 14. Roland took odd jobs to support himself, and his family soon followed him.

Roland was both bisexual and also happily married with two children. Not much is known about his private life. As far as we know, he was not a client of the famously chatty Hollywood pimp to the gay stars Scottie Bowers. This may indicate his amorous relations with men were relationships rather than transactions.

Regardless of his sexual orientation, Gilbert Roland will forever be linked to his most famous leading ladies. Among them were silent screen legend Clara Bow. (They got engaged.) There was also the much older (and married) superstar Norma Talmadge. (She and Roland were also heavily involved romantically.)

Like many other stars, he joined up and served in the military during WWII. However, Roland’s ever-busy film career spanned from 1923 until the 1980s. He even played “the Cisco Kid” throughout the 1940s, taking up the role from Cesar Romero.

Cesar Romero: Out and About

Romero was the only Latin lover who was out during his lifetime. This took no small amount of courage at the time. Although this meant he was disparaged by many, his career was not harmed.

Romero’s versatile career spanned film and television, drama and comedy. It ultimately lasted from 1933 into the 1990s (though he also took a hiatus from filming to join the navy during WWII).

Much gossip about him and the huge stars he allegedly dated continues to float around Hollywood. But much less talked about is the fact that he may have been so comfortable with his sexuality because he had the unconditional support of his very large Cuban-Spanish family. After he moved to Los Angeles from New York City where he was born, his entire family soon followed him and rejoiced in his success.

Romero never married and never had children, but he was never alone. Several members of his birth family continued to live with him on and off throughout his life.

Among his most iconic roles, Cesar Romero played the original Joker on TV’s Batman, bringing to life one of the most memorable villains ever.

Latin Lovers: The Next Generation

After the inordinate success of Valentino, studios would continue to cast “Latin Lover” types, including women! Among them were the aforementioned Dolores Del Rio, Lupe Velez, Carmen Miranda, Rita Hayworth, and Rita Moreno.

In due time, several non-Latin lovers capitalized on the success of the archetype, even deliberately dyeing their hair black. These included Clark Gable, Elvis Presley, Rock Hudson, and Marlon Brando. (Some might also include James Dean.) As America prospered, the Latin lover archetype evolved into a working-class rebel. Brando and Dean – reportedly lovers – were masters at creating the persona. Brando would even lift weights to work up a sweat before performing. With the exception of Elvis, all of these men were also LGBTQ.

The Latin Lover phenomenon would continue in future generations, represented by Ricardo Montalban, Desi Arnaz, Fernando Lamas, Anthony Quinn, Jose Ferrer, Henry Silva and Antonio Banderas. However, as celebrity’s private lives became increasingly public and homosexuality stigmatized, there would be a dearth of LGBTQ Latino Lover representatives for decades

Images of Ramon Novarro, Rudolph Valentino, Gilbert Roland, and Cesar Romero licensed under CCNY 4.0.

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Last modified: July 23, 2019