Bette Bourne: interview
Time Out speaks to Bette Bourne, who stars as a closeted, straight-acting homosexual in Tim Fountain‘s new play about Rock Hudson, 'Rock'
In a career that spans 40 years, the West End and Broadway, street theatre and the RSC, Bette Bourne has been the outest of out gay actors. As the founder and leader of radical drag company Bloolips, he stood out from his earnest contemporaries like a large, glittery peacock. On stage and off, as an active member of the Gay Liberation Front, he advocated honesty and self-acceptance. Ironic, then, that he’s currently playing a closeted, straight-acting homosexual hell-bent on stifling the truth and living a lie.
Bourne’s starring in Tim Fountain’s new play, ‘Rock’, as Henry Willson, the man who discovered Rock Hudson. ‘When they met in 1948, Rock was a naive, willowy queen from Illinois who just wanted to go out and fuck every man he fancied,’ says Bourne. ‘Willson was an artist, a sculptor – he moulded people. He created Rock Hudson as a perfect embodiment of heterosexual romance, and there was a high price to pay for that.’
Hudson stayed in the closet for the rest of his life, before Aids outed him a few months before his death in 1985. It was a massive exercise in concealment, masterminded by Willson, who bought off the gossip magazines and covered up Hudson’s indiscretions.
‘Rock had to hide the most fundamental part of his nature. He couldn’t even go for dinner with another guy. I was a teenager in the 1950s, and we all accepted without question the need to hide. It was almost exciting, like belonging to a secret club. But hiding something that’s so natural is very damaging. That’s why coming out was the most liberating moment of my life. It gave me the most incredible energy – it’s sustained my career ever since.’
Bourne trained as a classical actor in the ’50s, and worked (as Peter Bourne) on the British stage, before dropping out in the late ’60s. He moved into a notorious gay commune in Notting Hill, changed his name to Bette and started drifting around the streets in drag. Former colleagues were absolutely horrified. ‘Oh, God, they’d cross the street if they saw me coming. All those closeted actors! They hated anyone rocking the boat. “No, no, dear boy, this isn’t the way to do it! You don’t have to make such a fuss! You don’t have to join the GLF and draw attention to yourself!” ’
But it was too late. Bourne flung himself into the Gay Lib wars with a vengeance, disrupting Mary Whitehouse’s 1971 moral rearmament campaign, The Festival of Light, in a series of inspired ‘zaps’ that reduced the rallies to a farcical shambles. Bloolips was born out of that campaigning zeal, spreading a message of liberation couched in comedy, song, tap routines and an awful lot of make-up.
‘We were finding a new way of doing drag that wasn’t offensive to women, that wasn’t about false tits and distasteful jokes. We saw ourselves as a new type of man. We could wear frocks and make-up and be silly and funny, but we had a serious message, too. That tradition continues today in performers from David Hoyle down, who are doing what you could loosely call drag, but it’s not that aggressive form of “female impersonation”. That still goes on, and I still don’t like it.’
As well as starring in ‘Rock’, Bourne will be reflecting on his career in a special gala event, at which the House of Homosexual Culture will induct him into their Hall of Fame in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to queer life and art. ‘It’ll be fun,’ says Bourne. ‘And it’s nice to get some credit, but to be honest I’m not really one for looking back. All I can really say is that I’ve been very silly with my career. I never made any money. When I dropped out of straight theatre and started wearing frocks, they all thought I was mad, and perhaps in career terms I was.
'But I had the most wonderful life, and they’re [his male actor contemporaries] all still in the closet – famous, but not very happy. If I die tomorrow, the only regret I would have would be leaving my beautiful lover, Paul. Apart from that, death is really nothing, provided you’ve had a happy life. That’s a great consolation.’
‘Rock’ is at the Oval House Theatre, 52-54 Kennington Oval, SE11, until June 21 (020 7582 7680/www.ovalhouse.com) Oval tube. Adm £12, concs £6. On June 30 Bette Bourne will be inducted into the House of Homosexual Culture Hall of Fame (www.myspace.com/homoculture).
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