I think most of what was said here is ridiculous. There was nothing in the episode to indicate anything about Rattigan being gay. Gay men don't womanize. The fact that he was flirting with Laura like that right in front of Rob proved what he said later...that it was simply a performance. Quite an unwise thing to do, but still, a performance. (And what a hilarious performance...Richard Dawson was excellent in the role!) Personally, I loved this episode!.---a comment on a post of mine from 2005, Racy Tracy Rattigan has a secret.
Couldn’t work it into my review, but the title of the play Unnatural Acts has layers of meaning that end up applying to an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
I’m not kidding.
Obviously, the title takes off from the accusations against the young men who were hauled before Harvard’s Secret Court in 1920 and “tried” for the crime of committing unnatural acts with other men---that is, for being gay. But the phrase is turned back on the Court by the audience’s knowledge that it is the Court that is engaging in unnatural acts, prosecuting and persecuting the students for the “crime” of being themselves and then terrifying and bullying them into turning on themselves and their friends and actually committing unnatural acts of cowardice, betrayal, and self-recrimination and self-loathing.
But here’s how we get to that episode of Dick Van Dyke.
The repressive attitudes of the time towards homosexuality and homosexuals forced gay people to live a lie. To avoid condemnation, censure, ostracization, violence, gays had to pretend not to be who and what they were. They had to put on an act. Since that act required them to reject their true selves, the act was---and is---against nature. It was an unnatural act.
The character in the play who acts most unnaturally in that way, that is, the student who lives the most egregious lie is an athlete, a track star named Kenneth Day.
To contemporary eyes he is an obvious closet case, probably a lot of people back then would have had him figured out quickly too. He tries way too hard to play the part of heterosexual stud, bragging about all the girls he has, not slept with, but turned down or escaped. His sexual conquests are all in the future. At the same time he is not as subtly as he thinks seductive towards a straight male friend, getting too close, touching him---in manly and playful fashion---too often, and showing off his naked chest, and in one scene, naked everything else, and making sure he’s noticed.
But he’s not gay! Not him! How could he be? He would never do that with a man!
What he would do is let a man do that to him.
See, the stress builds up before a meet or an exam and if he’s going to be in shape, mentally and physically, he’s going to need some relief. Which gay friends are willing to provide by giving him blow jobs whenever he comes begging them to help him relax.
Unnatural Acts is based on a true story and all the characters in the play had real life counterparts. They’re all long dead now. Kenneth Day, we learn, was married.
When his daughter found out that her father was one of the students brought before the secret court and that the play would depict him as it does, she objected that he wasn’t gay. He couldn’t have been, she argued, because he was a notorious womanizer.
In a post I wrote last week that I’d hope would spark more of a discussion, Nude with Sitcom, I mentioned that reading Dick Van Dyke’s memoirs had inspired me to watch many episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show. That’s not exactly how I put it. I tried to claim blogging virtue points, but that’s what happened. But I also re-read some old posts of mine about the show. I’ve written more than a few over the years, it turns out. One of those posts is called Racy Tracy Rattigan has a secret. That secret, I’d decided, was that he was gay.
I didn’t say that flat out. I wanted to see if any of my readers came to the same conclusion without my prompting.
Here’s a quick summary of the episode: Alan Brady’s going away for a couple of weeks so he’s invited a British movie star to guest host his show while he’s gone. The movie star, Tracy Rattigan, known as Racy Tracy, turns out to be a total jerk, the height of his jerkiness being when he hits on Laura right in front of Rob in the Petries’ living room. Rob comes close to beating him up, but settles for throwing him bodily out the door. The next day, Tracy shows up at the office and tells the gang what a great time he had at Rob’s. It turns out that this is one of his favorite ways of getting his kicks, making a play for other men’s wives and then laughing at them when they get jealous and lose their tempers. Often, he’s laughing through a fat lip. Some of those husbands weren’t content with throwing him out the door.
So, here we have a movie star with a reputation as ladies man who has made a point of chasing women he knows he probably won’t have a chance to sleep with and that’s fine with him because it gets him into fights that he’s as happy to lose as win.
And after he leaves the office, proclaiming that he’s off to flirt with a pretty receptionist he spotted down the hall, Rob, Sally, and Buddy very soberly decide together that they’re going to write Rattigan the best show they’ve ever written.
When Mel asks why they’d want to do that for such a creep, Rob says, “Mel, what else has he got?”
Now, it’s true that Rattigan doesn’t appear to have much of a life, except that he’s a movie star, which would seem make up for a lot but also mean he doesn’t need a boffo appearance on The Alan Brady Show to keep going. But he’s still a supreme jerk and there’s no good reason to the gang to feel the least bit sorry for him, let alone sorry enough to go through the trouble.
Unless there’s something else going on, something that couldn’t be talked about openly on television in 1963.
He has to be gay, I concluded when I re-watched the episode that time.
Or does he?
I tried to think who Racy Tracy might have been based on. Alan Brady wouldn’t have asked any movie star to guest host his show. It would have had to be someone known for being funny. My first candidate then was Peter Sellers. Sellers was a well-known asshole. And like Racy Tracy, he drank. But Rattigan is meant to be something of a matinee idol. He makes even a tough cookie like Sally swoon and when she meets him, Laura melts. I can’t see many women melting over Sellers, although Brit Ekland must have seen something in him.
Other possibilities were Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, but although they could be funny they weren’t, not in their movies so far at the time, at any rate. Same goes for Albert Finney.
It’s possible that the model is someone whose star faded long before I started watching movies. But it’s also possible that the model wasn’t British. Racy Tracy’s a Brit because he’s played by Richard Dawson but the real person---if there was a real person behind the character—could have been an American.
But did Hudson drink? And wasn’t he known as a nice guy? And I didn’t think he pretended to be a womanizer. He just pretended to want to get married to women he was very publically “romantically linked” to.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I came to realize that I was missing the point.
Who the real Tracy Rattigan might have been doesn’t matter. It’s not Racy Tracy himself the episode is addressing, however obliquely. It’s his situation.
His situation is the same as Rock Hudson’s and Montgomery Clift’s and who knows how many others in those days. He’s a gay man whose career as a movie star would come to an abrupt end if the public learned he was gay. Tracy, like all of the others, would have had to pretend he was straight. He would have had to put on an act, an unnatural act.
Maybe no particular star adopted the same act, but Tracy’s would have been a good one, good enough to give the gossip columnists who would have gone along with the act to keep their access to the studios stories to feed the supposedly gullible and easily shocked public. A compulsive womanizer who was quick with his fists and constantly mixing it up with jealous husbands? How macho manly studly is that?
Who’d suspect that Racy Tracy wasn’t a macho manly stud? After all, he was acting just like Burton and O’Toole and Finney!
At any rate, that post did spark discussion. Lots of comments. Some readers saw what I saw and agreed. Others saw it or saw why I saw it but thought I was wrong, that I was reading too much into the show or missing something simpler and more likely. Still others didn’t see it at all. I really don’t know, but re-reading the comments I had the same question for those who disagreed with me as I had on the original go-round, Why do you think Rob, Sally, and Buddy feel so sorry for him then?
But there was something else interesting this time. A comment I hadn’t read before. It was added four years later, in 2009, probably someone googling their way around the net during a period when I wasn’t moderating comments, I guess, or I’d have seen it then and remembered it.
I quoted the whole comment at the top of this post, but I’m going to quote the key passage again here:
I think most of what was said here is ridiculous. There was nothing in the episode to indicate anything about Rattigan being gay. Gay men don't womanize.
I hope you’ll read or (if you’ve been hanging around Mannionville that long) re-read the original post. And if you have time, that other post Nude With Sitcom: A study in mores, also known to art historians as Laura Petrie Naked.
Also, here’s my review of Unnatural Acts. Note Classic Stage has extended the show’s run through Sunday, July 31.
And as if I haven’t thrown enough at you to read: Another unnatural act? Meet the Bachmanns’ “Ex-Lesbian” Friend.
One more thing. Now I can do something I couldn’t do back then. Give you the episode itself to watch. See what you think.
Photo from Unnatural Acts: From left, Jess Burkle, Roe Hartrampf (as Kenneth Day), and Will Rogers. By Joan Marcus, courtesy of Classic Stage Company.