Sapphic Actresses - 1920s to 2020s

From 1920s silent movies, the talkies, the Hollywood "sewing circle" through to the 2020s sapphic actresses were juggling their secret lesbian lives with their stardom. A wink to some slick Lesbian actresses.

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Sapphic Actresses

From an early age I have had a passion for movies and had the pleasure of working in an art house cinema, while undertaking my PhD, which hosted Edinburgh International Film Festival Movies. Though I had crushes on actresses I also looked to female actresses for inspiration - gals with gusto who were adventurous, daring, entrepreneurial and... who didn't just stand there while her beau was fighting the baddie - she grabbed the knife / gun when it dropped and stabbed / shot / with a frying pan knocked out the baddie.

The Sewing Circle
On reading Axel Madsen's The Sewing Circle I wanted to run around with joy on discovering some of Hollywood's greatest and elegant female icons were bi or lesbian actresses. Eat your heart The L-word chart, a post by Riese summarises their "links" in two remarkable infographics: The Hollywood Chart and The Woman of The Hollywood Chart.

The Celluloid Closet
Regardless of which industry you work in there is still a potential stigma / taboo to being out. In particular this could ruin ...

... someone's career as an actor. In particular, I recall dashing and talented actor Rupert Everett who has made numerous comments over the years about how coming out as a gay actor ruined his career in Hollywood. Everett came out over 20 years ago and, since then he has only been offered supporting roles – no lead parts. A huge bravo to the actors who have had the courage to come out in the film industry. Yet on coming out, they may fall on the sword and be typecast as a "gay/lesbian" actor, upon which there are considerably fewer leading roles.

I wonder
Citing the Oxford Dictionary, "acting" is "The art or occupation of performing fictional roles in plays, films, or television." Looking at wiki's list of Oscar nominations for "Performances of LGBTQ Characters Nominated for and/or Awarded Best Actress in a Leading Role" e.g. Oscar winners have been Hilary Swank for Boys Don't Cry, Nicole Kidman for The Hours and Charlize Theron for Monster (totally applauding their outstanding performances) and looking at a quite long list of Sapphic movies. It seems in mainstream cinema, lesbian characters are being mostly played by hetty actresses. If hetties can play gay roles what's the problem with gay women playing hetty roles?

Apologies
I hope I have not offended any actresses by including some coming out stories herein. These actresses have been massively courageous to do this and I empathise in particularly with those who found it hard because of their parents. Thank you - the coming out stories have encouraged me to be a little more out. Cin cin to the day when it's just a norm.

Sapphic Actresses: Alla Nazimova

Alla Nazimova

Played: a gypsy girl, daughter of an Arab sheik, a brat, courtesan...

Though in lavender marriages Nazimova was romantically linked to actresses Jean Acker and Eva Le Gallienne, film director Dorothy Arzner, writer Mercedes de Acosta, and Oscar Wilde's niece Dolly Wilde. After divorcing Nazimova lived with actress Glesca Marshall from 1929 until her death in 1945.

Movie Roles: 23 | Star on the Walk of Fame

Silent Flick: Camille (1921)

Russian Actress: 1879 – 1945

Sapphic Actresses: Yvonne de Bray

Yvonne de Bray

Played: Olivia's wise old cook, spiteful aunt, Gigi's grandmother, possessive mother...

Experimentation? De Bray apparently had an affair with French athlete Violette Morris, in 1939. Moreover, she appeared in the movie Olivia/The Pit of Loneliness (1951), a landmark in lesbian cinema.

Movie Roles: 13

Slick Flick: Gigi (1949)

French Actress: 1889 – 1954

Sapphic Actresses: Grace Darmond

Grace Darmond

Darmond starred in the first Technicolor film, The Gulf Between (1917) which was unfortunately not a success as this early Technicolor moved required being shown on a special projector.

Darmond was known in Hollywood's inner circle as the lover of actress Jean Acker, Rudolph Valentino's 1st wife. She was also associated with the actress Alla Nazimova, but this has never been verified.

Movie Roles: 67

? Flick: The Gaiety Girl (1924)

Canadian Actress: 1893 – 1963

Sapphic Actresses: Jean Acker

Jean Acker

Played: Vamp, supporting and uncredited roles...

It is purported that Acker was a member of the Hollywood sewing circles and had affairs with actresses Grace Darmond and Alla Nazimova.

Movie Roles: 54

? Flick: Brewster's Millions (1921)

American Actress: 1893 - 1978

Sapphic Actresses: Wilna Wilde

Wilna Wilde

Played: "The Powerful Katrinka" in The Toonerville Trolley silent movie comedies based on Fontaine Fox's "Toonerville Folks" comic strip.

During filming she met the daughter of her Toonerville co-star, Dan Mason, American painter Nan Mason and they became inseparable for almost six decades.

Movie Roles: 20

Slick Flick: Skipper's Flirtation (1921)

American Actress: 1894 – 1979

Sapphic Actresses: Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich

Played: cabaret singer, widow of a Nazi general (Judgment at Nuremberg), cold-hearted wife...

Dietrich was a prominent a member of the "sewing circle". She had an affair with Mercedes de Acosta (a poet, playwright) and Tallulah Bankhead. Did she or didn't she have a love affair with fellow actress Greta Garbo and the singer Edith Piaf? That is the question!

Movie Roles: 56 | Oscars: 1 nom, Film Award Wins: 5 & Nominations: 2

Risqué Flick: Morocco (1930)

German-American Actress: 1901 - 1992

Sapphic Actresses: Tallulah Bankhead

Tallulah Bankhead

Played: a torpedoed merchant ship survivor, Catherine the Great, socialite, adulterous wife...

Racy! Rumours have linked her romantically to actresses Alla Nazimova, Beatrice Lillie, Blyth Daly, Greta Garbo, Hattie McDaniel, Marlene Dietrich, Patsy Kelly writers Mercedes de Acosta and Eva Le Gallienne, and singer Billie Holiday.

Movie Roles: 26 | Film Award Wins: 2

Slick Flick: Lifeboat (1944)

American Film & Stage Actress: 1902 – 1968

Sapphic Actresses: Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo

Played: Anna Karenina, Queen Christina, Parisian courtesan, Russian envoy, opera star...

Biographers and Hollywood historians have speculated that she was bi as she hung out with Hollywood's Sewing Circle. Mercedes da Costa claims that she had a lesbian affair with Garbo.

Movie Roles: 33 | Oscars: 4 nom, Film Award Wins: 11 & Nominations: 2

Slick Flick: Queen Christina (1933)

Swedish-American Actress: 1905 - 1990

Sapphic Actresses: Brenda Dean Paul

Brenda Dean Paul

Brenda Dean Paul, was a British silent film and stage actress, and "Bright Young Thing" in the 1920s. Such a shame became addicted to drugs.

Still trying to find out more info on her as she looks v intesresting

Movie Roles: ?

Slick Flick: ?

English Actress: 1907 – 1959

Sapphic Actresses: Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn

Played: Mary, Queen of Scots, Chinese woman, female pilot, girl disguised a boy...

Did Hepburn have a Lavender marriage to "Luddy" Ogden Smith? Apparently when they went to Bermuda on their honeymoon, Hepburn took along Laura Harding (who she had lived with for four years and who once described herself as "Miss Hepburn's husband") and "Luddy" took his... gay lover, Jack Clark. But, bi! No one can dispute her L.O.V.E to Spencer Tracy.

Movie Roles: 53 | Oscars: 4, Film Award Wins: 24 & Nominations: 37

Slick Flick: The African Queen (1951)

American Actress: 1907 – 2003

Sapphic Actresses: Margaret Lindsay

Margaret Lindsay

Played: a supporting Baby Face, Jezebel...

Starred with: Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Boris Karloff, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Errol Flynn, James Cagney, Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart...

Margaret's life partner was Mary McCarty, a musical theatre, film, and television actress

Movie Roles: 96 | Star on the legendary Hollywood Walk of Fame

Slick Flick: The House of the Seven Gables (1940)

American Actress: 1910 – 1981

Sapphic Actresses: Nina Mae McKinney

Nina Mae McKinney

Nina Mae McKinney is best known as the seductress (and credited) "Chick" in Hallelujah, the first all-black, all-sound musical.

Via actress Pepi Lederer, Nina had a relationship with Lederer.

Movie Roles: 26

Slick Flick: Hallelujah (1929)

Afro-American Actress: 1912 - 1967

Sapphic Actresses: María Félix

María Félix

One of the most famous Mexican & Latin American movie stars ever, María Félix starred in 48 movie & TV roles including award-wining The Devil Is a Woman (1950), Río Escondido (1948) and Enamorada (1946)

FOUR marriages - it is speculated she had love affairs with women including Suzanne Baulé (aka Frede) who ran a cabaret Le Carroll's on Rue de Ponthieu (Paris) and, a ménage à trois Diego Rivera and, Freda Kahlo?

Movie & TV Roles: 48

Doña Bárbara (1943) - made her known as "La Doña" | Film Award Wins: 8 & Nominations: 2

Mexican Actress & Singer: 1914 - 2002

Sapphic Actresses: Nicole Stéphane

Nicole Stéphane

Stéphane was a Rothschild heiress, film producer, occasional actress (nominated for BAFTA Best Foreign Actress for Les Enfants Terribles) and, French resistance fighter!

Susan Sontag's dairies reveal, that of her affairs the one with Nicole was the most passionate.

Movie Roles: 7 | Film Award Nominations: 1

Slick Flick: Les Enfants Terribles (1950)

French Actress: 1923 – 2007

Sapphic Actresses: Sandra Dale Dennis

Sandra Dale Dennis

Played: lezza chicken farmer, Honey in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, seductress landlady...

After Sandra's death, she was identified as bisexual by her biographers and Hollywood historians.

Movie Roles: 36 | Oscars: 3, Film Award Wins: 1 & Nominations: 4

Slick Flick: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

American Actress: 1937 – 1992

Sapphic Actresses: Lily Tomlin

Lily Tomlin

Played: acerbic grandma, gospel singer, sleuth, shrinking woman, Dr. Selma Dritz (AIDS hero)...

In 1975, Lily turned down the chance be the cover of Time magazine on the proviso she had to reveal her sexuality. Total respect, she wasn’t ready to come out publicly at that point. She waited until death of her mother.

Movie Roles: +67 | Oscars: 1 nom, Film Award Wins: +46 & Nominations: +72

Slick Flick: Grandma

American Actress: 1939

Sapphic Actresses: Miriam Margolyes

Miriam Margolyes

Played: Harry Potter's Professor Pomona Sprout, Dickensian matron, Happy Feet Penguin...

On coming out to her parents at circa 27, in the late 60s ""They made me swear on the Bible in the drawing room, in the most formal way, that I would never sleep with a woman again."

Movie Roles: +183 | Film Award Wins: +1 & Nominations: +2

Slick Flick: The Age of Innocence

English Actress: 1941

Sapphic Actresses: Jodie Foster

Jodie Foster

Played: teen hooker, hermit, FBI agent, gang rape victim, King of Siam's schoolteacher...

Jodie Came Out, in 2013 in her acceptance speech on receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the 70th Golden Globe Awards.

Movie Roles: +81 | Oscars: 2, Film Award Wins: +56 & Nominations: +50

Slick Flick: The Silence of the Lambs

American Actress: 1962

Sapphic Actresses: Rosie O'Donnell

Rosie O'Donnell

Played: cavewoman Betty Rubble, 3B baseball player, white trash turned multi-million-heiress...

Rosie Came Out in 1992 during an interview with Cosmopolitan magazine when asked "Are you gay?", she replied "Yes." The Editor-in-Chief cut it from the interview. Ten years later, came out at Caroline's Comedy Club in NYC.

Movie Roles: +57 | Film Award Wins: +28 & Nominations: +31

Chick Flick: A League of Their Own

American Actress & Comedian: 1962

Sapphic Actresses: Sophie Ward

Sophie Ward

Played a housewife who embarks on a Sapphic Village Affair. Two years later, life imitated art.

Forced outing: British newspapers found out that Sophie had separated from her husband and was living with Korean-American writer Rena Brannan, door- stepping and besieging the village with photographers and reporters. So WRONG!

Movie Roles: +68

Slick Flick: Young Sherlock Holmes

English Actress: 1964

Sapphic Actresses: Guinevere Turner

Guinevere Turner

Played: lezzas, socialite murdered by American Psycho, Itty Bitty Titty reporter...

Guinevere was out 'n proud right from the start of her film career with her film debut Go Fish which she also co-wrote. A girly salute to her - she made my heart melt.

Movie Roles: +59 | Film Award Wins: +3 & Nominations: +6

Epic Flick: Go Fish

American Actress & Screenwriter: 1969

Sapphic Actresses: Elena Anaya Gutiérrez

Elena Anaya Gutiérrez

Played: Wonder Woman's Dr. Poison, plastic surgeon's guinea pig, bride of Dracula...

Forced outing: Spanish tabloid magazine "Cuore" published photographs of Elena kissing Beatriz Sanchís (film director) at a naturist beach in Menorca, in August 2011.

Movie Roles: +49 | Film Award Wins: +10 & Nominations: +17

Arty Flick: The Skin I Live In (2011)

Spainish Actress: 1975

Sapphic Actresses: Ellen Page

Ellen Page > Elliot Page

Played: pregnant teen, Shadowcat, research boff, med student, orphan (animation)...

Ellen Came Out on Valentines Day 2014 during a speech at the Human Rights Campaign's "Time to Thrive" conference in L.A. and subsequently, as transgender on World AIDS Day 2020, announcing his new name as Elliot Page.

Movie Roles: +52 | Oscars: 1 nom, Film Award Wins: +45 & Nominations: +76

Hip Flick: Juno (2008)

Canadian Actress: 1987

Sapphic Actresses: Adèle Haenel

Adèle Haenel

Played: synchronized swimmer, ACT-up activist, detective, post-apocalyptic survivor in training...

Adèle Came Out, in 2014, during her César award acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress in Suzanne: "And above all I wanted to thank, ehm . . . I wanted to thank Céline ... because ... because I love her, voilà." Bravo!

Movie Roles: +34 | Film Award Wins: +15 & Nominations: +20

Slick Flick: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

French/Austrian Actress: 1989

Sapphic Actresses: Kristen Stewart

Kristen Stewart

Played: Twilight vampire, personal shopper, Joan Jett, Snow White, Princess Diana ...

In 2013, Kristen hosting Saturday Night Live, spoke about President Trump tweeting that Rob Pattinson should dump her. She replied: "If you didn't like me then, you're probably not going to like me now... I'm like, so gay, dude." Bravo!

Movie Roles: +56 | Oscars: 1 nom, Award: Wins +87 & Nominations: +106

Rockin Flick: The Runaways (2010)

American Actress: 1990

Sapphic Actresses: Ariana DeBose

Ariana DeBose

Played: Steven Spielberg's West Side Story's, Donna Summer, The Bullet ...

In 2022, Ariana DeBose became the first Black and queer Academy Award Winner for best supporting actress. Bravo!

Movie Roles: +16 | Oscars: 1, Film Award Wins: +29 & Nominations: +38

Arty Flick: The Skin I Live In (2011)

Afro-American Actress: 1991