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'Sex, Lies And Stardom': Exploitation In Howard Hughes' Hollywood

A new book examines billionaire filmmaker Howard Hughes and the sexual relationships he had with Hollywood actresses. He's shown above in 1947.
Hulton Archive
Getty Images
A new book examines billionaire filmmaker Howard Hughes and the sexual relationships he had with Hollywood actresses. He's shown above in 1947.

Billionaire filmmaker Howard Hughes has long been regarded as one of Hollywood's most eccentric and prolific playboys. A few years back, writer and film critic Karina Longworth stumbled onto an online message board, listing women Hughes had had sexual relationships with — just a list of names, no other information.

"In each of these names there's a whole life and a whole story," says Longworth, who hosts the film podcast You Must Remember This.

Longworth's new book, Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood, tells a story of big-screen exploitation by focusing on 10 women who had relationships with Hughes.

In some instances, Longworth says, Hughes "was getting studio contracts for women based on a sexual relationship they had already had or the promise of a sexual relationship to come."

Longworth sees a direct link between Hughes' behavior and the issues raised by the #MeToo movement.

"The thing that I've come to understand from studying the 20th century of Hollywood is that these things have always happened and they were never talked about publicly," she says. "Just the fact that we're having a conversation is completely revolutionary."

Interview Highlights

On Howard Hughes making Jean Harlow into a sex symbol for his 1930 film Hell's Angels

Nobody was promoting sex in the same way that Howard Hughes was in 1930. He took a pair of scissors and cut [her dress] down the middle to reveal more of her cleavage. ... She was extremely uncomfortable and she actually felt humiliated on set especially. There was one scene where Hughes was directing her and she was wearing, like, a negligee that wrapped around, and he just kept asking her to open it wider and wider and wider.

Observers on the set, other people working on the film, they really began to empathize with Jean Harlow because it was so clear that she felt humiliated just making this movie, and then to have it be promoted as her being this dangerous bombshell was almost like a joke to her. She couldn't understand how anybody could see her that way, but then it became such a part of her star persona it was almost the only thing people saw.

An original poster from the 1943 movie <em>The Outlaw</em> staring Jane Russell is shown on display at a Los Angeles auction house in December 2006.
Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
An original poster from the 1943 movie The Outlaw staring Jane Russell is shown on display at a Los Angeles auction house in December 2006.

On the sexualized publicity images for the 1943 film The Outlaw

There is a climactic early scene in the movie in which Jane Russell's character is raped in a barn and ... she then ends up falling in love with her rapist and that becomes the story of the film. But a lot of the publicity that Howard Hughes released featured Jane Russell either reclining sexily in hay or actually featured a cartoon of a man on top of her, pinning her down.

On Hughes' attempt to replace Russell's bra for the movie

He wanted to create the illusion that her breasts were free underneath her blouse. So he designed what he thought was a better seamless aerodynamic bra for her to wear, and she put it on and felt ridiculous wearing it, so she ended up taking her original bra and covering it up with Kleenex so that you couldn't see it through her costume, and then Hughes couldn't tell the difference. He thought that she was wearing the bra that he designed for her.

On Hughes running RKO studios in the late 1940s

Most people think that he basically destroyed RKO Studios. When he bought it, it was profitable, and then when he ended up divesting it in the mid-1950s it was a shell of what it had formerly been. Throughout the time when he owned it and operated it he had a really hard time producing and releasing enough movies to maintain a profit. This has to do with his personal perfectionism. He would send a movie into production and then he would fire director after director. He would be unhappy with the dailies. He would make casting changes, and then sometimes movies would be finished and they would just sit on a shelf for months or even years because he wasn't sure what to call the film — he would change the title over and over again, or he would wait for inspiration to strike him in terms of marketing. He ended up being sued by a lot of the shareholders for RKO because they felt that he was just pilfering away their money.

In two specific lawsuits he was accused of using the studio as kind of a shell corporation so that he could just basically meet women and pay them off. One of the lawsuits specifically cited Jane Russell as a waste of assets, and another one named four actresses who had been under contract to RKO but who had never actually filmed a film for the studio.

On how Hughes' 1946 plane crash in Beverly Hills was a turning point in his behavior

Both the acquisition of RKO and the mismanagement of that studio, and some of this compulsive starlet juggling that we've talked about, these things ... accelerate after the 1946 crash. All of the RKO stuff happens after the 1946 crash, but also after that point it's when he is involved with many women at one time and seems to be pathologically juggling them. He seems to be getting his excitement out of having multiple women who he's telling all kinds of lies to, rather than actually getting sexual excitement. ...

He would be telling them all elaborate lies when he couldn't be with them or when he would choose to be with another woman, he would be, like, "I'm in New York but I'm going to fly in tomorrow." And meanwhile he would be in the next bungalow [at the Beverly Hills Hotel] just on the phone with them.

On how Hollywood studios controlled actresses

I think that was just part of what the studio system was all about. I mean one of the ways it functioned as an economy had to do with taking stars who had no power and keeping them under contract and paying them basically just enough to keep them on contract. There's a quote from Ava Gardner in the book where she talks about how the average contract starlet — because she was forced to always look good, always be wearing new clothes, and have her hair done and all of that — they'd get to the end of the month and they'd realize that they needed to kind of find a sugar daddy to help them out just to continue to survive to the next month.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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