How the Academy Museum’s Queer Programmer Planned a Tribute to Sapphic Icons

The Academy Museum’s series “The Sewing Circle: Sapphic Icons of Hollywood” concludes tonight with a screening of G.W. Pabst’s silent classic Pandora’s Box (1929). If, like me, you don’t live in Los Angeles, you could only spend the last couple weeks looking at this list of events from afar with envy.

But luckily most of the films are available to watch from home, and, even if we’re unable to attend, programs like this help to ensure the prominence and preservation of these queer classics. That’s why I spoke to queer film programmer Sari Navarro about programming this series, their personal connection to the films, and their favorite rumored celebrity couple from the era.

Drew: I wanted to start by asking, when did you first learn about the Sewing Circle and this vast queer Old Hollywood history?

Sari: I first heard of the Sewing Circle in my last year of high school right as I was about to start college. I was always into Old Hollywood, but at the time I was starting to explore my own queerness and there were certain people where I was like something about you resonates with me. (laughs) And around that time more people on Tumblr started talking about the Sewing Circle and it became a thing there.

Drew: Did you watch a lot of these films before you came out or did you watch them in tandem with discovering your queerness?

Sari: I did grow up on TCM. So I had already watched a lot of older films and had that interest, but then when I started learning of these ones specifically, I was like okay let me watch more of these movies. They really did help me understand my own queerness.

Drew: Last year, I read The Girls by Diana McLellan and when I told someone they were like, “You know that’s all just rumor, right?” So I’m curious, do you think it’s important to distinguish between fact and rumor? Or when you look at this time period do you take it all as important queer lore?

Sari: More the latter. I do think it’s important to respect how someone self-identified. But that’s why I framed this series as a tribute to performers who have long been icons of women who love women. It can just be something in the way they dress, the way they express themselves. And there is a lot of rumor there… (laughs) you know, for a reason. But the audience perception of these actors can be just as important as their actual personal lives.

Drew: There were also probably people who weren’t necessarily closeted, but maybe had some gender queerness they didn’t have the language to describe. And through modern eyes we can be like, oh whether or not Katharine Hepburn was having a bunch of lesbian sex – I mean, I think she was — but even if she wasn’t there’s still a queerness to her.

Sari: Yeah there’s something about her energy. And while she was always adamant that she was not a lesbian even into old age and that’s important to respect — the documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood gets into how private she was — there are films like Sylvia Scarlett that have so much queer-coding in them. (laughs) And that’s what made me excited to program it.

Drew: Yeah it’s a tough balance where you want to respect how people identified and also not put too much of our modern vernacular onto people of the past, but still acknowledge their obvious queerness. I really like what you were saying about framing it as these are movies and stars — regardless of their personal lives — who have interested queer people throughout the decades. And that is in and of itself noteworthy.

Sari: Yes exactly. It’s interesting with someone like Judy Garland who I’ve never seen as sapphic, but she is a gay icon, and she’s highlighted in this series.

Drew: As a programmer, for something like Salomé, how do you contextualize a film that might be progressive from a queer perspective but regressive in other ways?

Sari: Usually, in our introduction we’ll contextualize the film. We’ll talk about when the movie was made and do our best to explain the history and tell an audience some of what to expect from the screening.

Drew: I’m sure in programming this series there were some old favorites you wanted to highlight, but was there anything you discovered for the first time?

Sari: The discoveries were more in how we screened the films. Like Pigskin Parade which features Judy Garland’s first film role. There were no available screening materials for that film and a print was created just for us.

Drew: Wow!

Sari: Also getting to program Billie Holiday who is huge to me. She did one soundie when she was 19 years old. I’m used to seeing it on my small little screen, but we showed it on this huge screen and it was really special.

Also for Salomé, we had a live score by Sarah Davachi. She’s an ambient, experimental musician. I talked to some people afterward who said they’d never seen a silent film, but this opened up their perspective on how they can experience silent films. That was really cool to hear.

Also we have access to the Margaret Herrick Library and the Academy archive. We were screening Queen Christina, and during my research I was able to find letters from the censor board where they explicitly said to tone down the lesbianism. To our great fortune, during this pre-code era, the studios loosely enforced any adherence to guidelines, so they didn’t cut any of those scenes. And actually they premiered the film before the censors could watch the final cut.

The Academy archive has a print of the costume test and you really get to see Greta differently than her persona. You see Greta smile, feel uncomfortable in front of the camera and then get more comfortable. We were able to screen that test before the screening.

Drew: That’s so cool. I recently moved from LA to New York and when this series was announced I was like, “Ugh I wish I was still there and could see everything!”

Sari: (laughs)

Drew: Do you have a personal favorite actor from this period? Or a personal favorite couple or hookup rumor?

Sari: I don’t know the truth to this, but I love the drama between Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. I like to call it the original “I don’t know her.”

Drew: (laughs)

Sari: The rumor is they were together at one point and then claimed to not know each other. Or they were dating Mercedes Da Costa at the same time and that’s why. Or both! There’s a lot of rumor around it, but what’s fact is they claimed to not know each other. There’s an interview from the 70s where Marlene brings up Greta but she still insists they never met. And I find that really hard to believe.

Drew: Right! The thing that makes me believe the rumor they hooked up is the refusal to acknowledge they know each other — and at times even know of each other. And it’s like, well you do, because even people who aren’t in your industry know both of your names, so what are you hiding?

Sari: Totally. So they’re my favorite couple — or rumored couple.

And I mentioned her earlier, but Billie Holiday is really important to me. She didn’t really do a lot in Hollywood, so getting to highlight her and Josephine Baker too was special.

Originally I just wanted to do a series on Greta Garbo, but it evolved into focusing on the Sewing Circle so I could highlight all of them. Early Hollywood is a fun time because during the pre-code era people got away with a lot.

Drew: What do you think modern queer audiences can gain from watching these films?

Sari: I think it’s great to look back on the history of where we were and where we are now. It’s important to see that we were there even if it’s coded. Salomé! That’s a film from 1922 rumored to have a predominantly queer cast. We’ve been a part of film history since the beginning.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 538 articles for us.


Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!