It was the best of times, it was the worst of time, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness—So wrote Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities. And there’s no avoiding the fact that his words are just as valid to the 21st century as they were to the 19th, if not more so where gays and lesbians are concerned. For as Dickens’ era ended, the term "homosexual" was invented—categorizing and pathologizing an entire class of citizens who spent the better part of the 20th century fighting back. And we can see the results of this battle everywhere. Gays and lesbians are "out" as never before, yet nationwide basic civil rights protections are denied. Companies offering benefits for same-sex domestic partners are up, and so are hate crimes. Republican vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney boasts a openly gay daughter Mary as a top advisor, yet his party’s platform is adamantly opposed to her living an open life. Richard Hatch proves the fittest of them all on Survivor, yet his outdoors skills won’t merit a badge with the resolutely anti-gay Boy Scouts.
There’s Will & Grace, and there’s Dr. Laura. There’s Real World Danny on MTV—and there’s Eminem on MTV. And last but far from least there’s Ellen and Anne ... and there’s Ellen and Anne. So what does this all mean? That’s the big unanswered question.
"One thing that I find disturbing," says Scott Seomin of the watchdog group GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) is that when Will & Grace won the Emmy for outstanding comedy series, in the press room everyone is asking leading questions like ‘So this is pretty much indicative of how gay and lesbian people are overwhelming accepted everywhere in this country, right?’ So I tell these reporters that it’s legal in 39 states to lose your job because you’re gay or lesbian, hate crimes are up, 67% of school kids hear the word ‘faggot at least once a day and 47% of the time it’s never challenged by a teacher—but if it’s an attack against a racial or religious group teachers not only stop it, they have everybody talk about why it’s bad—and the largest demographic of suicide are gay and lesbian youth. Well at least I got them to say ‘Oh!’ Hollywood is not always a window on what’s really going on in the world. Certainly the plots on Will & Grace are fair and accurate. There are really good-looking single lawyers living in really great Manhattan apartments. But I’m waiting for them to do a show where it’s revealed how much Will pays for rent."
If there’s a joke in that, they will. But the success of Will & Grace has also brought with it an awareness that Gay Power in Hollywood isn’t just mega-mogul David Geffen but writer-producers like its co-creator Max Mutchnick, and David Lee and Joe Keenan of Frasier, Kevin Williamson of Dawson’s Creek, Ryan Murphy of Popular, and Steven Antin of Young Americans. Then there’s Emmy-winning television director Paris Barclay (E.R., The West Wing), prolific film producer Scott Rudin (Shaft, A Civil Action, Sleepy Hollow, Bringing Out the Dead, The Truman Show), and his favorite writer Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values, In & Out), and Nina Jacobson, president of Buena Vista pictures, AKA Walt Disney. All of this, mind you, is taking place in an industry where it’s still considered supremely risky for an actor or actress to matter-of-factly acknowledge their sexual orientation.
So is the gay glass half-empty or half-full? It all depends on what you’re asking about. Take films about gay life, for instance. "Showtime" is about to unleash on cable an American version of the very controversial British series Queer As Folk. But would a Hollywood theatrical feature take on it’s wild and randy view of gay fast lane life?
"I don’t think Hollywood is passing on gay projects out of prejudice the way it might have been accused of doing in the past," says Dan Jinks, Oscar-winning co-producer (with Bruce Cohen) of American Beauty. "Hollywood is a business, and its decisions are business decisions.
Besides, it’s easy to pooh-pooh the success of a film like In & Out simply because it was a comedy that starred Kevin Kline. Paul Rudnick wrote a great script, and he had a producer, Scott Rudin, who was really behind him on it. And those Will & Grace guys deserve so much credit for doing what they’ve done to television."
"Hollywood has really become a meritocracy that pays little attention to sexual orientation," opines Rick Leeds whose "Wind Dancer Productions" created such hits a Home Improvement. "There’s no point in executives and creative people hiding who they are. There are openly gay ‘role models’ today. Twenty years ago those people who were the equivalents of Kevin Williamson and Nina Jacobson were in the closet.
"Still," Leeds notes, "there are lines that people don’t cross. For example, I find it odd that at black tie charity events you’ll rarely see a same-sex couple go together—even though they may be heavy contributors to that particular cause."
Likewise there are lines drawn between the Hollywood "big time," and the "independents" who’ve been able to turn healthy profits on low-budget films by and for gays and lesbians. Once the stuff of film festivals only, they’re now circulating throughout the country in loose network of "art" theaters. Yet even here some companies wary of having their films "labeled gay"—which is still perceived as detrimental to "crossover" appeal.
"I think there are plusses and minuses when you have a gay film, but you’ve got to hit your target audience and not shun them," says Marcus Hu whose "Strand Releasing" has found a public for such gay-centric fare as Edge of Seventeen, Love is the Devil, and Jeanne and the Perfect Guy.
"A lot of distributors are short-sighted by wanting to appeal to a ‘wider’ audience. They want to ‘ungay’ so much of what they do and that doesn’t work. Get Real for example initially had a campaign that didn’t give you any indication of what the movie was about. I think that really hurt it." Hu’s planning to defy conventional wisdom yet again with The Weekend, an AIDS-themed drama from director Brian Skeet, top-lining Gena Rowlands, D.B. Sweeney and Brooke Shields, and Boys Life 3, the latest package of short gay-themed films culled from the festivals -- this one featuring Inside/Out, a decidedly autobiographical comedy written directed and starring Jason Gould -- whose singer/actress mother just retired from the concert stage. Though a celebrity offspring, Gould’s "coming out" problems aren’t all that different from most gay people’s at heart—a fact that was recently brought home to Greg Berlanti, writer-director of the gay romantic comedy The Broken Hearts Club, and executive producer of Dawson’s Creek. For he was at the helm when Jack (Kerr Smith), the gay character on the popular teen angst drama, had his first kiss with another man—a sight that cheered fans of the series regardless of sexuality.
"A lot of kids feel loneliness," notes Berlanti, "and Jack’s comes in the form of his sexuality. He doesn’t feel there are a lot of other people who are like him. But all kids feel that in some form or another. The reaction to him has always been wonderful. Especially with the coming out episode last year. Kids e-mail me, and Kerr gets boxes and boxes of letters. We’re giving kids something that I didn’t have when I was their age, which is a way to talk about being gay without having to talk about yourself. The Broken Hearts Club was in the Gay Film Festival in New York, and afterwards kids were saying to me ‘That was great, but we really want to thank you for the kiss on Dawson’s Creek. My parents were in the room and we all watched it together.’ I wish I’d had that.
"Still, Berlanti cautions, we’ve got to watch it because there are enough gay characters on TV that people will star to say ‘We’ve filled out quota.’ I want the day to come where people don’t expect Jack to be every single gay teen. Then I know we’ve leveled out."
Jack’s easy ride is in sharp contrast to what happened with The Truth About Jane, a critically-praised and highly-rated Lifetime movie about a teenage girl’s "coming out" whose making veteran writer-director Lee Rose calls "a nightmare." Up until a few days before we were to shoot the high school stuff in Phoenix, we had no high school. I’m thinking ‘Are we in 1970 again?’ It was amazing. One teacher found out that the principal agreed to let us shoot there, and she went to her church, and under the guise of ‘It’s against God,’ rallied people to try and get the school board to prevent us from shooting. Only one principal stood up and said to the board ‘If you want to fire me, fire me but they’re going to shoot here. Because this is a story that needs to be told. There are gay kids here in this school who are afraid to come out.’
What was important to me were the thousands of letters we got afterwards from kid coming out. Just thinking about them make me cry. We went to a PFLAG convention in DC and Stockard Channing introduced Matthew Shepard’s parents, and parent after parent got up and talked about their children committing suicide—and then thanked us for making the movie. This 38 to 40 year-old man came up to us after the White House screening and said ‘I want to thank you for making this movie because I came out to my parents ten years ago, at which point they stopped talking to me. My father died two years ago having never spoken to me and I went to his funeral and I was crying over his coffin and my mother came up and said ‘You will not cry here.’ Well we all started crying cause here’s a guy who can’t reconcile it, and who felt through that moment not so alone. And that’s kind of what you do it for."
As for being "out" in Hollywood, Rose (whose next project is a massive multi-part Showtime drama It’s a Girl Thing—among whose featured characters are a lesbian coiuple played by Kate Capshaw and Elle MacPherson) opines "It’s safe if you’re behind the camera. And there are actors who we all know, who are afraid of being ‘outed’ and I don’t blame them because essentially it would be the end of their careers—as stars. I think it’s really sad. Things have gotten better, but I think America still has huge issues with it, as they do with racism. And I think they’ve learned how to hide it better over the years. They’re much smarter, but I think it’s as prevalent now as it ever was. It’s all about how anyone who’s different, people are not going to understand them. It’s all based on fear."
"Out" from Day One actor David Drake, whose one-man show The Night That Larry Kramer Kissed Me will be in movie theaters this fall, agrees with Rose’s take on societal attitudes. "I’ve discovered that people are a lot less homophobic than they think they ought to be and a lot more racist that they think they are.
"We’ve diminished homophobia in popular culture, especially television. But they want to keep a little bit of fear going in these stories so you can have conflict. But overall, gays are the new Jews. We’re being assimilated. Look at what happened when Ellen (DeGeneres) and Anne (Heche) broke up. It was handled just like Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid."
Still, Drake has found professional barriers. "I’m a very flexible actor, actually. But the characters I’m asked to play aren’t that flexible. I never get auditions for straight characters." Still he’s not unhappy. "It’s the day-to-day stuff of being ‘out’ that’s radical. And it’s happening all over the country in all sort of places. I have friends in Columbus Ohio. They’re a couple and they have a restaurant called ‘Out on Main. ’ it’s very popular."
These restaurant-owners should be pleased that sit-com kings Bonnie and Terry Turner have a new series about another town in their state, Normal Ohio, starring John Goodman as a middle-aged, middle-class "openly" gay man.
"It’s a ‘fish out of water' story," says Terry Turner of the show which began its life with a different plot (a straight man was included for contrast) and location, West Hollywood. "As we got into it we realized we were going to be telling the same story again and again and again. I realized that the definition of America’s acceptance of gay has changed in the last five to ten years. So Bonnie said ‘Let’s take the fish farther out of water.' Now we’ve got him coming back to his home town after five years in Los Angeles. He went there after 15 years of marriage, and one—now grown—son. So we have a family sitcom with a gay character in the center."
With Jolie Fisher (as his sister), Mo Gaffney (as his ex-wife) and Orson Bean and Anita Gillette (as his parents) there are many stories to tell—including those related to the fact that our hero wasn’t faithful during those 15 years of marriage, and Normal Ohio has a gay scene of its own.
'Somebody said ‘Well if you can’t be gay around your family where can you be gay?’ And the thing is you can’t be anything around your family," notes Turner. "If you buy a foreign car they won’t accept it.
"You know," Turner continues, "My mother lives in a small town and goes to a church that’s very open and accepting to people. She was fine with that until the year they decided to put kind of a yearbook together of all of the families. And then suddenly there was photographic evidence of Bob & Ted and Carol & Alice. And some of them had kids. And my mother was ‘Uh oh ’ Suddenly they weren’t just scattered around at the coffee hour and they were in family groups, and they were there and they always had been. It took her a couple of months to process that."
"Our theme is right in our title," Bonnie Turner notes. "Define ‘normal.' What’s ‘normal’ in your house isn’t in mine. Moreover I think ‘Dysfunctional’ is a very overused phrase. It’s behavior. Family behavior. These people have to live together because they’re family. It’s a genetic prison!"
But Goodman’s "breaking out of it is a walk in the park compared to gay situations you can find elsewhere on the dial, particularly MTV. Easily the most gay-friendly station on the tube it’s let-it-all-hang-out attitude towards same-sexuality is in sharp contrast with the homophobic babblings of its heavily-promoted hip-hop star Eminem. And the problem of negotiating this disparity has fallen to the network’s openly gay programmer Brad Graden.
"One thing that’s always been true about MTV, and I’m speaking as a gay man personally, is that I’ve watched gay people on it over the years—like Pedro Zamora of The Real World. I found him so inspiring because at the time I wasn’t completely out. So here was a network playing the music I love, showing me that it’s OK to be myself. It was the reason why I came here.
"As a gay man I have very strong points of view about this," Graden continues. "We just want to stay honest enough to show the music they like and what they like right now happens to be Eminem. Artists over the years have expressed points of view on some of their records and in their lives that are nowhere expressed on MTV. That’s the sort of delicate dance that we do here. His videos never cross the line. He never says anything irresponsible or homophobic on our air in any form. At the time his album came out we had heard just a little bit about the controversy. We did a news special—something we’ve never done before—and as things heated up we did a whole show about hate lyrics and the impact of hate lyrics. We felt that for us it would have been irresponsible not to highlight for our audience."
As to the question of whether MTV was the chicken or the egg in promoting Eminem, Graden’s feelings are mixed.
"Well I guess yes, in a broader sense. But we’re not the only pipeline the way it was 20 years ago. Eminem was going to be a star with or without MTV."
How long that star may shine is open to question. But there’s no question that Max Mutchnick and his openly straight writer-producer partner David Kohan, have a shot at sitcom longevity with Will & Grace.
"You know," says Mutchnick ( who prior to this breakthrough hit wrote Boston Common with Kohan) "It’s really been an exciting and wonderful bonus to all of this—all the positive feedback we’ve gotten. I’m not trying to underplay the gay aspects of Will & Grace. It’s just that that wasn’t the ‘agenda.' And I could not be more proud to work for a company like NBC in terms of the way they have handled this show. I had one little problem once with the way the advertising reel was first cut to sell the show when we launched in ‘98. It effectively did not let you know that Will was gay. But that was it."
That’s scarcely the attitude now. In fact Will & Grace has managed to pull off something extremely Major without a smidgen of controversy—an interracial romance. Time was Petula Clark touching Harry Belafonte’s arm during a song number nearly re-ignited the Civil War. Now on Will & Grace Gregory Hines, as Will’s law partner, is having a full-press romance with Deborah Messing’s Grace. How did they do It?
"We think about that all the time," says David Kohan, quietly.
"The biggest romance she’s had in the life of the series has been with an African-American, and no one talked about it. That wasn’t even up for grabs," says a somewhat abashed Mutchnick. "You know we hired Greg right before NBC started talks with the NAACP. This was a casting choice we made—sexy, smart, strong man. The color of his skin happened to be darker than Grace’s. But again, I always want it to be clear that we’re never trying to teach or put out any messages."
But if there’s one message Kohan and Mutchnick want to send out it’s that there’s an active search to get Will a boyfriend this season. "Our goal has always been ‘We’ve got to find the perfect piece of casting.' We’re in the process of trying to close a deal with someone so we can’t tell you who that person is. But I will tell you it will be an experiment, because is all about chemistry. Just like with Eric and Deborah, that chemistry was flawless."
"One of the first people we thought of was Robert Downey Jr.," Kohan remarks. "But then he got Ally McBeal." As he sees it, it’s all part of the ebb and flow of a business the entire Kohan family has been a part of.
"My father came out here in ‘68 in the great migration of New York writers coming West. He was with The Carol Burnett Show. And my mother’s a novelist, and also a television writer. And my sister is also a television writer. Right now she’s working on a new show called The Gilmore Girls, but she was at Tracey Ullman. Kind of a genetic imperative I suppose. I’m the last person in my family to win an Emmy. My father’s not surprised at all by the success of Will & Grace. He’s very sort of current. The subject matter was never an issue. It’s all about whether the characters work."
As for how gays and lesbians "work" in the culture as a whole, Kohan has his own take on the "Dr. Laura" business.
"I honestly believe that there’s room for a polemicist. She just has bad positions on things. If she could get out there and be compelling and say something forcefully and even being this sort of lightning rod, this galvanizing thing for controversy, that could be interesting. That could be enough of a reason for ratings to go up and advertisers to be interested.
"But I don’t know how you can pull that off unless she is gay or is out about ‘my gay child.' How can you be anti-gay today?"
So no big problems for sophisticated gay smoothies like Will and Jack?
"Just recently they spent a weekend at a friend’s house," says Mutchnick. "They went to go visit a group of their old Fire Island buddies, and when they got there it was one big ‘Mommy & Me’ group. All of the guys had adopted children, and Will & Jack were sitting there with their Baby oil, and ‘Slip ‘n slide,’ with their Speedos—ready to party—and it wasn’t the case anymore. That’s just a story about friends growing and changing."
Copyright © David Ehrenstein, 2000.
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