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Playing Straight With Gays

Strong. Romantic. Real. The gay image gets a make-over as the swishy stereotype fades from film.

April 19, 1998|Cliff Rothman | Cliff Rothman is an occasional contributor to Calendar

There's no swish, no closet, no apology. The new 1998 model of gay man rolling out of the Hollywood factory is genuinely watershed--so psychologically intact that even straight women are buttonholing them to be fathers for their babies.

It's been a long haul.

Gays have moved from invisible to tortured pervert to diseased victim. They've played Eve Arden, Camille and RuPaul acerbically quipping, suffering nobly or swishing royally. Now they're certified husband material--if not yet to the boy next door, at least to the girl next door--unapologetically gay and the male lead of a major studio film for the first time.

In 20th Century Fox's "The Object of My Affection," which opened Friday, Paul Rudd is a dishy young openly gay hunk whom Jennifer Aniston falls in love with, and for all the right reasons: He's charming, lovable, playful, emotionally accessible, vulnerable and a real friend. It's as flattering and accurate a representation of an average gay man as Hollywood has gotten--and old news to many real-life Americans. To Aniston's character, he's a reasonable alternative as the father of her baby, when a suitable hetero is just not turning up.

"He's the romantic lead, the one you fall in love with, he's openly gay--and he'd also be a wonderful father," says Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who adapted the best-selling novel of Stephen McCauley's "Object of My Affection" for the screen through a 10-year obstacle course. "I didn't want to write a gay character as the best friend next door, constantly quoting musical comedies. It's what they used to do with women, the best friend, who was always home. Then they started doing it to gay men."

Lifetime cable channel airs an almost identical dynamic to its 71 million cable subscribers in "Labor of Love" in two weeks. This time, the couple is played by Marcia Gay Harden and David Marshall Grant, the acclaimed actors of Broadway's "Angels in America." Grant's gay man is less modelish and more human, less buff and more fleshed out--down to an alcohol-addictive bent-- but every bit the catch, the romantic lead, and unapologetically gay.

The watershed shift this year owes its debt to last year's watershed shift. Rupert Everett in "My Best Friend's Wedding" and Kevin Kline in "In & Out" were handsome, masculine, gay and center stage--though Kline was mostly in the closet and asexual, and Everett was the sidekick rather than lead. But still, showcased in farcical comedy--a still-accepted norm for tiptoeing through gay life--the films were the seventh and 22nd top-grossing domestic films of the year, emboldening Fox, Lifetime, MGM/UA, Disney, Sony, Trimark and New Line, among others, to test the waters (already navigated by smaller independent distributors like Strand Releasing).

While not yet openly waving the banner for gay equality next to the Hollywood sign, studios are taking the plunge with prominent, and positive, gay characters in upcoming big-budget films in unprecedented numbers.

Not surprisingly, the sequel to "My Best Friend's Wedding" is already in development at Columbia, where Ron Bass is shaping the script to showcase the screen magic produced by Julia Roberts and the openly gay Everett. Top comedy writer Bruce Vilanch is also developing for MGM the sequel to its Robin Williams worldwide box-office hit, "The Birdcage"--hoping to contemporize the swishy queen humor with a dollop of topicality about the gay role in American politics. "Though never forsaking its drag roots," promises Vilanch.

In New Line's "Blast From the Past," in development, Alicia Silverstone's best friend and roommate is openly gay. And Everett has finished a comedy screenplay, "Martha and Arthur," about a marriage of convenience between a gay man and heterosexual woman, and has been approached to write and is currently shaping a "a gay James Bond" thriller--but where the sexuality is incidental to the plot.

Rick Leed, the openly gay president of Wind Dancer, the Disney-based production company that produces "Home Improvement," says: "There's willingness to seeing gay men the way they really exist--not only drag queens or hairdressers. Not 'Priscilla,' not 'Birdcage,' not 'Philadelphia,' but on every cultural level."

Blaise Noto, the openly gay head of worldwide publicity for Paramount Pictures, sums up the collective sentiment for many gay men: "It's just kind of nice that gay characters are becoming normal." And Laura Kim, a publicist at the Pogachevsky Co., which has to strategize every angle to hawk small gay-themed films within a sea of hetero mainstream fare, offers her own version of the recent past: "Bitchy, snappy, winky, queeny . . . that's what we've been seeing for years. Gay characters used to always have some sort of evilness, sinister, something always wrong. It's finally getting healthier."

In fairness to Hollywood, films don't lead, they mirror. Hollywood is homophobic because America has been homophobic. And the films are changing because America is changing.

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