In old Hollywood, being gay--or playing gay--was the kiss of death for a career. It was even more of a career-stopper than a lurid sex scandal. Or being over 40.
Now you can get your film complete with searchlights and limos at the Mann Chinese, star in a Mel Gibson film, co-star in a new NBC series or sign a studio deal to write and direct a feature.
That's what happened to the three principals in six short months since the Sundance Film Festival, when the then-unknown "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" premiered. Few people had heard of director Tommy O'Haver. Actors Sean P. Hayes and Brad Rowe were struggling to pay their gas bills.
A 36-inch TV was being delivered by a serviceman as O'Haver was on the phone with The Times. "It's been unreal," said the 29-year-old director, who has just finished the first draft of "Archie," the screen adaptation of the venerable comic book, for Universal, which he will also direct. "I'm turning the script in tomorrow."
"Billy's" has put him on the map for obvious reasons: As a first feature, it has a bold, camp sensibility mixed with humorous banter. And when you add characters who are open and unapologetic in their search for love, romance and a hot career, it again moves the ever-shifting marker for gay screen leads.
For the heterosexual Rowe, who gulped before agreeing to play the hunky blond object of desire, his gamble paid off. His next assignment is for Gibson's production company--and this is after back-to-back features, the last one a western for TNT in which his co-stars were Sam Shepherd, Randy Quaid, Donnie Walhberg and Eric Roberts.
"Yeah, I was worried," said the actor. Young actors don't go into their first roles without some trepidation about playing gay, even today. "It was a breakthrough role, and I was afraid. I thought it might be harmful. As it turns out, it was the best possible thing I could have done."
Hayes, who plays Billy, the quirky gay lead who fixates on Rowe, has moved from obscurity to NBC's fall lineup in a new sitcom, "Will and Grace." He plays the gay best friend of the gay lead character. An NBC casting director was in the audience at Sundance and sent him the pilot script by courier in Utah while the festival was still going on.
Closeted gay actors like Rock Hudson and Paul Lynde or gay directors like George Cukor would scarcely believe today's more open Hollywood climate. For visible occasions like movie premieres, studios used to routinely set up their closeted actors like Hudson with contract ingenues decked out in strapless dresses. Contrast that to Monday's premiere of "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss" at the Mann Chinese on Hollywood Boulevard--complete with Sky-Tracker searchlights, red carpet and vintage roadsters--in the same theater in which Hudson's "Giant," co-starring James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, premiered 42 years ago. Promoters are calling it the "first gay premiere" at the venerable theater palace co-founded by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks.
"The movie screams 'old Hollywood,' so I thought, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to have an old-fashioned premiere like they did in the '40s and '50s, but where everybody comes with who they want?' " says David Elzer, director of publicity for Trimark, which is releasing the film. "Men will come with men, and women with women, all decked out in glamour."
The key publicity art for the film is itself a bit of a shocker: a black-and-white close-up of Hayes and Rowe, leaving little doubt that sex has happened--or is about to. "And amazingly, we haven't had any negative reaction to the art from anybody, not a single word, except for journalists asking about it," reports Trimark marketing director Adam Fogelson.
Trimark, which released last year's surprise indie hit by black filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, "Eve's Bayou," a period drama set in Louisiana, is pushing another cultural boundary this year.
"I look for something I give a damn about," says Trimark senior vice president Ray Price. "And if it's important enough for me to obsess over for six months, then I figure it'll be important for other people."
Price says he fell in love with "Billy" at Sundance. "It's an utterly sweet film and a wonderful kind of evolution for gay cinema. There's a kind of innocence, an issue-less situation for the characters, almost like a gay 'Gidget.'
"Billy's dealing with basic life issues, like all of us, like anybody. It's called getting through life."
At the same time, Price also values the film's edge that relates to today's young gay generation, which is out with a vengeance. "I was joking over the weekend about 'Billy's' artwork, which is similar to George Hurrell (the famous studio portrait photographer) and the ad running for (the re-release of) 'Gone With the Wind.' But this one goes, 'Frankly, Scarlett, I really don't give a damn.' "