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Gay Hollywood: Out of Sight?


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Very well written. A good read.


Gay Hollywood: Out of Sight?

Almost two years after ''Brokeback Mountain'' raked in $178 million worldwide, no major studio has greenlit a single gay film. What is keeping movies in the closet -- and what should Hollywood be learning from TV?

By Adam B. Vary

In the weeks before the 78th annual Academy Awards, Brokeback Mountain producer Diana Ossana already suspected what few outside Hollywood could imagine: Her film was going to lose the Best Picture race. ''Several people told me they knew a lot of Academy voters who just refused to see the film,'' says Ossana, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Larry McMurtry. This tragic love story between two men had dominated the critics' awards and banked $178 million worldwide. It even captivated sellout crowds in states like Oklahoma and Ohio — just not, apparently, in Academy screening rooms. ''What are they afraid of?'' McMurtry asked Ossana. ''It's just a movie.''

But Brokeback was more than a movie. It was a phenomenon that commanded the cultural conversation for months, from Jay Leno to YouTube to the cover of The New Yorker. More important, it proved that straight audiences would snap up tickets to a same-sex romance. Since then, a few gay-themed films have been released (e.g., Notes on a Scandal). But seemingly no studio — nor any studio art-house division — has greenlit a film with a gay lead character. ''I don't think any studio responded by saying, 'Quick, dust off whatever gay dramas we have!''' says one former studio head. As surprising as it seemed that Brokeback could lose the Oscar to Crash, the real shock is just now setting in: Brokeback may have changed nothing.

When audiences complain that Hollywood is out of touch with the rest of the country, it's invariably because a movie is deemed too liberal. When it comes to gay characters, however, it's out of touch for the exact opposite reason. In the past decade, America's attitudes toward homosexuality have shifted, particularly among young people.

A recent national poll of college freshman found that 61 percent approved of gay marriage, up 10 percent from a decade ago. Kids in high school grew up watching Will & Grace and can't recall a time when Ellen wasn't gay. These days, you might catch the gay romance on As the World Turns or get sucked into a bitchy same-sex speed date on MTV's Next. You could be captivated by Dr. Liz Cruz on Nip/Tuck or arrested by Det. Shakima Greggs on The Wire. And, of course, you can watch anything on the gay network, Logo, or the de facto gay network, Bravo. This is not to say that TV is perfect. A recent study by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation calculated that the number of gay regular characters on scripted network prime-time television had actually declined, to just 1.1 percent. That study didn't look at cable or reality TV, nor the total audience watching those shows. Regardless of whether the number of gay characters is up or down this year, the letters LGBT have become a part of television's alphabet soup, and audiences consume it, in their living rooms, by the millions.

While television has been fostering greater acceptance for gay people, movies remain stuck in the 20th century. Almost two years after Brokeback, the best Hollywood can do with gay content is the ''I'm not gay!'' punchlines of Wild Hogs or the homoerotic homophobia of 300. Even the ''gayest'' studio movie of the year, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, climaxed with stars Adam Sandler and Kevin James horrified by the idea of a same-sex kiss. Here's the weird thing: Walt Disney, the company behind Wild Hogs, is the corporate sibling of ABC, which, with Ugly Betty, Brothers & Sisters, and Desperate Housewives, is the most queer-inclusive broadcast network around. So what gives? How can TV shows be so progressive while movies seem so...old?

Because, well, the people running the movies are old — or, at least, they have old ideas. Movie executives tend to have been in their jobs longer than their TV counterparts and are more likely to fall victim to staid thinking. ''It's been my experience that television has a much higher turnover rate in the executive arena,'' says Greg Berlanti, exec producer of Brothers & Sisters. Consequently, he says, TV execs ''are often much younger, and their attitudes about being gay can end up being much more relaxed.'' It's also true that TV has a leg up on movies when it comes to creating complex characters: It's got 22 hours per season to fill. ''You can explore the more mundane details of a person's life in television and therefore [homosexuality] can just seem more matter-of-fact,'' says Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under. Movies have to convey an entire narrative in two hours. Nuance is often the first thing to get cut. ''Hollywood is more comfortable with movies that show being gay as an affliction,'' says writer-director Alek Keshishian, best known for Madonna: Truth or Dare. ''We're still at that place where it's got to be a big dramatic, political angle.'' If you're going to be a major gay character in a movie, the movie has to be about being gay. You have to be the AIDS patient (Philadelphia) or the victim of violence (Boys Don't Cry), the closet case (Far From Heaven), or the tortured serial killer (Monster).

If you even get that far. Studios are increasingly in the business of making mega-budget event movies that will hit as many target demographics as possible. In that climate, it's impossible for a Hollywood suit to imagine, say, The Bourne Ultimatum stud Jason Bourne being casually keen on a cute male techie. ''Big studio fare is about being as broadly appealing as possible,'' says a top exec. ''Having Jason Bourne be gay would [mean having] Jason Bourne's dating life look different from 90 percent of the population's. Where's the upside in that decision?''

Ask the makers of The Birdcage, which grossed $124 million in 1996. Or the producers of the 1997 hit In & Out, which earned, at the time, the second-biggest September opening weekend ever. For decades now, gay-themed films have won plaudits and profits, proving that audiences will pay to see entertaining movies, gay content or no. But Hollywood still treats gay-themed hits as an exception rather than as harbingers of a changing rule. Other genres haven't been saddled with such a burden. Boyz N the Hood in 1991 inspired a stream of urban hits. And in 2002, Chicago proved that the once moribund movie musical could make serious money, opening the door to Dreamgirls, Hairspray, and the upcoming Sweeney Todd.

Brokeback could have done the same for gay film. It wasn't just a hit, but the first unabashed gay romance to cross over to mainstream audiences. It also obliterated an ancient Hollywood phobia that playing gay would kill an actor's career. Not only did stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal both score Oscar nominations, but Ledger is playing the Joker in next summer's Batman sequel, The Dark Knight. Gyllenhaal will be starring opposite Tobey Maguire in Brothers. ''It's been extraordinary,'' Gyllenhaal says of life post-Brokeback. ''It has taken me to a different place in my career. Nothing but wonderful, positive things have come out of that experience.''

But not for the rest of the industry. According to almost every person interviewed for this story, there just aren't any high-quality gay scripts in circulation. ''I swear to you, if there were projects that were visible and good, people would make them,'' says Hairspray producer Craig Zadan, who, with Neil Meron, makes up one of the most successful gay producing teams in town. ''No one's brought them to us.'' It doesn't help that the scripts that are out there can't seem to get off the ground. The Front Runner, about a cross-country coach who falls in love with one of his runners, and The Dreyfus Affair, about a romance between two major-league ballplayers, have been in development hell for years. And Zadan and Meron themselves have spent 16 years trying to get The Mayor of Castro Street, about slain gay civil rights icon Harvey Milk, on the screen. So gay film is caught in a bitter catch-22. Because studios don't greenlight gay movies, great writers don't bother crafting them — so there's nothing for the studios to produce. ''Three times I've been approached to do the Harvey Milk story,'' says gay screenwriter John August (Big Fish). ''And I would love to. But my favorite genre of movie is movies that get made.''

Ironically, it may get made, just not by Zadan and Meron. Director Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho) is poised to direct Sean Penn in a competing film called Milk, financed by producer Michael London (Sideways). (Focus Features, which released Brokeback, is in talks to distribute it.) In 1977, Milk became the first prominent out gay man in American history to win elected office — only to be gunned down in San Francisco City Hall 11 months later. The astonishing story was explored in an Oscar-winning 1984 documentary. Now, although Zadan and Meron have lined up Bryan Singer (Superman Returns) to direct — and Steve Carell tells EW he might want to star — their project will likely die if Milk begins shooting in January as planned.

Even one Milk movie is a step in the right direction, and a hint that Brokeback's achievements did not go entirely unnoticed. ''There's just no way Brokeback didn't break down significant barriers about the way [independent] financiers think,'' London says. ''If there was some sense that gay subject matter doesn't work, we wouldn't be making Milk.'' London — who is, for the record, straight — suspects that if this movie is successful, the industry will realize that there's gold in gay film. ''Maybe Milk will make clear that audiences are way less conservative about this than conventional wisdom holds,'' he says. ''I don't think audiences care as much about distinctions in sexuality as generations did 20 years ago.'' One can only hope. Brokeback's Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar have carried the almost impossible weight of cinema history. It would be nice if they could share the burden.

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