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As Good as It Gets?

Why Hollywood's Newfound Fondness for Gays Isn't Necessarily a Cause for Celebration

By Luisa F. Ribeiro | Posted 6/10/1998

It's gone beyond chic. Now it's becoming routine. That's right, in the past year gays have shown up all over multiplex screens across America as just regular folks. In films such as My Best Friend's Wedding, In & Out, As Good as It Gets, and The Object of My Affection, gay men pal about with sexy single women or grumpy old men, and there's nary a tutu or limp wrist in sight. With more mainstream Hollywood features with gay characters in the works, can it be that Hollywood's final taboo has truly tumbled by the wayside? That the love that dared not speak its name can now raucously shout along at the 'plexes with everyone else? Could this turn out to be the celluloid year of the queer?

Think again.

Much like the vaunted "year of the woman" a little while back, the clamor is more hype than anything else--which, after all, is what Hollywood does best. While it's true that for the moment American mainstream films' depiction of gays has gravitated away from the homicidal, suicidal, infirm, or campy queens of the past (although not too far in the past--the painfully unfunny The Birdcage was as recent as 1996), it's also true that no real boundaries have been crossed. Hollywood's portrayal of gays remains shackled by caution, triteness, and subservience to that industry byword: formula. Independent and foreign features, the mainstays of progressive filmmaking, continue churning out welcome antidotes to Hollywood's one-note bleat (with a slate of new films due to reach Baltimore beginning this month), yet surprisingly do not always fill the more obvious gaps.

Will credible gay and lesbian characters not hobbled by some form of negative stereotype ever make it out of Hollywood onto American screens in stories that people will want to see? (Of course, the argument can be made that no such characters, gay or otherwise, emanate from Tinseltown, but let's just pretend we have some grounds for a discussion here.)

The current wave of Hollywood films featuring attractive white gay men serving as lap dogs to alluring white, single, straight females is, admittedly, a ways from the tragic-victim-obsessed films of just a few years back. In 1993 Columbia/Tristar took the primary (if timid) plunge into making a film with an empathetic gay lead, Philadelphia. The moviemakers stacked the deck by casting that household name of virtue, Tom Hanks, and then made the focus of the story story a straight man (Denzel Washington) coming to terms with his homophobia. Still, its high- pitched suffering and noble strain allowed it to play in the heartland, which was the intention.

Despite Philadelphia's acceptance and all the innocuous gay sidekicks sprinkled through studio films in recent years (from Frankie and Johnny in 1991 to Home for the Holidays in 1995), there were next to no major studio releases with gay characters in starring roles again until The Birdcage, a remake of 1977's La Cage Aux Folles. The film seemed like a step backward, its clumsy broad comedy reiterating the worst gay stereotyping (the middle class will always giggle over a man in high heels and a dress--look at Mrs. Doubtfire) and completely missing the French original's blend of farce and pathos. Nevertheless, like the campy To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995) and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Birdcage did solid box office, which clearly green-lit the current deluge of pretty-boy pals.

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), an industry watchdog, has been determined, particularly during the last two years, to become a serious resource for studios developing films with gay characters. GLAAD spokesperson Bill Horn says the organization's role as technical advisor is not intended to whitewash gay characters and stifle narrative potential, but rather to see to it that gays are portrayed fairly.

Horn says Hollywood has indeed taken a substantial step from Philadelphia to the present proclivity for gay-man-straight-woman buddy films, exemplified by the recent The Object of My Affection (which GLAAD's chief media rep, Chastity Bono, has described as "a landmark portrayal of a gay man"). The film stars a perfectly charming Paul Rudd as a gay grade school teacher who agrees to play daddy to the child of his best friend, the perfectly charming Jennifer Aniston.

"Hollywood is definitely seeing a gay-male best-friend trend right now," Horn says. "They can't go back to how it was before. Hollywood's portrayal of gay characters is continually improving, and although the changes are made at a frustrating pace for the gay community, the progress"--gays depicted as likable main characters--"is amazing."

But it's easy to be cynical over these "landmark" portrayals. The buddy cycle began with last summer's My Best Friend's Wedding, a pleasing bit of sanitized fluff that would've benefited greatly from a darker tone, but which proved to be a surprising box-office success thanks in large part to Rupert Everett's devilishly irresistible performance as Julia Roberts' stalwart gay pal. Nevertheless, thinly veiled stereotypes persisted. Everett was the epitome of dapper sensitivity, with apparently no other personal aspirations than to hand-hold Roberts through her romantic crisis.

Other films in the cycle also had their own clichéd peculiarities. In & Out has some fun moments with Kevin Kline (one of the bigger stars to play gay) as the understanding, gentle, properly dressed teacher who lets his hair down with--what else?--a little disco music. As Good as It Gets, the most adult and genuinely amusing of these films, offered perhaps the worst offense. Greg Kinnear is a hapless victim throughout, rejected and abandoned by family and friends alike, necessitating his rescue by the female star (Helen Hunt) and a bigoted, homophobic lout (Jack Nicholson). The potential of developing Cuba Gooding Jr.'s brassy, black gay character disappeared with the brevity of his appearance.

The common denominator in all of these films is that the gay hero is rarely allowed a visible love life, and even when he is, the height of discretion is observed (this from a town where that word is relatively unknown). And there's always the playful suggestion that the hero might succumb to the bewitching appeal of his female costar, presumably to assuage potentially jittery straight audiences in Peoria.

For all of its sanitized "progress" at making gay males just folks, Hollywood is still achingly conscious of the old rules, primarily that genuine controversy must be avoided at all costs. Screen gays may have progressed from psychos to cuddly cuties, but they remain frustratingly simple and two-dimensional. Although we can't knowingly demand "reality" from the dream factory, we can certainly plead for more colorful dreams, can't we?

Still, strong ticket sales for the gay-buddy films have encouraged Hollywood to milk the pleasantly nonthreatening trend as long as possible. Currently in development is a comedy script written by Everett (who will costar with Madonna) that echoes Object's story line--it's about a marriage of convenience between a gay man and a straight woman. Originally titled Martha and Arthur, the film's new title is the cutesy The Next Best Thing. Maybe it ought to be called The Same Old Thing.

Contentedly stuck in its safe rut, Hollywood shows no sign of addressing its greatest exclusion of gays. Ironically, Movieland's major oversight is democratic, sparing neither gay nor straight: women. Still reeling from the tumult over the 1991 release of Thelma & Louise, about two straight women who have the effrontery to place their friendship above any tie to the opposite sex (which men have been doing on-screen since the dawn of cinema), major studios continue to be reticent about placing two women anywhere near each other without some fella running interference.

This flies directly in the face of the industry standard that the box office rules. Female audiences have proved by the popularity of "women's pictures"--Steel Magnolias (1989), Thelma and Louise, Little Women (1994), and even distinctly mediocre fare such as How to Make An American Quilt (1995)--that they want to see films that center on women's lives. And still Hollywood refuses to get it. Not surprisingly, that leaves lesbians as Hollywood's greatest lost cause of all.

On those rare occasions when a studio picture does feature a lesbian main character, as in 1994's Boys on the Side (which featured the potentially exciting casting of the top-billed Whoopi Goldberg as a lesbian), the result proves weak and unfulfilling. Whoopi pined, but the straight object of her affection, Mary-Louise Parker, never seemed to really understand and, in a crafty narrative twist, was too busy dying of AIDS anyway.

Ambiguous treatments such as the hugely successful Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) suffer from the fierce denial from both studio and audiences alike that there is anything remotely romantic about the central characters' relationship. Where women's relationships with other women are concerned in mainstream American pictures, love still dare not speak its name.

It shouldn't come as any great shock that when overt lesbianism has been put on the screen by major studios of late, it is primarily as a sexual tease for straight-male consumption.

The most extreme case is Sharon Stone's manipulative ice-pick-wielding killer in Basic Instinct (1992), but smaller films (released through the majors' subsidiaries) have followed suit. The fem noir Bound (1996) continued this voyeurism, which its promotional materials summed up perfectly, stating, "The fact that you get to watch Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon kiss is enough right there to bring audiences in."

Even if you look to independent films to make up for Hollywood's gaping lapses, there isn't much on the horizon for the hopeful lesbian moviegoer. As always gay-male films abound, from the excellent (Britain's little-seen Love and Death on Long Island, which played at the Charles Theatre recently, and the forthcoming The Opposite of Sex, which, with its delightful bitchy drollery, is everything The Object of My Affection isn't) to the sincere if uneven (I Think I Do and the Canadian The Hanging Garden) to fluffy fantasy (Billy Hollywood's Screen Kiss and Broadway Damaged).

Lesbians should be so lucky to have that kind of range in selection. In the past few years, little foreign gems such as New Zealand's brilliant Heavenly Creatures (1994), Holland's Antonia's Line (1995), France's French Twist (1995), India's Fire (1997), and Britain's Female Perversions (1997) have proved too rare. American independent films pale in comparison, continuing a disappointing propensity for shockingly mediocre filmmaking and wildly uneven scripts, from the overhyped Go Fish (1994) to the insubstantial The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995) to more innocuous coming-out tales such as last year's All Over Me. The forthcoming High Art (which is scheduled to open in Baltimore on June 26) uses lesbian characters for a strangely calculated radical-chic effect rather than for substance.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of recent indie films dealing with sexuality is the number that explore its fluidity, such as last year's Chasing Amy, more fascinating for what it says about male heterosexual fears of homosexuality than it does about a young woman in touch with her sexuality. The forthcoming Velvet Goldmine, although set in the 1970s, also suggests an easy acceptance of bisexuality.

But these films remain in art houses for a reason: their limited appeal. As a result, they preach to the choir. GLAAD's Bill Horn says the organization deals almost exclusively with Hollywood because of its films' greater visibility. "GLAAD's goal is to keep people informed," Horn says, "And Hollywood films reach more people."

Horn says GLAAD is acutely aware that Hollywood's greatest weakness in its depictions of gays and lesbians is a dearth of diversity, which GLAAD continues to work on with studio representatives. He made no comment about whether his group is gaining any headway.

He says GLAAD offices in New York, L.A., and Kansas (yes, Toto) have weekly conference calls to keep tabs on how various films with gay characters play. (Each office has a team of people that attends and gauges public response to certain movies.) So far the buddy films are all doing well. No one can say what, if anything, will follow this wave of affable screen gays. Maybe nothing. So perhaps we should get out the noisemakers and party hats and start celebrating Hollywood's year of the queer while it lasts.

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