Out in Hollywood
Rudnick, Paul, The Nation
Whenever a movie star is asked by, say, Barbara Walters if he or she would ever play a gay character, the reply is almost always, "Of course! If it's a good role, I'd play an ax murderer!" Stars tend to equate gay characters with extreme, antisocial types; they will occasionally add the cautionary footnote, "You don't have to be an ax murderer to play one, you know. You use your imagination." Stars approach gay roles as if they require a second language and De Niro--caliber research; "I have gay friends," they will confide, "and I met with them."
Hollywood has treated gay issues and characters with both abject fear and too much respect. The fear derives from Hollywood's sole motivation for any decision: marketing. Gay movies do not make money, say the studios. This statement should be amended to read: Dull, earnest and impossibly sincere gay movies do not make money. Industry stalwarts usually lunge at 1982's Making Love as a test case for the public's rejection of gay material. This was a terribly well-meaning film, in which Michael Ontkean played a hunky, sensitive doctor married to the perky, extraordinarily naive Kate Jackson; Michael finds himself attracted to his rugged, if somewhat footloose, patient, Harry Hamlin. Michael eventually leaves Kate for Harry; many tears flow, but everyone ultimately behaves well and Michael and Harry prove that gay commitment is simply a matter of sharing conditioner. This film, for all its political perfection, is numbingly trite; the two men never even ask Kate if she felt similarly overshadowed by Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith on Charlie's Angels. The movie lacks any real characters, let alone any style or wit; it is a single-issue film, and one longs for Kate to confront Michael by howling, "He's prettier than me, isn't he? It's the hair thing, isn't it? Well, I hope you're both just too happy, with your Lacostes and your Levi's and your goddamn free-range brunches!"
Such mundane gay torment also befouled the seemingly more exotic Kiss of the Spider Woman, in which William Hurt's swishy, imprisoned window dresser pouted and fantasized and ultimately Became a Man only by taking a bullet. Hurt's performance was boldly amateurish, with each frame insisting, "I'm not really like this." Hurt's miscasting was breathtaking--he seemed to be a flaxen-haired Greenwich stockbroker taking a community theater fling at the title role in Mame. Real, ravishing gay style can be found in Michael Serrault's work as Albin, the matronly drag queen in La Cage aux Folles, and in almost any of Pedro Almodovar's films (Law of Desire, What Have I Done to Deserve This?). Mere homosexuality is never the subject of La Cage or the Almodovar films; the scripts assume a great gay diversity and explore more subtle issues of gender and obsession instead. The gay characters in these films are more than just gay, although they giddily exploit the resources of camp, irony and homoeroticism. In Hollywood, if a character is gay, that's usually all he or she is. To be fair, if a character is straight in a Hollywood film, his or her emotional range is even more restricted. In The Producers director Mel Brooks's gay caricatures, the epicene director/ choreographer Roger DeBris (Christopher Hewett) and his goateed secretary, Carmen Giya (Andreas Voustinas), are helplessly funny as they model the bustled Victorian gowns they have selected for "The Directors and Choreographers Ball" and demand that Gene Wilder "Be brutal--they will." Brooks has a truly bizarre attitude toward gay men, finding them both terrifying and comic, sort of satanic maitre d's; still, his arched-eyebrow stereotypes are allowed more oomph than, say, your average Tom Cruise role. ("Tom Cruise" is such an inspired name for a gay porn star that it seems wasted on such a shiny-cheeked boy scout.)
Woody Allen, whose work often chronicles upscale Manhattan, has almost never written gay roles; even the superb satirist Paul Mazursky is hamstrung by such characters as the awkwardly conceived gay teenage son in Down and Out in Beverly Hills. …