This month, why isn’t Tinseltown chasing the pink dollar?
After Brokeback Mountain’s triumphant critical, box-office and Oscar run in 2006, you might have expected the Hollywood floodgates for gay-themed films (or at least gay characters in multiplex films) to open. But two years later – and even taking into account how long it takes to push projects through the cogs of the industry – it’s not only failed to happen, but, if anything, the stony silence that’s followed almost resembles a backlash. When Brokeback churned up a colossal cash mountain ($178m worldwide), why didn’t a town that loves money so much and spawns gluttonous imitators faster than rats breed work up a gay wave?
In fact, Hollywood – even its more adventurous speciality divisions – hasn’t greenlit a single film with a gay lead character since Brokeback. However well the cowboy love story played across America, it shattered few, if any, prejudicial barriers – and that extended to a Hollywood community which embraced it so fervently on the surface. Behind closed doors though, prejudice prevailed: Brokeback was trumped to the Best Picture Oscar by the inferior but more palatable Crash. Brokeback producer Diana Ossana claims she had an inkling they were going to lose, when word filtered to her that many Academy voters were refusing to watch the film.
That’s not to say that Brokeback’s mainstream breakout (hell, it even won Best Kiss at the MTV Movie Awards) hasn’t achieved anything. (And no, I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry doesn’t count, since a film in which blokey-blokes Adam Sandler and Kevin James “play gay” for benefits is merely the Soul Man of its time.) But for every groovy gay character, like Steve Carell’s morose uncle in Little Miss Sunshine, there’s John Travolta (of all people) leading an “I’m not gay!” panic scene in Wild Hogs. Buzz still hasn’t recovered from Robert De Niro’s backfiring attempt to portray a fey air-pirate in Stardust, while, ironically, the gayest blockbuster of last year – 300 – dripped ample homophobia among its homoerotic aesthetic. Persian emperor Xerxes as a flaming, nine-foot-tall queen knocked stereotypes back to the Larry Grayson stone age, while the famously bugger-happy Spartans became a laddish squad of robust heterosexuals who just happen to favour leather codpieces.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger (and Tom Hanks before them) shattered the myth that playing gay ruins your career, but no major American film actor will step out of the closet – despite there being several openly gay directors in Hollywood (including Gus Van Sant, Bryan Singer and Rob Marshall). Last April, Out magazine blasted celebrities for being terrified to tell the truth in a controversial cover that depicted two models holding up masks of Jodie Foster and CNN anchorman Anderson Cooper. Foster’s sexuality has been a matter of discussion for yonks and she did finally thank her “beloved Cydney” while accepting an award last year.
But imagine if a big star did come out: it’s not like there’s a stack of high-quality gay scripts waiting to be made (two gay-themed sports movies, The Dreyfus Affair and The Front Runner, have been mired in ‘development hell’ for years). Against the odds, however, 2008 is offering up some reinforcement... Julian Jarrold’s adaptation of Brideshead Revisited will make the relationship between Charles and Sebastian more overt (including, reputedly, a sex scene); Rawson Marshall Thurber took his adaptation of Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh to Sundance; and Van Sant is directing Sean Penn as slain gay civil rights activist Harvey Milk in Milk (Singer has his own competing Milk project, The Mayor Of Castro Street).
Now, it’s Milk’s turn to pass or fail Hollywood’s litmus test for gay-themed projects, and with Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch joining Penn, it appears to be on the fast-track to the 2009 Oscars. But even if it echoes Brokeback’s cocktail of critical adoration and multiplex conquest, don’t bank on Hollywood rushing out tales of gay firemen, sailors or politicians (although there’s plenty of real-life inspiration for the latter). Successes from the fringe don’t automatically spawn emulators (it’s not like there were a rash of urban-tinderbox ensemble dramas in the wake of Crash) so it’s dreamland to imagine Hollywood will change the habits of a lifetime.