Hollywood and gays -- The success of stage drama ''Angels in America'' challenges the way movies deal with homosexuals

By Michael Szymanski
Updated May 21, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Out of the tragedy of AIDS comes the marketability of gays. Or so it seems. The Crying Game, a U.K. film about a transvestite and a straight man in love, wins an Oscar for best screenplay and grosses nearly $61 million. On Broadway, Tony Kushner’s sexually explicit, phantasmagoric, Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes has already raked in nearly $2 million and is nominated for nine Tonys, unprecedented for a nonmusical play. And in Hollywood there are a slew of much-heralded gay-themed properties in the pipeline: Robert Altman has captured the rights to Angels; TriStar will release its AIDS-related trial film Philadelphia this fall; Skouras Pictures has Joey Breaker, about a Hollywood agent who confronts his fear of AIDS; Barbra Streisand is shepherding Larry Kramer’s 1985 play, The Normal Heart, to the screen; Francis Ford Coppola is hoping to direct The Cure, about the scientists searching for an end to AIDS; and Columbia is developing Barry Sandler’s The Common Mann, a screenplay about two brothers — one gay, one straight. The novels Object of My Affection and A Home at the End of the World as well as the Broadway hit Falsettos are all up for big- screen consideration. Even Joe Eszterhas, criticized by gay rights groups for his Basic Instinct screenplay, is penning Layers of Skin, which has a homosexual cop in the story line.

But appearances can be deceiving, and many believe this apparent new tolerance is merely the movie industry’s usual attempt at cashing in on headlines. ”Hollywood is the most homophobic place in America,” says actress Kelly Lynch, who almost walked off the set of New Line’s just-released Three of Hearts because the final script toned down her character’s lesbian relationship with costar Sherilynn Fenn. ”Suddenly I wasn’t Sherilynn’s lover, but just a roommate, and they changed the ending to be more palatable for mainstream America. Only after we freaked out, shut down the movie, and threatened to go to the press did they change it.”

Richard Gere agrees that, despite appearances, ”Hollywood is afraid to do an AIDS movie — AIDS is still the great bogeyman.” The actor, who has a small part in And the Band Played On, HBO’s $8 million adaptation of Randy Shilts’ 1987 best-seller, describes getting the project started as ”unnecessarily torturous.” Set to air in September, the account of the early years of the AIDS epidemic was stuck in development hell for six years and might never have been made at all if Gere hadn’t volunteered to join the cast, kicking off a Band wagon that led to participation by Lily Tomlin, Alan Alda, Anjelica Houston, and Steve Martin. ”HBO’s demand for stars was ridiculous,” says Gere, ”because the script is terrific.”

Yet even with such high-profile casting as life preserver, And the Band Played On almost capsized again. Three weeks ago director Roger Spottiswoode (Under Fire) went public with his claims that HBO had insisted a gay rights speech and several anti-Reagan lines be cut. When Spottiswoode refused to change anything, HBO, which has final cut, brought in documentary producer Bill Couturie (the Oscar-winning Common Threads) to reedit and oversee postproduction.

HBO Pictures senior vice president Robert Cooper, who considers Spottiswoode’s public complaints ”improper and poor behavior,” claims the director is overreacting to creative suggestions that are a normal part of the postproduction process. According to Cooper, the gay rights speech remains, and news clips showing how the government virtually ignored the disease have been added, bolstering the anti-Reagan references. ”There was no political pressure,” insists Cooper. ”We’ve been a haven for projects that deal with provocative material.”

In greater danger of stalling is Warner Bros.’ The Mayor of Castro Street, the story of slain gay activist and San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk based on Shilts’ 1982 biography. The film was to star Robin Williams and be helmed by openly gay director Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho). But Van Sant bowed out when the film’s producers, including Oliver Stone, nixed his story suggestions. ”Gus wanted an intimate, sensual picture,” says a source close to the director, ”but the studio wanted another JFK.”

”It wasn’t that Van Sant’s script was completely different in content, but it had a different tone,” says Janet Yang, an executive vice president of Stone’s production company. ”We wanted a film that will be extremely accessible and Van Sant didn’t feel comfortable doing it.” Now that Van Sant is gone, Williams is rumored to be uncomfortable about starring.

Accessibility seems to be the chief concern at TriStar, too, as the fall release of Philadelphia approaches. Directed by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs), the movie stars Tom Hanks as a gay lawyer who is fired after contracting AIDS and Denzel Washington as the homophobic attorney who represents him. The studio’s publicists are busy pitching the story to gay and lesbian publications, even as they downplay the gay angle to the general public. According to a source, ”They must decide if it will play better in Kansas if the movie’s focus is on homophobia or AIDS phobia. It seems like AIDS phobia will play better.”

Which brings us back to the bottom line: ”Hollywood goes where the money is,” says Three of Hearts‘ coscreenwriter Mitch Glazer. ”If audiences embrace these movies, there will be more.” But even then some worry that change will come too slowly. Because despite the number of gays in its power structure, the movie industry still fears a subject it would barely touch five years ago. As Conduct Unbecoming, Randy Shilts’ authoritative study of gays in the military, climbs the best-seller list, the author is besieged by eager producers — and mixed messages. ”I’ve been approached with a dozen serious movie proposals,” says Shilts, laughing, ”but they’re still afraid of the central character being gay.” — Additional reporting by Meredith Berkman

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