Despite the success of ''The Birdcage,'' getting money for movies is still an uphill battle

By A.J. Jacobs
Updated August 09, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

The script, an adaptation of Peter Lefcourt’s popular 1992 novel The Dreyfus Affair, had all the ingredients of a perfect Hollywood confection. It had baseball, comedy, and best of all, a tender, heartwarming romance. There was just one problem: The romance was between two men, a burly major-league shortstop and a teammate, the second baseman.

But that one problem seems to have been enough to keep The Dreyfus Affair from ever getting its turn at bat. After one of Hollywood’s strangest development journeys — including interest from Barbra Streisand and a double flip-flop from Disney — director David Frankel’s script is now collecting dust, an apparent marker of just how far Hollywood is willing to push the gay-movie envelope.

The Dreyfus Affair‘s death comes at an odd time. After the success of the tearjerker Philadelphia and the drag farce The Birdcage (box office take to date: $124 million), studios are developing more gay-themed movies than ever — from the long-gestating drama The Normal Heart, finally on the fast track thanks in part to Richard Dreyfuss’ interest in starring, to Paramount’s light comedy In & Out. Still, some critics complain that Hollywood remains skittish about gay films that don’t fall into two relatively safe categories — cross-dressing minstrel shows or AIDS dramas. ”I don’t think Birdcage made it any easier to tell our story,” snipes Dreyfus’ would-be director Frankel. ”Birdcage is the most conventional story about stereotypical, flamboyant gays who are hardly shaking up the system. What did Birdcage make possible? More Birdcages.”

The Dreyfus affair began with the publication of Lefcourt’s novel — a laugh-out-loud tale about a ballplayer named Randy Dreyfus who is caught smooching his teammate in a Neiman-Marcus dressing room. Among the Hollywood heavy hitters who called about optioning the book were Streisand, Jodie Foster, and most bizarre of all, country star Garth Brooks. ”He wanted to change the whole story,” says Lefcourt. ”He wanted Randy to be heterosexual but have great compassion for gay ballplayers. I politely passed on that.” (Brooks’ producing partner Lisa Sanderson explains: ”Garth felt it made the message even stronger.”)

But it was Disney that stepped up to the plate. In 1993, Buena Vista’s Touchstone Pictures optioned the book, only to reject it 18 months and three Lefcourt drafts later, citing lack of commercial appeal. But in 1995, hot director Frankel, who’d just made Miami Rhapsody, mentioned his interest in The Dreyfus Affair to Disney. ”They said, ‘My God!”’ recalls Lefcourt. ”Didn’t we let that go? They called back and said, ‘We loved this book and never meant to let it go!”’

But last summer — deja vu! — Disney rejected the switch-hitter comedy again. Frankel says the bad news trickled down before he’d even turned in the script. ”They put it in turnaround faster than I could xerox it,” he says. As revenge, his script’s opening scene features Randy Dreyfus proposing a film based on his gay love story to Disney chairman Michael Eisner, who later responds: ”Are you kidding? This is Disney!”