If you want to know what people take seriously, look at what they laugh at.

Thirty-five years ago, romantic comedies always seemed to costar Doris Day and her diamond-hard virginity. Just the idea of Doris’ surrendering that jewel without a fight — even to as polished a pirate as Cary Grant — was enough to make an audience smile.

Now any reasonable adult watches That Touch of Mink and thinks, Lady, you’re middle-aged and out of work. And you’re seriously considering not going off for a weekend with Cary Grant? Are you nuts?

Maybe 35 years from now, people will look at the ’90s closet comedies and think the same thing.

Movies don’t counterfeit reality, any more than those old Doris Day flicks invented early-’60s taboos about sex and the simple girl. Mostly they merely reflect the reality we want to see. And just as those romances never let Doris stay overnight — no matter what real single girls were doing — ’90s gay movies like The Birdcage and the new-to-tape In & Out carefully avoid issues like AIDS, adoption, and out-and-out lust. Instead, they provide the sort of campy, cuddly homosexuality mainstream America seems comfortable with. When an uncloseted hero does raise his voice or take a stand, it’s usually with a titter and often in pumps.

In Christopher Guest’s witty Waiting for Guffman — the gleefully faked documentary about a small-town drama queen — Corky St. Clair remains resolutely in the closet. With Corky’s insistence on his heterosexuality even while he sports très gamine bangs, Guffman mocks both the masquerade and the fools who can’t see past it. (”I know he’s got a wife,” one of Corky’s perplexed supporters muses. ”I guess she’s out of town.”) Waiting for Guffman may have given great roles to a veteran TV cast, and it takes stinging shots at provincial politics and Broadway wannabes, but its funniest, most subversive jokes are saved for the singular absurdity of trying to live a double life.

Other, safer closet comedies skip the irony supplements. Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage, for example, simply presents itself as the latest dress-up of a durable French farce. And although the La Cage aux Folles material had shown signs of age more than a decade ago, certainly there was life left in the mix of wedding guests and bedroom secrets. Didn’t Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet get some sophisticated smiles by reversing the situation, and having the gay child try to fool his grim parents?

The Birdcage, though, is grim all the way through. Its gay characters flounce with a fervor that would have offended Franklin Pangborn; it suggests both that no gay man could ever pass as straight, and that some gay men should — if it means not embarrassing their kids. All of which could have been made bearable if Robin Williams’ son got the third-act comeuppance he deserves and the movie seems made for. But the film grows so enamored of Nathan Lane in Barbara Bush drag that it forgets to provide it; although some halfhearted liberal sentiments are eventually aired, the picture seems more interested in putting Gene Hackman in pumps than a young prig in his place.

If The Birdcage flirts with homophobia, Frank Oz’s In & Out is positively homophiliac; Kevin Kline’s high school students warn him that everyone thinks he’s gay because he’s such a superior human being. (”You’re smart,” his students sadly point out, ”well dressed and really clean.”) The topsy-turvy joke of In & Out is that in this closeted world, the gay man is the last to know. The virginal Kline doesn’t suspect his own orientation until hunky Tom Selleck’s sudden, surprising lip lock undoes a lifetime of repression.

Bright and funny, In & Out still has its problems. Like Paul Rudnick’s scripts for Jeffrey and Addams Family Values, it runs out of invention before it runs out of steam; like most comedies that try to be PC, it ends up substituting other stereotypes (gay men worship La Streisand; manly men can’t dance). Still, it shows far more heart than the glum Birdcage and a sunny optimism about how unfettered life outside the closet could be.

”One day I just snapped,” Selleck tells Kline in the central scene. “I just got tired of switching pronouns and remembering to lower my voice, and I couldn’t take lying to the people that I love.” What happened? Kline asks. ”Everyone surprised me…once I trusted them,” Selleck says.

Will Hollywood ever trust us? Will it open the closet doors and stop finding fun in guilty secrets? Will its films stop pushing fake worlds of campy queens and uptight straights, and coming-out parties to rival any debutante’s?

Well, like the lady said, ”que sera, sera.” The Birdcage: C; In & Out: B; Waiting for Guffman B+

In & Out
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