Cablers go where studios, closeted thesps fear to tread

When Daily Variety last took a look at gay Hollywood, (Dr.) Laura Schlessinger had a television show, John Goodman was set to play a gay man who returns from the big city to his hometown of “Normal, Ohio,” and the big-city sophisticates of “Will & Grace” were a runaway hit.

Almost a year later, “Will & Grace” continues to rule, but “Dr. Laura” is gone, and so is “Normal, Ohio.” Yet, there’ll be a new sitcom about a gay person returning home after living in the city, called “The Ellen Show.” And if you have to ask “Ellen who?” then you’ve obviously been living in a cave for the past five years.

Ordinarily the return of DeGeneres to television after her tumultuous 1997 coming-out would be big news. But in some ways, her revival is overshadowed by what has been happening on pay cable. And so has everything gay or straight on the networks — and even coming from the studios.

For “Queer as Folk,” Showtime’s hit U.S. version of the British series about a group of Pittsburgh homosexuals, is venturing into places where neither “Will & Grace” never tread — and Gus Van Sant hasn’t been seen since “My Own Private Idaho.”

Also in cableland, there’s “Six Feet Under,” HBO’s new series about a family in the funeral business — one of whose leading characters is a white gay man having an affair with a black policeman. With a lead-in from the cable phenom “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under” is off to a fast start — which pleases its creator, openly gay Oscar-winning screenwriter Alan Ball (“American Beauty”).

“Two guys kiss on network TV and it’s a big deal,” says Ball, whose writing credits include stints on “Grace Under Fire,” “Cybill” and the briefly seen “Oh Grow Up.”

“I was speaking to some journalist the other day and they said, ‘Well in the pilot the gay scenes are very explicit.’ I went, ‘What are you talking about? They kiss each other. Two guys kissing is not explicit.”

But casual same-sex smooches aren’t all cable has to offer.

“The networks don’t give series the time to find themselves anymore,” Ball says. “They promise rating numbers to advertisers, and if they don’t get them they have to make it up. So if a show doesn’t become a hit right out of the gate, it’s doomed.”

This explains the early demises of the gay-themed “Some of My Best Friends.” And it clearly figured in the fact that “Say Uncle” (starring Ken Olin), and “Born in Brooklyn” (starring Isaac Mizrahi) never made it to the fall schedule. Will “The Ellen Show” meet the same fate?

“Gay material will come up from time (to time) but it’s largely going to be the kind of character comedy and physical comedy that Ellen does best,” explains Carol Leifer, “Ellen Show’s” head writer, and veteran sitcom star (“Alright Already”) and scribe (“Seinfeld,” “The Larry Sanders Show”).

Yet, operating in a low-key mode doesn’t help gay-themed features like Christopher Livingston’s well-reviewed but hardly seen gay/straight odd couple comedy “Hit and Runway” and Tom Bezucha’s gay romance “Big Eden,” which is in limited release despite being a hit on the film festival circuit last year.

Flashier titles such as John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and more-traditional gay date pics such as Julie Davis’ “All Over the Guy” are likelier to get wide distribution and more ink devoted to them in straight and gay media.

The lesbian-themed indie films of 2001 are straying even further from the DeGeneres gay-life-through-a-comic-lens model. Cheryl Dunye’s scorching women’s prison drama “Stranger Inside,” Samantha Lang’s murder-mystery thriller “The Monkey’s Mask” and Lea Pool’s steamy sapphic-love-in-boarding-school film “Lost and Delirious” are cutting-edge by any year’s standard.

And for the gay and lesbian viewers who don’t live in the major cities that show these titles, there’s always the reliable niche-targeted world of cable and the hotter-than-Josh Hartnett episodes of “Queer as Folk.”

“A lot of straight women have told us how arousing it is to see our show,” says Dan Cowen, who with writing partner Daniel Lipman co-produces the sexually frank series about fast-lane gay pals in Pittsburgh. “They say, ‘Well I had never seen two guys making love before so I had no idea what it looked like, and now I find it rather arousing.'”

It’s a far cry from what Cowen and Lipman faced 15 years ago with the breakthrough AIDS drama “An Early Frost.” “Once you’ve been out of jail and they take the handcuffs off you can never dream of going back to prison,” notes Cowen.

And being openly gay is key to that jailbreak. Lipman and Cowen are scarcely alone behind the scenes. But being out in front of the cameras is another story. While rafts of musicians are out (k.d. lang, Rufus Wainwright and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, to name a few), and the Broadway musical is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nathan Lane Inc., movies and television are as skittish as ever.

“Ten years ago, we had to put models or straight female icons like Bette Midler or Barbra Streisand on the cover of our magazine,” says Richard Settles, publisher of Genre magazine. “But today, we have a wider choice of openly gay and lesbian celebrities for our covers. Sure, you’ve got the couple of major gay and lesbian stars that are in the closet and won’t talk to gay magazines because they don’t want to be typecast. After all is said and done, it’s easier for straights to pretend they’re gay on screen, but when gay actors play straight, there still seems to be a stigma attached.”

A recent MSNBC special went to great lengths to insist that “Will & Grace” star Sean Hayes shouldn’t comment about his real-life sexual orientation. But “Queer as Folk’s” Peter Paige may soon challenge received wisdom that the public won’t accept a gay man in Ben Affleck roles.

“”Playing the gayest character on the gayest show in the history of television, and being gay myself — I know that’s a dangerous combination,” says the 26-year-old actor. “I am sure there are things I won’t get seen for because of it. However, I’m an accomplished actor, I’ve played straight roles many times before and I’ll do so again. If I have to create projects for myself I’ll do it. My sense is it’s a really good moment in history, to be who I am, where I am.”

A sentiment shared by gays and lesbians working inside the Hollywood dream factory in 2001.

(David Ehrenstein is the author of “Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, 1928-2000″ (Harperperennial))

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