New rules for gay roles

Homosexual role models make mark in film

Though GLAAD was singing the old Sinatra standard “It Was a Very Good Year” about the films of 2005, the org is humming a different tune this time, when 10 pics from 2006 are nominated for two GLAAD Media Awards, for outstanding film in wide release and outstanding film in limited release.

GLAAD prexy Neil Giuliano calls 2005 — in which films like “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote” and “Transamerica” were released — “the unprecedented year,” and acknowledges “there were few gay-focused movies in 2006.”

Yet he and his org prefer to accentuate the positive, partly by pointing to the high grosses of some of this year’s nominees. In this context, he mentions Fox Searchlight’s “Little Miss Sunshine” ($60 million), Columbia’s “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” ($150 million) and Warner Bros.’ “V for Vendetta” ($70 million), all up for GLAAD’s wide-release award.

Conversely, TriStar’s “Running With Scissors,” the fourth of the five nominees, made only about $7 million. (Even Miramax’s low-budget “The Night Listener,” the fifth contender, did better.)

More important, the presence of gay characters in these films was “seamlessly weaved into the storylines,” according to the GLAAD prexy. “While some would say that Frank, Steve Carell’s character in ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ was an attempted suicide, he was not singled out for his sexuality. Or take ‘Quinceanera’ (one of the five films nommed for outstanding limited release). That wasn’t a coming-out film, which is where that film might have gone five or 10 years ago.”

Indeed, “Quinceanera,” written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, tells two parallel stories: that of a young Mexican-American girl on the edge of womanhood, from which the pic takes its title, and that of her rough-hewn cousin, Carlos (Jesse Garcia), an ostensible street tough, complete with tattoos, who is comfortably gay even as his family is unsettled by it.

“We were determined to break stereotypes,” Glatzer says. “The drama was the audience seeing him in one light and then as the movie evolves, you get different perceptions. But we wanted him to be at ease with his sexuality. We weren’t interested in him having a difficult time with it. That’s a cliche.

Nor does the avoidance of gay cliches stop with Carlos. In a brave turn, Glatzer and Westmoreland use the characters Gary and James to subvert the image of the “perfect” gay couple. Attractive, white and upwardly mobile, Gary and James seem to inhabit a Crate and Barrel catalog. But as part of a reconciliation following Gary’s affair with Carlos, the couple force Carlos, his pregnant 14-year-old cousin and his aged great-uncle to vacate the cottage that sits on their property.

“We felt we were treading on new ground, having gay characters who weren’t role models,” Westmoreland says. “Their behavior raises issues of classism and racism in the gay community.”

It’s only a joke

Unpleasant issues are also raised in Fox Searchlight’s film version of Alan Bennett’s hit play “The History Boys,” another of the five limited-release nominees, in which pederasty is touched on, albeit in humorous fashion. Here, Richard Griffiths plays Hector, a gifted teacher who has a bad habit of squeezing boys’ privates while giving them rides home on his motorcycle. Both play and pic depict Hector as a hero, despite one condemnatory speech from a valued colleague.

“I’ve never felt a serious film is a film without jokes, says Bennett, who laments that he never had a teacher like Hector. “Comedy is as serious as tragedy in my view, and I’ve always mixed in the two.”

Adam McKay, who helmed and co-wrote “Talladega Nights” with Will Farrell, appears to share Bennett’s philosophy. For those wondering how a ribald movie about NASCAR landed a GLAAD nom, look to the character of Farrell’s rival, gay racecar driver Jean Girard, played with priceless sang-froid by Sacha Baron Cohen, whom McKay credits for the film’s climactic kiss. “Sacha is really good at pushing buttons and playing with stereotypes,” the director says. “He loves screwing around with those.”

The film’s intention, according to McKay, was to roast Jean for being French and an aesthete while avoiding taking potshots at his preference for men. “The fun thing is creating the worst nightmare for a NASCAR fan and then popping the bubble,” says McKay. “The jokes were about expectations and then upending them.”

Silly perhaps, but not without a positive social message, at least in GLAAD’s eyes. McKay and Farrell considered going even further. “We thought of making Jean a Muslim as well,” McKay recalls. “But then we thought that was too much. A gay French Muslim is sailing off into Cartoonland. Of course, if he had been Muslim, Ricky Bobby would have learned about the true teachings of the Prophet, and we’d have burst those stereotypes.”

Beyond ‘Basic Instinct’

It may be telling that two of 2006’s least savory cinematic portrayals of homosexuals — Judi Dench’s Barbara Covett, the psychotic Sappho in the Oscar-nommed “Notes on a Scandal,” and Guy Pearce’s reptilian Andy Warhol in “Factory Girl” — elicited no cries for boycotts or sensitivity training. Indeed, Giuliano maintains he’s never heard of the latter pic. As for “Notes,” he says not a single complaint was registered with GLAAD. Yet 15 years ago, when “Basic Instinct” provoked much protest, such films would likely have engendered upset.

“Today, there’s a variety of portrayals,” says GLAAD’s prexy. “Characters may have some flaws, but there’s less blatant homophobia.”

Which doesn’t mean that the org no longer needs to celebrate balanced portrayals. Giuliano insists that there’s greater progress to be made. “We hope for more diversity regarding people of color,” he says. “Their stories are not being told. Hollywood still has a way to go in representing the diversity of the LGBT community.”

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