Gay-themed classics that inspired new talent

It’s a big year for milestones as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation’s Media Awards turn 20 and the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots arrives June 28. Variety asked several 2009 GLAAD nominees to mark these occasions by citing gay-themed works from the past 40 years, and beyond, that inspired them and may have influenced their current plays, TV shows and films.

Producer Kevin Loader wanted to explore the sexual “ambiguity” of Charles and Sebastian’s relationship in his GLAAD-nommed film, “Brideshead Revisited.” He points to two movie antecedents that directly influenced his quest.

“For that kind of male attraction, we looked at ‘Women in Love,’ ” he recalls. “It wasn’t just the nude male wrestling scene; it’s the context of sexual play that is going on with those four strong characters.”

Loader also points to the impact of “My Beautiful Laundrette,” especially its screenplay by Hanif Kureishi. “He writes very well about those kinds of friendships that do become sexualized,” he says.

The producers of “Milk” run the gamut in their responses, citing such divergent projects as “Soap” and “Angels in America.”

“In 1977, I was 16 years old when ‘Soap’ came on the air, featuring Billy Crystal as the openly gay Jodie,” says producer Bruce Cohen. “Seeing a gay character on TV was a revelation to me, though I would not fully admit to myself that I was gay for three more years and wouldn’t come out to my parents for eight. But looking back, (my family’s) shared experience of loving that show and approving of Jodie’s lifestyle sowed the seeds of my belief that being openly gay could be not only an acceptable lifestyle but a wonderful one.”

Cohen’s fellow producer Dan Jinks calls Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” the greatest play of the last 50 years. “‘Angels in America’ brilliantly captured a moment in time and became a play for all time,” he says. “A great piece of drama can change the way one looks at the world. This play certainly did that for me.”

“Milk” director Gus Van Sant looms as a major influence for at least two GLAAD nominees.

“Shelter” writer-director Jonah Markowitz was too young to completely understand Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho” when he first saw it. But later, when Markowitz started making films, “I realized that these characters’ sexuality wasn’t the only issue they struggled with. (Homosexuality) wasn’t shown as something to battle or try to understand; it was just part of the story, part of their lives.”

“Noah’s Arc” creator Patrik-Ian Polk also admires Van Sant’s 1991 film about two hustlers on the road. “I’d never seen a film like it that explored these complex issues of desire and unrequited love,” says the writer-director. “As a young gay black man, I found ‘My Own Private Idaho’ to be bold, and it helped me to formulate what kind of an artist I wanted to be.”

Movies and plays seen in one’s youth changed the lives of other GLAAD nominees as well.

Jonathan Tolins, author of “Secrets of the Trade,” saw “Torch Song Trilogy” on Broadway when he was in high school. “I spent most of the evening trying desperately to hide my powerful response to the play from Mom and Dad,” the playwright recalls. “Harvey Fierstein, in his writing and performance, told the absolute truth as he saw it — about being gay, about love, about family. He did so with a blend of intelligence, passion and humor that gave me something to shoot for … as a playwright. And as a person.”

“Dog Sees God” playwright Bert V. Royal recalls the thrill of renting “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” with his cousin and sneaking it into his conservative Republican home. “When Tim Curry flung off his cape during ‘Sweet Transvestite,’ we both howled so loud that we had to quickly press ‘stop’ before my family rushed in. The adrenaline rush I got was like none I’d ever experienced, and it was only a matter of time before I was sneaking out of my house to midnight viewings and letting my freak flag fly,” says Royal.

Sometimes those early viewing experiences weren’t so upbeat.

“I remember things like ‘Making Love’ and ‘Cruisin’ ‘ — bad movies that did not depict the gay lifestyle in a positive way,” says Silvio Horta, exec producer-writer of “Ugly Betty.”

Later, he found the films of Pedro Almodovar much more to his liking. “Not that he was doing what you’d call gay films, but he had that sensibility. Same with ‘Welcome to the Dollhouse.’ They were movies with a gay sensibility.”

While “Milk’s” Cohen admires Crystal’s gay portrayal in “Soap,” John Barrowman, star of the GLAAD-nommed “Torchwood,” found the Jodie character to be an anti-role model. “(He) was pretty camp, as I recall, and I thought, well, I’m not like that guy, because I was into cars and sports and stuff. And that turned out to be one of my career goals: to defy the stereotype of gay, to show that other types of gay exist.”

Three playwrights found their role models in other writers. Paul Oakley Stovall, author of “As Much as You Can,” picks James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room,” as much for its “complex treatment of sexuality” as the author’s story in getting his novel published. “Baldwin’s publisher famously told him to burn ‘Giovanni’s Room’ because it would alienate him from his ‘Negro readership.’ Not only am I influenced by Baldwin,” says Stovall, “but I’m indebted to him for his courage and foresight.”

Craig Lucas, author of “Prayer for My Enemy,” read Christopher Isherwood’s “Prater Violet” when he was a teenager. “I didn’t know such books could even exist,” he says. “I was astonished by the specificity of the world and, of course, the candor, even though Isherwood uses initials to delineate the various boyfriends. There is such a long string of them and the descriptions of the sex itself leave no question as to the gender. That book opened doors for me.”

And to prove that gay-themed works aren’t just a contempo phenom, playwright Douglas Carter Beane points to a Christopher Marlowe masterpiece from the 16th century. ” ‘Edward II’ has a big gay doomed love story at its center,” says the author of “The Little Dog Laughed.” “It’s ‘Hamlet’ with boys kissing.”

Leslie Van Buskirk contributed to this report.

TIP SHEET

What: GLAAD 2009 Media Awards

LOS ANGELES

Where: Nokia Theater

When: Saturday

Host: Miss Coco Peru

SAN FRANCISCO

Where: Hilton San Francisco

When: May 9

Host: Chelsea Handler

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