Hollywood’s great advantage in any contentious issue is its ability to tap into its pop culture reach, and there is no better recent example than the battle over same-sex marriage. As Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black prepares to bring the Prop 8 trial play “8” to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre for a one-night reading, the challenge in prose is capturing the foes.
That’s my latest column in the print version of Variety, which you can read below.
A star-filled courtroom drama makes its stage debut on Monday, but the intent of this one-night Broadway outing isn’t boffo box office but public influence.
The play is “8,” Dustin Lance Black’s account of the Prop. 8 trial that unfolded over three weeks in January 2010, eventually leading to U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling declaring California’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. With a cast that includes John Lithgow, Morgan Freeman, Ellen Barkin, Rob Reiner and Anthony Edwards, the reading at the Eugene O’ Neill Theater will benefit the court effort to overturn Prop. 8.
The trial was not televised, and still pending is whether tapes of the proceedings will get a public release, but the play itself underscores what has been an advantage to the foes of Prop. 8. Far more than their opponents, they have been able to tap into popular culture to convey their message. The American Foundation for Equal Rights, the group financing the battle to overturn Prop. 8 and includes Black on its board, is made up of Hollywood and political activists, and the entertainment community has until recently been ahead of public sentiment on the issue. Other than Pat Boone and a few Osmonds, one would be hard pressed to find many prominent media figures supporting Prop. 8 or bans on same-sex marriage in other states. Clint Eastwood, a conservative icon who is directing Black’s script “J. Edgar,” declared in a recent GQ interview that he doesn’t give a “fuck” about who wants to get married to anybody else.
Yet what may be most interesting about “8” is how it portrays not the supporters of gay nuptials but its foes. The chief argument against televising the trial, and therefore giving it maximum nationwide exposure, was that supporters of Prop. 8 would be subject to harassment, victimized by attacks on religious beliefs, with that effort certainly bolstered by an entertainment industry that, in many social conservatives’ eyes, is pushing an agenda on the rest of the country.
So the challenge is to avoid caricature. Bradley Whitford, who will play the courtly Charles Cooper, lead attorney for the defenders of Prop. 8, told the AP that “my goal in a situation like this is to be as clear, as articulate, as well intentioned and with as little mustache-twirling as possible.”
In fact, one thing that will come across, Black told me, is “the civility that we saw inside the courtroom and the lack of accountability of the debate that goes on outside the courtroom.”
The play is set during closing arguments in the case, flashing back to key moments from the trial but also framed through the plaintiffs’ families, “and it asks the question, ‘Why do we even have to be here?’ Why are they saying that we are perhaps not worthy of the same kinds of protections and recognition as a heterosexual family?'” Black said.
Nevertheless, he “worked very hard, and it did take hard work, to go through the proponents of Prop. 8’s arguments and find the places that I thought they would consider wins, where I think they were making their points strongest,” Black said. “And I got to say, a hundred percent of those moments are in the play. And if I did that for our side, the play would be weeks long. And I wanted this to come off in a fair manner.”
For example, some witnesses for the plaintiffs admitted to having supported civil unions as an alternative to same-sex marriage — a key distinction discussed in the trial. Same-sex marriage opponents also argued that gay nuptials would lead to the deinstitutionalization of marriage and that it would be a detriment to procreation.
“A lot of it is going to seem weak, and I hope what is discovered by anyone who gets to come is that what happens when you bring this issue into the court and you do have to raise your right hand and you do have to swear to tell the truth, that there are no facts that back up this sort of discrimination,” Black said. “They have nothing.”
Opponents of same-sex marriage have not said much about “8,” and Cooper did not return a call for comment, but even though the whole issue has the feel of a storyline already written, it is far from over. Walker’s decision is on appeal, perhaps headed to the Supreme Court, and marriage bans are on the North Carolina and Minnesota ballots next year.
One group that supported Prop. 8 won’t make it in to “8”: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The involvement was part of the trial, but, Black said, “It seemed to me the Mormon Church stepped back a bit when it came to trial. … I feel like I have been there, done that.” Black grew up in a Mormon household and was narrator of a 2010 documentary on the church’s involvement in Prop. 8. The closest thing to a mention may be the involvement of Rory O’Malley, co-founder of Broadway Impact, which is helping to produce the show. He’s a star of “Book of Mormon,” a Broadway hit and a sure sign that if caricature can’t be avoided, just try a new kind of kitsch.