Will Gay Drama ‘Love Is Strange’ Shatter Hollywood’s Glass Ceiling?

Hollywood hasn't kept up with the times, but a new wave of queer directors is trying to change that

Love is Strange New Wave of Queer Directors in Hollywood
Michael Lewis for Variety

“Love Is Strange” is one of the rare movies anchored by gay characters not defined by sex. The story is set in a post-gay-rights Manhattan where marriage is legal for George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow), longtime partners who get hitched in a local park, surrounded by their closest friends. To fund the $1.2 million drama, which Sony Pictures Classics will platform release Aug. 22, director Ira Sachs turned to his community for help. “I got financing from 25 individuals, the majority of whom were retired lesbian businesswomen,” says Sachs over lunch on a recent afternoon in the West Village. “They cared about the story, and believed it could speak to a wide audience.” Sachs says the backers have already turned a profit from worldwide distribution deals out of Sundance and Berlin.

If not for its unconventional financing, “Love Is Strange” might never have found its way to the big screen. While gay rights have advanced tremendously since Ellen DeGeneres kicked down the closet door in 1997 as the first gay star in primetime television, Hollywood hasn’t kept up with the times. A recent survey from GLAAD shows that only 17% of the major studio films last year featured gay characters. None of those were lead roles, and they often came across as offensive stereotypes (such as the promiscuous butler who hosts an orgy in “The Wolf of Wall Street”). “Do I think the industry is still skittish?” asks veteran Broadway producer Jayne Baron Sherman, who helped make “Love Is Strange.” “Absolutely. Hollywood is very closeted.”

John Lithgow photographed by Michael Lewis for Variety

As this summer has proven, tentpoles are still targeted squarely to teenage boys, and studio executives are too wary about job security to rock the boat. Andrew Garfield caused a ruckus last year when he suggested Spider-Man could be gay, an idea he never revisited on the press tour for the latest Sony Pictures sequel. There still isn’t an openly gay A-list star, and the last hit crossover love story opened nearly a decade ago: 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” which grossed $178 million worldwide. “I think Hollywood is amazed at how well ‘Brokeback Mountain did, and they aren’t ready to take that risk again,” says Andrew Haigh, director of the 2011 British film “Weekend.”

Even though the number of celebrities who openly identify as gay continues to grow — including Neil Patrick Harris, Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Chris Colfer, Wentworth Miller, Matt Bomer and Jane Lynch — most of these actors primarily appear on TV, where the most prominent gay characters live. This year, HBO premiered “Looking,” a gay series executive produced by Haigh set in San Francisco; and “The Normal Heart,” the TV movie based on the Larry Kramer AIDS play. In 2013, the network picked up “Behind the Candelabra,” after no U.S. movie studio would touch the Liberace biopic, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.

Blythe Robertson, an executive producer on “Love Is Strange,” explains that what drew her to the project was its integrity. “So many gay movies are about sex, drugs, bad relationships and cheating,” she says. “This was very dignified.” The film is especially poignant for her, because she got married in Massachusetts to her partner of 17 years in October. “It was the most meaningful event in my life,” Robertson says. “It seriously changed everything.”

Lithgow says that “Love Is Strange” is unique in that, unlike many gay-themed movies, it’s simply a love story about two older people. “What’s extraordinary about this film is how ordinary it is,” he says. “It’s about real life.” Molina has portrayed gay characters several times, starting with 1987’s “Prick Up Your Ears,” and he’s noticed some progress while promoting the projects. Journalists used to ask him if playing a gay man would hurt his career, and now everybody accepts it. “In those days, gay characters were outrageous in some ways,” Molina says. “They had to be weird.”

Alfred Molina photographed by Michael Lewis for Variety

For many years, the only realistic gay roles in film came from the indie world. But the money to make such films is scarcer. “The independent film business is dead,” Sachs says. “It does not work as a sustainable economic model.” B. Ruby Rich, the film scholar who in 1992 coined the term New Queer Cinema to describe a wave of gay filmmakers that included Todd Haynes and Derek Jarman, notes that while gay characters still headline small movies, few of those films are widely seen. “There are a lot of people who are concerned about the future of lesbian culture,” Rich says. “As cheesy as ‘The L-Word’ was, it gave us a face. What is there now?”

Sachs, who is 48, is among the wave of influential directors who led the gay renaissance two decades ago. He was raised in Memphis, where he was the only openly gay teenager in his high school. When he arrived at Yale in 1983, he was one of two out students in his freshman class. He settled on a directing career after studying abroad in Paris, where he ditched his lectures in favor of a different kind of education. “I ended up seeing 197 films in a three-month period,” Sachs says. “And then I was like, ‘OK, this is what I want to do.’ ”

His first feature, 1996’s “The Delta,” was an emotional coming-out story about a teenager in the South, which he financed through $225,000 in donations from family and friends. The gamble paid off when the film landed a plum spot at Sundance. His next two movies were about straight couples — 2005’s “Forty Shades of Blue” and 2007’s “Married Life” — before he returned to his autobiographical roots with 2012’s “Keep the Lights On,” based on a tortured relationship from his 30s. The film was a liberating experience for Sachs, who made the indie (partly funded via Kickstarter) on his own terms, complete with raw sex scenes. “Hollywood is ruled by fear,” Sachs says. “I have, in general, found very little support for my work in Hollywood, particularly my work with gay content.”

By the time he was ready to shoot “Love Is Strange,” Sachs was in a much better place. “I wanted to make a film about long-term love,” he says. “I was in love, and I also liked myself, both of which were new experiences. For me, specifically as a gay man, I think that was hard won.” Sachs married his partner, artist Boris Torres, in January 2012, a few days before the birth of their twins, Viva and Felix. “We basically had a gay shotgun wedding,” Sachs jokes. “Love Is Strange” was filmed over 25 days in New York in September, shortly after gay marriage became legal in the state.

The timeliness of the film’s themes isn’t lost on Michael Barker, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. He anticipates a prolonged rollout for the movie throughout the fall, as it gains traction among arthouse crowds. “It will definitely resonate,” Barker says, adding that the gay marriage story feels organic to American culture in the same way divorce was accepted by the time “Kramer vs. Kramer” rolled into theaters in 1979. “The movie feels very much in the moment of what’s going on,” he notes.

Ira Sachs photographed by Michael Lewis for Variety

Sachs says the story was partly inspired by his uncle’s partner, a sculptor who lived to 99, who provided the outline for Lithgow’s character. The Molina role, that of a Catholic teacher who loses his job after getting married, was inspired by a news story. In the film, financial hardships force the newlyweds to move out of their apartment, and separately crash at the houses of different friends. The main source of conflict isn’t the couple’s sexual orientation, it’s their finances. Sachs and co-writer Mauricio Zacharias didn’t write a love scene into the script. “Because of how long they’ve been together, we realized that their intimacy was more about sleeping together than it was about having sex,” Zacharias says. “It was more about missing each other’s bodies.”

Molina and Lithgow have long been pals, which helped them find their rhythms as husbands. “I’ve seen him in plays so many times,” Lithgow says. “We’ve had suppers together.” Molina agrees that their personal relationship in real-life informed their chemistry. “We’re among the gayest straight men on the planet,” Molina says. “Both of us would rather go shopping than play sports.”

“Love Is Strange” wasn’t the only movie that premiered at Sundance from a gay director. There was also “The Skeleton Twins,” which Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions releases Sept. 12, about a depressed woman (Kristen Wiig) and her equally troubled brother (Bill Hader). “The character just happened to be gay, and it didn’t necessarily mean we were making a queer movie or a movie for gay people,” says the film’s director, Craig Johnson. He’s noticed a similar trend among his up-and-coming peers — filmmakers such as Justin Simien (“Dear White People”), John Krokidas (“Kill Your Darlings”) and Xavier Dolan (“Mommy”). “Some of them have gay characters in their movies,” Johnson says. “Some of them don’t. What I find most interesting are the ones that do have gay characters, but it’s with a shrug.”

Another indie darling on the festival circuit is Desiree Akhavan’s “Appropriate Behavior,” about a bisexual Iranian-American in Brooklyn. Akhavan, who also stars in the film (and has been cast in the next season of “Girls”), found her voice as a director by taking Sachs’ class at NYU in 2011. “I had recently come out, so it was beautiful that he was my teacher,” Akhavan says, adding that she asked her teacher to read a draft of her screenplay. “Ira took the time to sit with me, and he said, ‘Go make it.’ I needed someone to give me that permission.”

Sachs isn’t waiting for Hollywood’s permission to make movies anymore. He’s working on several other projects, including his mentorship program for young queer filmmakers; a stage musical based on “Love Is Strange” (“just think about the experience of it — it feels like a musical,” he says); and an upcoming children’s film he’s still writing. “It’s about two boys, 10 and 11, who are friends, but for various reasons, their friendship is forbidden by their parents,” Sachs says. “It’s not a sexualized film, but one of the boys is gay.”