By Stacy Jenel Smith
With no less than four actors receiving Academy Awards nominations this year for portraying gay characters - Heath Ledger
and Jake Gyllenhaal
for "Brokeback Mountain," Philip Seymour Hoffman for "Capote" and Felicity Huffman
for "Transamerica" -- response has been swift and, well, predictable.
There is a segment complaining on the internet and on radio talk shows that Hollywood is pressing forward with an agenda to advance acceptance of gay men and lesbians.
There is a segment analyzing the nominations as the latest movie trend, talking about how it used to be maladies - as in "Rain Man" and "My Left Foot" and a host of network TV movies -- that garnered acclaim and awards. Now instead of disease-of-the-week, the going thing is playing gay.
And there are those who view the noms as part of a cultural shift sweeping through society, with the movies reflecting the world at large.
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) cheered the nominations, putting out an immediate release congratulating "the creative teams behind 'Brokeback Mountain,' 'Capote,' 'Transamerica,' 'The Constant Gardener' and 'Mrs. Henderson Presents'" - the latter of which present gay characters in a fair and honest way, to the organization's thinking. All told, those films "received a combined 21 Oscar nominations...
"This has been a landmark year for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-inclusive films," said GLAAD President Neil G. Giuliano. "These are films with an emotional authenticity that have clearly connected with both gay and straight audiences alike. By telling our stories, this year's Oscar nominees have helped raise the visibility of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues and have given millions of Americans a greater understanding of who we are."
One thing we can say for certain is that these very diverse films all came about in different ways, each a unique journey, involving, as it turns out, mostly straight people. In other words, there was no secret Hollywood brain trust strategizing a plot to change the world in some out-of-the-way conference room.
"From the time I got the idea I wanted to write about this 'til the production, it was about four or five years," reports Dan Futterman, the actor and first-time screenwriter who's Oscar-nominated for penning "Capote." "A lot of that time was research. And I was so scared of writing myself into a dead end and not being able to get out of it - I'm no great problem fixer -- I kept going back to the beginning of the script and starting over. That way I'd gone through it many times before I finished a draft.
"I thought nobody was going to read it," he adds. "My wife would be the only one to see it and she'd say, 'Nice try, honey.' And that would be it."
Futterman's wife, however, was impressed with his adaptation of the disturbing story-behind-the-story of Truman Capote's writing of his landmark "In Cold Blood." So were long-time friends Bennett Miller, the director, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the star. Futterman tells us he and Miller "went to junior high and high school together," and he's known Hoffman since a summer program years ago at the famed Circle in the Square Theater. Their friendship helped "Capote" through the vicissitudes of preproduction.
The "Brokeback Mountain" journey began in Wyoming, not Hollywood. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Annie Proulx, who lives in a tiny town in the Medicine Bow range of the Rocky Mountains, penned the tale. It was published in The New Yorker in 1997 - and as part of her "Close Range: Wyoming Stories" collection. Renowned Western writer Larry McMurtry ("Lonesome Dove") and Diana Ossana wrote the screenplay. It reportedly took eight years before the screenwriters were able to find a production company willing to produce "Brokeback."
When asked whether he thought "Transamerica" could have gotten made five or ten years ago, filmmaker Duncan Tucker responded, "It was hard enough to get it made now!" Tucker's plan, he told Euan Kerr of Minnesota Public Radio, was to do "'Lord of the Rings' on a budget...an epic quest movie with a journey and tasks that have to be completed, and characters who wind up changed. It's not about transsexuality any more than 'The Matrix' is about a computer programmer."
He got the idea for a transsexual character thanks to an acquaintance, "a woman in L.A. who told me, 'What's under my skirt is not what you'd expect.' She was a totally stealth trans person." His writer's imagination was duly fired. Before it was all over, his mother and brother had mortgaged their houses for the cause, and Tucker had gone into deep credit card debt to get the movie made.
How he got Felicity Huffman interested in the movie is the story of how all the nominated actors became interested in their respective roles - they were great parts.
"The more conflicts characters have, the more interesting they are to play," explains Fred Savage, the former "Wonder Years" child star, who is now playing a gay writer with family conflicts on ABC's "Crumbs." Fred tells us he didn't have a moment's hesitation about taking on the part due to the character's sexuality: "Not at all - that makes it more exciting."
As viewers are well aware, there are quite a few gay characters on the tube these days, and they range from campy and crazy to daring and dramatic - to...normal.
In fact, many gay-themed projects and gay characters that have been in the works for years are now coming to creative fruition for the simple reason that the wall that shut them out for so long has been breached. Of course, it will be an even more profound change when it's no longer newsworthy for an actor to play - or be - gay.