When Daily Variety last took a look at gay Hollywood, "Dr." Laura Schlesinger had a television show, John Goodman was set to play a gay man who returns from the big city to his hometown of Normal Ohio, and the big city sophisticates of Will and Grace were a runaway hit. A year later, Will & Grace continues to rule, but "Dr." Laura is gone, and so is Normal Ohio. But there'll be a new sitcom about a gay person returning home after living in the city, called The Ellen Show. And if you have to ask "Ellen who?" then you've obviously been living in a cave for the past five years.
Ordinarily the return of Degeneres to television after her tumultuous 1997 coming out would be the biggest news. But in some ways, Ellen is overshadowed by what's been going on in pay cable. And so has everything gay or straight on the networks and even the studios. For Queer As Folk, Showtime's hit U.S. version of the British series about a group of young gay males is venturing into places where neither Will & Grace never tread -- and Gus Van Sant hasn't been seen in since My Own Private Idaho. Now there's Six Feet Under, HBO's new series about a family in the funeral business—one of whose leading characters is a white gay man having an affair with a black policeman. With a lead-in from the cable phenom The Sopranos, Six Feet Under is off to a fast start—which pleases its creator, openly gay Oscar-winner (American Beauty) Alan Ball.
"Two guys kiss on network TV and it's a big deal," says Ball, whose writing credits include stints on Grace Under Fire, Cybill, and the briefly seen Oh Grow Up. "I was speaking to some journalist the other day and they said 'Well in the pilot the gay scenes are very explicit.' I went 'What are you talking about? They kiss each other. Two guys kissing is not explicit?"
But casual same-sex smooches aren't all cable has to offer Ball.
"The networks don't give series the time to find themselves anymore. They promise rating numbers to advertisers, and if they don't get them they have to make it up. So if a show doesn't become a hit right out of the gate, it's doomed."
This explains the early demises of the gay-themed Some of My Best Friends. And it clearly figured in the fact that Say Uncle (starring Ken Olin), and Born in Brooklyn (starring Isaac Mizrashi) never made it to the fall schedule. Will The Ellen Show meet the same fate?
"Gay material will come up from time but it's largely going to be the kind of character comedy and physical comedy that Ellen does best." series head writer and veteran sitcom scribe (Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show), Carol Leifer explains. But low-keyness didn't help the well-received gay/straight "odd couple" comedy Hit and Runaway, and Tom Bezucha's gay romance Big Eden, is just now in limited release despite being a hit at the film festivals last year.
A comedy starring a low-key lesbian isn't what the gay indie world has to offer in 2001, what with Cheryl Dunne's scorching women's prison dram Stranger Inside, or Samantha Lange's Kelly McGillis starred murder-mystery thriller The Monkey's Mask. Gay indie pace-setter Strand Releasing has it, along with the tumultuous Argentinean gay gangster thriller Playta Quemada. But will "edge"-loving gay viewers stay home and watch Queer As Folk instead?
"A lot of straight women have told us how arousing it is to see our show," says Ron Cowen who with his writing partner Daniel Lipman co-produces the sexually frank series about fast-lane gay pals in Pittsburgh. "They say 'Well I had never seen two guys making love before so I had no idea what it looked like, and now I find it rather arousing.' Straight men are even more interesting. One guy down the hall at Writers and Artists watches it every week with his wife. It's his favorite show. And he's confided in me that his wife has jumped him twice. So he's in it for the long run. So he's getting some benefits none of us had really expected."
It's a far cry from what Cowen and Lipman faced fifteen years ago with the breakthrough AIDS drama An Early Frost. "Once you've been out of jail and they take the handcuffs off you can never dream of going back to prison."
And being openly gay is key to that "jailbreak." Lipman and Cowen are scarcely alone behind the scenes. But before the cameras is another story. So while rafts of musicians (most recently REM's Michael Stipe) are "out," and the Broadway musical is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nathan Lane, movies and television are as skittish as ever. A recent MSNBC special went to great lengths to insist that Will & Grace star Sean Hayes shouldn't comment about his sexual orientation. But Queer As Folk's Peter Paige may soon challenge "recieved wisdom" that the public won't "accept" a gay man in Ben Affleck roles.
"When I got Queer As Folk," the 26 year-old actor recalled. "People said 'Uh, are you going to be, uh out?' I was like 'What? When was I ever In?' I've been openly gay since I was a teenager and I'm going to go back in the closet because I'm on Queer As Folk? Playing the gayest character on the gayest show in the history of television, and being gay myself—I know that's a dangerous combination. I am sure there are things I won't get seen for because of it. However, I'm an accomplished actor, I've played straight roles many times before and I'll do so again. If I have to create projects for myself I'll do it. My sense is it's a really good moment in history, to be who I am where I am."
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