A few years ago, I read some articles about Making Love, but I had never seen it. The film is very significant in the history of GLBT representation on the screen. It was the first gay themed film to ever be backed by a major motion picture company. It was released in 1982 (the same year I was born), and was the first time someone truly attempted to portray gay characters in a positive light on the big screen.
The story is a simple coming out tale (especially for that period). The main character is a closeted gay man named Zach, played by Michael Ontkean, who is married to Claire (Kate Jackson). Through the course of the film, he falls for Bart (Harry Hamlin) and comes out to his wife. While this is a familiar story, this film avoids many of the pitt falls of other closeted married coming out stories. All the characters are very successful career-wise. Claire is portrayed as a sympathetic character. She isn't an easy target or an annoying or stupid wife. Bart is a very "into the gay scene" guy, but isn't a walking stereotype. Zach truly wants a connection with another man and not just sex. The film also ends in a surprising and realistic way, but a very positive way.
It was great to hear Barry Sandler speak about writing the film, casting the film, and then the film's response. His goal was to do something different with gay characters and he accomplished that. He was smart for doing the story in the way that he did. Claire truly becomes, as Sandler said, "a tour guide" for the heterosexual audience. Her journey to acceptance helps the uncomfortable audience find their own acceptance or at least tolerance (or maybe they walked out screaming halfway through). At the same time, the film is great for a gay audience who was hungry for a real representation on the screen. It doesn't shy away from the gay scene or from the affection two men can have. Even by today's standards, this film is sexy. The actors have some 80s hair going on, but they are hot and both play the characters with respect and honesty.
As I've written before, one of my favorite topics to study is gay representation in film and television. I've written a lot of papers on the subject and even presented a conference paper on gay "characters" in reality TV. What I loved about seeing this film and hearing Sandler was trying to put it into the context of where we are today.
Making Love did open the gates to more variation in gay characters both in film and television. Today, gay characters are in lots of places, but I often feel, with few exceptions, that we've hit a wall. It is 2010 and Making Love, a 28 year old film, would still shock a large population in this country. We still don't see that many sexual or interesting gay characters on the big or small screen. We are too often the sidekick or the witty best friend. Or we end up back in the tragedy track. Brokeback Mountain immediately comes to mind. That film was praised as being groundbreaking for the gay community, but I found it anything but groundbreaking. Yes, it made money, which is rare for a gay themed film, but it was a typical and tragic story about men who never really accept themselves and one dies at the end. I know many in the gay community loved that film, but nothing in it is shaking things up. In fact, it is reinforcing tired and cliched gay storylines. Don't get me wrong, I don't think it is a badly made film, but I very much challenge the praise and rhetoric surrounding it. It is not a universal love story no matter how many times Ang Lee says that it is. In grad school, I wrote a paper attacking this rhetoric and the marketing of the film.
Making Love is a similar story, but done in a positive way and in a different time period. Sandler said that the reaction to the film was fairly good. He did mention some people walking out at the opening he attended in Miami, but also spoke of the endless letters he received praising his work. The careers of the main cast were not destroyed. At the event on Saturday, someone behind me whispered something about the religious right not being as organized back then and that got me thinking. What is the difference between 1982 and 2010? Well, like the woman said, the religious right has gotten organized and loud. They complain about anything remotely gay and the media gives them tons of attention. When Brokeback Mountain came out I remember lots of theaters refusing to play it. It blows my mind that we still have to fight to allow a movie to be shown in a theater where people have to pay to go see it. No one is forcing anyone to watch. People who live in more accepting areas seem to forget the fight that is still out there in the majority of this country. I'm from the Midwest, so that fact isn't lost on me.
The number of gay characters has increased since 1982. We have representation, which is a step in the right direction and a step helped by people like Sandler. Now, we must fight for diverse representation and to move past the coming out story. Gay people do more than come out of the closet. I am thankful that recently filmmakers have been addressing gay historical figures and stories. Films like Capote, Milk, and the new Howl are good examples of sharing GLBT history.
Making Love is a film I am thankful to have seen and one that greatly touched gay men everywhere when it came out. I remembered, as I was watching it, that D. A. Powell wrote a poem referencing Making Love in his 2004 book Cocktails. The poem is titled "[every man needs a buddy. who'll do]. See, poetry connects to everything.
-Stephen (Love Made)