The writers of classic LGBTQ+ rom-coms on Hollywood’s progress

(Clockwise from bottom left): But I’m A Cheerleader (Photo: Mark Lipson/Kushner-Locke:Ignite); Jeffrey (Photo: Orion Classics); D.E.B.S.(Photo: Apple TV); Bros (Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures)

(Clockwise from bottom left): But I’m A Cheerleader (Photo: Mark Lipson/Kushner-Locke:Ignite); Jeffrey (Photo: Orion Classics); D.E.B.S.(Photo: Apple TV); Bros (Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Universal Pictures)
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

The arrival of Billy Eichner and Nicholas Stoller’s Bros in theaters this weekend seems like it should surely be heralded by a choir of heavenly gay angels. Lighthearted romantic comedies that feature LGBTQ+ characters can emerge from major movie studios now? What is the world, and Hollywood, coming to? And how did we get here? The A.V. Club put those questions, and more, to three screenwriters whose queer-focused films helped pave the way for the mainstream LGBTQ+ representation of Bros.

Brian Wayne Peterson of But I’m A Cheerleader, Angela Robinson of D.E.B.S. and The L Word, and Paul Rudnick of Jeffrey and In & Out joined us to reflect on queer-focused rom-coms then and now. In one light, it’s a subgenre of cinema that has frustratingly few examples, and that has been forced to make compromises to account for homophobic norms. But more optimistically, every authentic, nuanced, and reflective queer story, whether in the late 1990s or 2022, is a crucial act of creation, and an inspiring, invaluable resource for queer audiences yearning to see themselves on screen.

From their perspective, Bros owes a debt to the queer classics that came before it. Peterson, Robinson, and Rudnick overflow with recommendations for movie buffs curious about the legacy of LGBTQ+ indie cinema, particularly stories that defy the all-too-pervasive notion that queer characters must be destined for tragedy. (For yet more queer films that dare to be joyful, check out these picks, and read The A.V. Club’s Bros review here.)

The A.V. Club: So take us back to the development of your LGBTQ+ romantic comedies. Did you conceive these stories with an initial goal in mind—just telling a certain story, or emphatically depicting something you had not seen on screen before?

Angela Robinson: A hundred percent both. [Laughs] I very much had my personal or political goal at the time, and probably still do: to basically make things that didn’t exist for me when I was growing up. When I was growing up, I really loved rom-coms and I loved spy movies. I just love genre. But I was always recasting everything. Like in The Breakfast Club, I’m like, Molly Ringwald would get together with Ally Sheedy. Or Charlie’s Angels, I’d watch that show and make Sabrina and Kelly be together or whatever. So when I finally was like, Okay, I’m going to be a filmmaker, it really was just to make what I thought was funny and fun and sexy. I was trying to make something that didn’t exist. And because it didn’t exist, it became political—because it didn’t exist for political reasons, right?

And [with D.E.B.S.], I was operating under a very “Trojan horse” mentality. “I’m going to try to make the most fun confection, this candy-colored thing,” a rom-com that’s so engaging and you’ll just want them to be in love, that people almost wouldn’t even notice that it was queer.

Paul Rudnick: My first LGBTQ+ rom-com was the movie version of my play Jeffrey, which I wrote at the height of the AIDS crisis. I wanted to reflect what everyone I knew was going through, including the battle to maintain any sense of sanity, wit, or romance in the face of so much tragedy. The project was called “a comedy about AIDS,” which seemed impossible! But I used rom-com traditions as an approach to a horrific situation.

But I’m a Cheerleader: Director’s Cut (2020 Movie) Official Trailer – Natasha Lyonne, Clea DuVall

Brian Wayne Peterson: I think it was really important for [But I’m A Cheerleader] to hit the satire and the absurdity of this situation. There was definitely a choice to that; a path that we didn’t go down was handling [gay conversion therapy] a little more gently. And to [director] Jamie Babbit’s credit, she really just wanted to blow the whole conversation wide open. And I loved being able to embody these characters, take some archetypes and play with them in ways that were somewhat familiar, but also drawing attention to a lot of the things that in gay culture we like look away from sometimes. We tried to make it a movie that really spoke to everyone and was new and incredibly gay-positive. Because, you know, at the time, the ’90s had an explosion of these incredible gay movies. But a lot of them were either just comedies or had been about a little lighter subject… [We were] doing a comedy about a really difficult, dark subject that’s very emotional for people. And if you look at the reviews at the time, it did not always strike the critics’ fancy, let’s just say that!

AVC: What challenges or restrictions do you remember facing in terms of including such subject matter? Any censorship or pressure from the studios, for example?

BWP: We got pretty lambasted and I think it is because of some of the choices that were really smart, that maybe were criticized at the time. But those choices have actually helped it stand the test of time and made it relevant for new generations of young queer people. When we were making But I’m A Cheerleader, we had such supportive producers and we had a financier … We had this great experience of being able to make the product we wanted. I don’t want to say where, but I know we got some red flags raised by some of our own watchdog groups in the gay community. And if I remember right, it was about how lightly we were treating the subject matter. Which makes sense. But, you know, there have been multiple movies after the fact that have dealt with it in a very serious way. And that just was not the movie Jamie had set out to make, nor I to write.

PR: Jeffrey was an indie shot on the tiniest budget; back then, studios weren’t taking any chances on queer material. Actors were warned to stay away! But once Sigourney Weaver and Patrick Stewart signed on, things got easier… Studio executives would, and still do, often claim that they’re not prejudiced, but that LGBTQ+ movies don’t make money. This is nonsense: Brokeback Mountain, The Birdcage, Milk, and Moonlight, among others, were economic successes and won numerous Oscars. When we were making In & Out, which also made money, if the script was threatening to become “too gay,” executives would claim it was “repetitive”—code for “Do the two guys really have to kiss?” Finally, during a meeting, I said that I was born repetitive, which stopped that particular criticism. Luckily we had two terrific actors, Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck, who turned their all-stops-out kiss into one of the best scenes in the movie.

In & Out (6/9) Movie CLIP – Know What You Need? (1997) HD

Here’s what we were up against: after a test screening, audience members were asked to fill out response cards. One woman went on and on about how much she loved the movie, listing her many favorite scenes and performances. But when asked if she’d recommend the movie to a friend, she wrote “No.” When asked why, she replied: “Against God’s law.”

AR: D.E.B.S. was such a funny moment in history because it was kind of the tail end of this queer [era], but it was still considered, like, “It could ruin your career if you played a lesbian character.” That was still a conversation. But I also found that every actress between 17 and 36—not every, but a ton of people—auditioned for the roles. Because at the time there were often not five good parts for young women to play! So actually that kind of superseded concerns. And to be fair, neither Jordana Brewster nor Sara Foster gave a shit and were totally game to play their [lesbian characters]. And the other thing was that we got a PG-13 rating. And I had to cut the—very, very, ridiculously tame—sex scene. I mean, I hesitate to even call it sex, they were just making out under the covers … And I think D.E.B.S. was the first lesbian movie, if not the first queer movie, to get a PG-13 and not an R just for having gay content.

AVC: Which brings us to the R-rated Bros. What are your thoughts? What was your reaction upon hearing about it, learning its plot, maybe seeing its trailer?

PR: Bros sounds spectacular. I’m a huge fan of Billy Eichner and the rest of the movie’s amazing LGBTQ+ cast, so I can’t wait to see it. The trailers are hilarious and I think audiences, queer and straight alike, are eager for a great romantic comedy.

AR: I’ve seen the billboards everywhere, which I think is so awesome. The idea of making just a movie, I mean, that was always my goal—it’s just a studio movie. Like, it’s just going to be the movie, and it has a shot like any other thing and is supported like any other movie. And I want it to work. I want it to win … I do feel like it’s different for the gay, white men movies versus other movies, necessarily. But I mean, I’m all for it, because I always feel, a rising tide lifts all boats.

BWP: I’m excited for it. I’m actually a little, perhaps, alarmed that we haven’t gotten here sooner. Given that explosion of the gay movies that we had in the ’90s that I remember so well, from Jeffrey to The Wedding Banquet, to Edge Of Seventeen to Priscilla. We kind of just stalled out perhaps. And now we’re getting back on track, maybe a necessity given the greater context of the world.

AVC: With Fire Island and Bros and other modern examples, is mainstream LGBTQ+ representation indeed getting back on track? What progress do you think has been made in Hollywood since your films—maybe because of your films—and what progress do you think there still is to make?

PR: The terrific Fire Island, like Bros, has far more latitude in depicting gay lives than earlier movies, in terms of sexuality, romance and every sort of queer character. While there’s still plenty of pressure on gay movies to be commercially successful, no one film has to carry the absurd burden of universal representation, of being the only gay movie available, and therefore needing to showcase idealized, acceptable gay role models. There have, of course, been many extraordinary indies which have explored all sorts of gay lives, from the work of Greg Araki and Todd Haynes to Go Fish, Trick, and My Beautiful Laundrette, not to mention the genius of John Waters.

There’s certainly been progress in queer moviemaking, especially thanks to the streaming services, which have welcomed shows like Queer As Folk, The L Word, and Noah’s Arc. Out producer-directors like Greg Berlanti and Ryan Murphy have been pivotal in hiring gay artists in front of and behind the camera. In past years, another common studio complaint (and excuse) was that there were no out actors and absolutely no out movie stars. Now we have so many wonderful out performers, including Zachary Quinto, Kristen Stewart, Bowen Yang, Hari Nef, Neil Patrick Harris, Wanda Sykes, Matt Bomer, Janelle Monáe and so many more—the common-sense courage of these actors, who’ve often been warned about potential career damage, has changed the landscape enormously.

AR: The topic is depressingly evergreen. I almost feel like I’m weirdly back in the ’90s because, I mean, we’re worried about gay marriage again and we’re worried about an increased homophobia. The conversation goes all the way around; it’s so boring that we have to have it again. Things roll back. It was so simple in the early 2000s to be like, “I’m going to make a sweet, wrong-side-of-the-tracks queer romance about spy girls.” And that in and of itself is, I don’t know if I’d say revolutionary. But I was also working on The L Word, which was groundbreaking. So you have all these conversations and you’re like, “Okay, by groundbreaking, we broke ground, right?” Like, it’s done! But then it’s weirdly, incredibly, still important for people to see positive, romantic queer models. I’m very excited to see [Bros] supported as it is, it’s just a regular studio movie; it feels really important, still, to see our stories on screen. Because you’re like, “Okay, we’re over that.” But then, “Oh, wow, the world isn’t quite over it yet.” And so you just have to go back to first principles, which is, get our stories out there, have our stories be supported, have our stories resonate.

This seems a little old-fashioned of me and I’m sure there’s a lot of caveats. But the LGBTQ movement, I’ve been told and have read, is the fastest civil rights movement in history, as far as how quickly progress was made—many, many, many years, but compared to civil rights movements in general, an incredible amount of progress in a short amount of time. And I feel like Hollywood had a ton to do with that. To craft narratives, to tell stories, and to create characters that people around the world could watch and be like, “I know that person. I like that person. I want them to be in love. I’m rooting for them.” That is still, to this day, super powerful.

D.E.B.S Trailer [HQ]

AVC: Lastly and perhaps most importantly, what other examples of LGBTQ+ romantic comedies do you love or would recommend for audiences craving more?

PR: Yes, I hunger for gay movies, not only on political grounds, but because they can be fresher and more surprising. In In & Out, I wanted to use coming out as a romantic comedy device, like divorce or love at first sight, rather than as agony. That’s why I adore [Pedro] Almodóvar’s work, because he’s constantly reinventing movie traditions, with sexy, hilarious, and heartfelt LGBTQ+ characters. I’m looking forward to My Policeman, about a love triangle inspired by the life of E.M. Forster. And the biopic of gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, [Rustin,] directed by George C. Wolfe. It’s inspiring to see so much out talent taking so many exciting chances.

BWP: First, filmmakers from the early ’90s who influenced me were Marlon Riggs, Gregg Araki, and Derek Jarman. One of the really seminal movies for me is called I Think I Do, by Brian Sloan. Alexis Arquette is in it. I saw it at a film festival and it just really spoke to me. And then [Thomas Bezucha’s] Big Eden is near and dear to me because they set it in my home in Montana, in the same valley I grew up in! And it was really ahead of its time and the type of story it was telling. And then [Greg] Berlanti’s Broken Hearts Club was one of the first movies that I could completely relate to, which is not going to be the case for everybody… It stinks because I’m trying to think of something that had a better spectrum of representation. I would go back to [Ang Lee’s] The Wedding Banquet, honestly. It is problematic that a lot of those movies were predominantly Caucasian.

AR: Of course, Imagine Me & You is an old classic. There’s Show Me Love—a Swedish film called Fucking Åmål, but it’s called Show Me Love here. I love all those like O.G. ones, like even The Incredibly True Adventure Of Two Girls In Love, all those are very formative. But I’m A Cheerleader… I’m trying to think of something in the last [few years]. I’m sad about The Wilds, that it got canceled. Because, for just the queer subplot, I was like, this would have been a lesbian movie in the ’90s. Those are my favorites. And I like Carol. But that’s not really a romantic comedy. [Laughs] Hey, it’s got a happy ending. The writers of classic LGBTQ+ rom-coms on Hollywood’s progress

Andrew Schnitker

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