Fear Itself: D.C. and Hollywood In and Out of the Closet
“Once it was ‘the love that dare not speak its name.’ Now it won’t shut up.” So quipped Mike Nichols back in the day — so far back, in fact, that it’s impossible he imagined then that five decades later he’d find himself directing the television adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, a prime example of refusing to shut up. Nichols, like so many other show-business sophisticates, knew how the game was played: Gays and lesbians were everywhere, but everyone was supposed to pretend we weren’t. Heterosexuality ruled with an iron glove. You stayed “in the closet,” lying and hiding rather than risking the loss of job, family and even life itself.
Of course, there were exceptions. If you were well-fixed financially or well-connected socially, you could have a “private life” — even one of sybaritic excess like the one enjoyed by famed photographer George Platt Lynes. “For more than a decade [Lynes] conducted a triangular love affair with the curator Monroe Wheeler and the writer Glenway Wescott,” Armand Linanger recently noted in The New York Times. “He later got cozy with his studio assistant and, after he died in World War II, moved in with the assistant’s younger brother.” Clearly these were things that “everybody knew” in that rarefied and socially protected world. As for the outside world, the credit sequence of Milk, with its newsreel footage of police raids on gay bars, tells the story. “Sodomy” laws were still on the books, so those likely to violate them were “perps” by definition. The gay-rights movement, in which Harvey Milk was pivotal, fought back against all that.
Not surprisingly, Milk gets the last word in director Kirby Dick’s new documentary Outrage, which focuses on the closeted gay politicians who have worked against gay rights. [Full disclosure: I get a “thank you” in the credits, as Dick consulted with me on an early version of the project.] Initially, this radical documentarian (whose works include Twist of Faith, Derrida and This Film Is Not Yet Rated) was interested in making a film about the “coming out” process. But as he learned more about “the closet” and the way it works, he shifted his focus to the corridors of political power.
Many familiar names and faces are on view here: former Senator Larry “Wide Stance” Craig, former New Jersey Governor Jim “I am a gay American” McGreevey and, most important, current Florida Governor Charlie Crist, whose aspirations to higher office will likely be brought to a screeching halt by the film’s scrutiny of both his overall hypocrisy and his particularly thuggish treatment of ex-boyfriends. He’s not alone in this, as the film makes clear in its recounting of former New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s cowardly and reprehensible treatment of a lover he discarded in his climb to the top. At that very top one finds McCarthy-era anti-Communist and anti-gay crusader Roy Cohn — the most vividly drawn of all the characters in Angels in America — reveling in the power “the closet” gives him. The status quo had no intention of “outing” Cohn, lest the system deprive itself of the power to inflict damage on those deemed less valuable.
Needless to say, such reprehensible behavior will doubtless continue in one form or another long after Dick’s film has faded from memory. We’re talking politics after all. But in some respects, things have changed radically. On June 26, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence vs. Texas brought sodomy laws to an end, and with them the notion that homosexuals constitute a criminal class. As supreme homophobe Justice Antonin Scalia noted at the time, same-sex marriage would doubtless follow, as indeed — to his considerable chagrin — it has. Iowa and Vermont have just joined the small but growing number of states granting “marriage equality,” with more to come faster than most of us probably think.
The very definition of “gay marriage” has certainly changed. In the not-too-distant past, it meant you either found the right lesbian, as Cole Porter and Paul Bowles did; or, in the case of New York City Ballet impresario Lincoln Kirsten, a “broad-minded” sophisticate like Fidela Cadmus (sister of the very gay painter Paul) only too happy to forge a legal alliance in which husband and wife led “separate lives.” But there’s nothing separate about Ellen and Portia (no last names needed). Ellen’s triumph after the presumed disaster of her coming out has changed the landscape of show business. Yes she lost her sitcom, but her afternoon variety show is far more suited to her talents, proving that an “out” lesbian can be as welcomed in America’s living rooms as anyone else. Talent will out — and that’s the only “out” that matters today, with Neil Patrick Harris conquering not only Broadway (Rent, Assassins) and TV (How I Met Your Mother) but the viral media of the Internet too (Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog.) What’s especially telling in Harris’ case is that Barney Stinson, the “toxic bachelor” he embodies so amusingly on How I Met Your Mother, is essentially an antic update of the character Rock Hudson played in his comedies opposite Doris Day. The difference being that Hudson, who far more ordinary Americans knew was gay than has ever been formally acknowledged, could never come out. There’s no question that the damage this wrought on his psyche drove him to alcoholism and sexual recklessness. A steady boyfriend like Harris’ lover David Burtka was unthinkable for Hudson.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Jerome Robbins lately. One of our greatest choreographers and theatrical creators, Robbins’ professional success contrasted sharply with the personal calumny that sprang from his 1953 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in which he named other former ‘30s-era American Communists. As a recent American Masters program on Robbins made clear, he did it because HUAC threatened to tell the world that he was a homosexual if he didn’t.
Note, I did not say “out him as gay.” Back then, being identified as “a homosexual” meant nothing less than virtual death. It meant you were legally “criminal,” morally a “sinner,” and mentally “neurotic.” Everyone in dance and theater knew Robbins was gay. As Arthur Laurents recounts in his memoir Original Story By, at rehearsals for the original production of West Side Story Robbins loudly attacked actor Larry Kert for “acting like a faggot,” before going on to steal Kert’s boyfriend. But no one did or said anything about it, so powerful was the force of what Christopher Isherwood called “the Heterosexual dictatorship.” And Robbins made himself part of it.
I met Robbins back when he was dating a friend of mine, the experimental filmmaker Warren Sonbert. Totally “out of the closet,” Warren embarked on his affair with Robbins knowing that it would be short-lived but hoping that some degree of friendship would remain after ardor cooled. One night, Warren and I had gone to a screening at the Museum of Modern Art and were walking up Fifth Avenue to drop by the Gotham Book Mart when we ran into Robbins. Warren had just been talking about him, saying that Robbins’ greatness as an artist transcended everything else. Running up to him, Warren was all smiles as he introduced me to a smiling, polite but obvious terrified Robbins. As we chatted, Robbins looked around this way and that in furtive panic. What on earth was he afraid of? We were two anonymous men talking to him casually. We could be fans, or dancers, or actors he knew. But in the immortal words of FDR, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.”
That fear is what ruled Jerome Robbins. But the fear that rules the anti-gay closet cases on view in Outrage is of a rather different order. Larry Craig got the equivalent of jaywalking ticket for his men’s room sexcapades — not the prison sentence or pre-frontal lobotomy faced by gays or yore. Jim McGreevey got The Full Oprah, the deluxe afternoon talk-show crying towel, complete with a book deal for himself and his allegedly unknowing wife. And given that the mainstream media, many of whose reporters (cough Anderson Cooper cough) are reluctant to discuss their so-called “private lives,” David Dreier, Mitch McConnell and their ilk won’t be thrust into the spotlight now aimed squarely at Charlie Crist. Unless they’re “indiscreet.” And in politics, like so much else these days, indiscretion is the better part of YouTube.
My advice to the congenitally closeted? Take a tip from Robbins’ West Side Story collaborator, Stephen Sondheim: Boy, boy, crazy boy / Get cool, boy / Got a rocket in your pocket / Keep cooly cool boy /Don’t get hot / ’Cause man you got / Some high times ahead / Take it slow / And Daddy-o / You can live it up and die in bed / Boy, boy, crazy boy / Stay loose, boy / Breeze it / Buzz it / Easy does it / Turn off the juice, boy / Go man, go / But not like a yo-yo school boy / Just play it cool, boy / Real cool.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.