If you had driven past Mann's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard two Mondays ago, you would have been greeted by all the familiar trappings of a movie premiere: red carpet, searchlights crisscrossing the night sky, anxious tourists straining at barricades. "Just another premiere," you might have thought as you peered up at the theater marquee: Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, and, if you knew anything about the movie, you might have wondered, "How does a gay romantic comedy rate an old-fashioned, let's-pretend-this-is-still-a-glamorous-town premiere?"
For the film's director, Tommy O'Haver, that walk down the magic carpet was the culmination of a lifelong plan. Only 29, O'Haver has thought of himself as a movie director ever since he was a 10-year-old blowing his allowance on Super-8 film. "I made this stop-motion Barbie movie once with a whole chorus of Barbies doing a kick line against a big mirror. Then I ran out of money." O'Haver leans forward to be heard over the whirring blenders of a Venice Beach coffeehouse, tilting his head in mock regret. "As might happen in the fourth grade."
It doesn't take a big leap to connect those Super 8's to Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, which comes as a breath of fresh air in this summer of gay independent cinema, when it seems like there's a new gay feature every Friday. Most are high-ideal, poorly executed films, better suited to the lowered expectations of the festival circuit than a regular run. What lifts O'Haver's debut feature above the pack is his inventive mix of style and technique, honed no doubt on all those backyard or film-school shorts. Using musical fantasy sequences, rear projection and even Polaroid snapshots, he charts Billy's growing infatuation with a beautiful, sexually ambiguous boy and the ways in which movies have warped what Billy expects of romance.
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If Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss is not quite the "gay independent to end all gay independents" its creator envisioned, it does succeed where others have failed in creating a gay lead to whom a wider audience can relate. To that end, the movie opens with Billy giving a wonderfully simple demonstration of the dividing lines of his world. "The idea is to clearly set up the labels of straight and gay," O'Haver explains. "It's not like it's not a gay movie. But by the end I wanted the audience to basically forget Billy's a homosexual, to toss out those labels that are defined at the beginning."
More than once, O'Haver found himself in preproduction meetings with Hollywood money men trying to coax them into rethinking how gays could be portrayed on screen: His movie was too sexy, or wasn't sexy enough. "You either have tons of sex and then it doesn't matter what you're doing, or it's got to be a coming-out movie, or about the darkness of gay men's souls." O'Haver shrugs. "It's like those were the only ways people could see gay movies."
Those old movie images of lonely, drunken, tight-panted men doomed to unhappiness may have contributed to the initial dismay of the director's parents when he told them he was gay. O'Haver, always thinking in movie terms, broke the big news via a college-made short film. "They threw it in the trash. My mom watched it and would not show it to my dad." A recent trip by the Indiana-bred O'Haver to his parents' home in Kansas, however, revealed signs of progress. "When I came home they had the movie poster framed, and they had a collage - this really tacky Midwestern collage - they created out of all the press. It's very strange, because they've accepted me to an extent but they're still in denial. She gets really nervous about it. She says, 'It's a movie for everybody, and you have to keep pushing that. Don't talk about the gay thing.'"
Mom may be on to something. When Tommy O'Haver talks to the press for his next movie, a live-action version of The Archies for Universal, chances are sexuality won't be the main topic. It's an even better bet he won't be fielding questions about what his mother thinks of his movie. He's probably really looking forward to that.