Hollywood’s Forgotten Gay Romance

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On the day the unprecedented same-sex kiss was to be filmed for the 1982 movie Making Love, the set was packed — and tense — after weeks of buildup. A couple of days earlier, producer Daniel Melnick told the movie’s co-star Harry Hamlin, “Two days! I’ll be there!” Sherry Lansing, the president of production at 20th Century Fox, the movie’s studio, was also looking forward to it. “Harry, we’ll be there!” she had said. Director Arthur Hiller led the production, and Melnick and Lansing stood behind the camera with him. They were there to witness history, but also perhaps to gawk.

At the center of all the attention were the two actors, Hamlin and Michael Ontkean. They were both dark-haired, clean-cut, and a little nervous about the scene they were soon to perform. Ontkean played Zack, a 30-year-old Los Angeles doctor married to a network TV executive, Claire (Kate Jackson); and Hamlin played Bart, a physically fit, successful novelist, a player, an out gay man — and the object of Zack’s closeted affection.

Wings, 1927 (top) and The Sergeant, 1968 (bottom).

Courtesy Everett Collection / Archive Photos / Getty Images

Men had kissed before onscreen, certainly. In Wings, for instance, the 1927 movie that won the first Academy Award for Best Picture, two fighter pilot friends who had been rivals for the same woman share a kiss as one of them is dying. Men had kissed in European films, most notably in 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, which was also about a love triangle. And there had been negative depictions of men kissing, like in the background of the murderous BDSM club in 1980’s Cruising, and in 1968’s The Sergeant, when Rod Steiger’s character goes crazy and assaults the object of his affection with his lips.

But an affectionate kiss between men who care for each other? In a movie made in Hollywood, and produced by a major studio? That was historic.

“It was completely unheard of that two men would embrace and then their lips would touch on film,” Hamlin remembered over breakfast at a deli near his home. “‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ was the response I would get when I would tell people I was going to do it.”

Long before television led the way in showing LGBT life — first on reality shows, later on scripted TV — Making Love gave something to gay audiences, who were used to being represented as monsters or sissies. Its screenwriter, Barry Sandler, had specifically set out to show a positive view of gay people. In Zack, Making Love presents a kind and prosperous hero. “Growing up, we were inundated, my generation, with all these negative images of gay people,” Sandler, who was 35 when the film was released, said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “They would be either suicidal or desperate or pathetic or murderers. Or the butts of jokes — big, flamboyant drag queens, the comedy foil. We all get our perceptions of ourselves from movies.”

A. Scott Berg, who received a “story by” credit for coming up with the idea for Making Love, and worked with Sandler, said: “We made the movie because we really believed in it, and believed it could make a difference. I heard Barry say at least 10 times, back then and as recently as a couple of years ago: ‘I want to make this movie so some kid in a small town in Missouri will know that he’s not alone. And it’s going to be OK.'”

But Making Love, which is out on DVD but isn’t available to stream, has in part faded from history, 35 years after its release. Though prescient on same-sex marriage, it’s not canonical to younger LGBT people, nor are any of the small wave of gay-themed movies — Personal Best, Partners, Deathtrap, and Victor/Victoria — released in 1982: a mini phenomenon that caused the New York Times to declare there was a “New Realism in Portraying Homosexuals.” In the Arts & Leisure section, Leslie Bennetts wrote, “The emergence of a cluster of films dealing with homosexuality constitutes something of a milestone in the history of a topic that long was strictly taboo.”

But something else happened in 1982: the coinage of AIDS, an acronym the CDC came up with in September of that year to describe the phenomenon of whatever was causing people — mostly gay men — to die of pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma by the hundreds. The health crisis caused panic in the gay community, and a re-stigmatization of LGBT people. With so many gay men dying, pop culture, theater, and art realigned around stories of HIV and AIDS for the next two decades.

Before the release of Making Love, Marvin Davis, the new owner of 20th Century Fox, stood up during a private screening and bellowed at its producer, “You made a goddamn faggot movie!” before stomping out. When the movie came out on Feb. 12, 1982, it caused some members of the audience to boo, jeer, and sometimes walk out themselves. And when it came time to air on network TV, there was a fight to keep in even the first brief kiss between Zack and Bart — a longer one in close-up was edited out.

Making Love was Hollywood’s first gay romance. And for many years, it was its last. There are movies, Berg said, that “help us get over a problem” simply by showing marginalized people living their lives and being human; he sees Making Love as one of them. “Here’s this movie that’s 35 years old, and it still touches people,” he said. “Its impact is still felt. It’s significant.”

Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean in Making Love, 1982.

20th Century Fox / Courtesy Everett Collection

In 1978, at age 28, Berg had published his first biography, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, and won the National Book Award for it. After its success, he was commissioned by the estate of Samuel Goldwyn, one of the movie moguls behind MGM, to write Goldwyn’s official biography. But there were lawyers involved, so as he waited to be able to sell the book to a publisher, Berg had time on his hands. His father, a television producer and writer, suggested that he come up with an idea for a movie. Berg thought about all the men he knew, himself included, who were in the process of coming out.

“I thought, Wow, the gay movement has reached a stage of critical mass here where this is happening,” Berg said. “With that action is coming an equal and opposite reaction of homophobia, so this would be a very good time, I thought, to do the first positive gay movie.” He wondered whether there could be a movie that did for gay people what Stanley Kramer’s 1967 classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner — about a rich, white couple, who consider themselves to be liberal, grappling with the idea that their daughter plans to marry a black man — had done for interracial marriage.

A. Scott Berg, October 1978.

New York Post Archives / Getty Images

Sandler, meanwhile, was feeling stuck in his career. He’d had a number of screenplays produced — a Raquel Welch roller derby movie in 1972 (Kansas City Bomber), a Goldie Hawn comedy in which she played a con artist in 1976 (The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox), and an Agatha Christie adaptation in 1980 with an all-star cast (The Mirror Crack’d, with Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, Tony Curtis, and Rock Hudson). He and Berg had dated, and were friends, and, knowing how Sandler was feeling about his writing, Berg went to him with his idea for the movie, which by then he had outlined on notecards. Sandler was intrigued, but worried about coming out publicly. “I wasn’t closeted, but it was a big leap to writing a gay movie and going on TV and saying, ‘I’m gay, and I wrote this movie,'” he said. “I really resisted it for a long time. I also resisted digging into such personal shit. But Scott was relentless.”

Berg wasn’t ready to come out publicly himself, and with his career as a biographer in mind and the Goldwyn deal looming, he didn’t want a screenwriting credit, which might give the appearance to the book publishing industry that he was switching careers. He proposed a partnership with Sandler in which they would use the story Berg had laid out and refine it together, with Sandler writing the screenplay. Berg said, “I kept saying: ‘This is a really timely thing. It’s happening now. We’ve really got to get out there with it.'”

“He finally wore me down after a while,” Sandler said. The idea for Making Love at this point was that a closeted, married man (the Zack character) meets a charismatic writer (the Bart character) and falls in love with him. Zack then has to deal with coming out to his wife, who wants to have a baby and is devastated, while also trying to domesticate the relationship-averse Bart.

Part of Berg’s struggle while coming out was that he wanted a monogamous relationship, which was not typical among gay men then. “If I am gay,” he remembered thinking, “if I am coming out, can I have a real relationship, a real romantic relationship? Can I settle down with somebody?” He put those thoughts into Zack, the homebody. “Barry was very much out,” Berg continued. “And Barry was very Bart. I said the dynamic between us is instant drama, because we come from two such different places.”

Al Pacino in Cruising, 1980.

Lorimar / REX / Shutterstock

Behind the movie’s plot and characters was the still-radical idea that homosexuality was normal, and should be presented as such. The Stonewall riots, the birth of the modern LGBT civil rights movement, had taken place in 1969. It was more than 10 years later, and Berg felt there was a “gathering movement” of people ready to come out.

Sandler said that their message — that gay people were like everyone else — was explicit and intended, and in addition to wanting to provide LGBT audiences with representation they’d never had before, they wanted to be instructive to straight moviegoers. “We wanted these people to be successful and together and attractive,” Sandler said. “We wanted to present them like it’s your neighbors, or your family. People you relate to, people you understand.”

It was also meant to be an antidote to the recently released William Friedkin movie Cruising, in which a detective played by Al Pacino goes undercover to find a serial killer in New York City’s gay leather scene. “Cruising fed into that perception that all gay people were desperate characters — low-life, scummy characters,” Sandler said.

It was 1980, about to be the dawn of the Ronald Reagan era, and Sandler didn’t want to write the screenplay without a studio backing it. “Studios were scared at the time,” he said. He remembered thinking: “I don’t want to write an original screenplay, and spend a chunk of my life throwing out my heart and soul, and nobody would want it.”

In their effort to get a studio behind the project, Berg and Sandler were trying to sell both the plot, which was sure to be seen as sensational, and the ideas behind it. Berg had a friend, Claire Townsend, who was about to start a job developing movies under Sherry Lansing at 20th Century Fox. Lansing, the first female president of a movie studio, was known for her passion for topical films, and while at Columbia Pictures she had overseen The China Syndrome (about the threat of a nuclear reactor melting down) and Kramer vs. Kramer (about a father wanting custody of his son after a divorce). “I think the cutting edge–ness will appeal to her,” Berg remembered thinking of Lansing.

He had lunch with Townsend on the Friday before she began her job at Fox. “I was two sentences in,” he said, “and she said, ‘I’ve got to do this.'” Since Townsend hadn’t even started her job, Berg didn’t expect to hear from her for a while.

“Sunday night, she called me up. She said, ‘I talked to Sherry this weekend, and I told her about your idea, and she loves the idea.'”

Lansing remembered Townsend telling her that she’d heard “a really interesting pitch.” “She said, ‘This man comes to his wife, and he tells her that he’s leaving her. But he’s not leaving her for another woman, he’s leaving her for a man!'” Lansing said in a phone interview. “And I went, ‘Oh my god, that’s brilliant!’ It was just that concept. I said, ‘I love it! Go make the deal.'”

“It was thrilling,” Lansing said. “It was just a gut-level reaction that this was an amazingly good idea for a movie on many, many levels. And something that I instantly wanted to make.”

Director Arthur Hiller with Daniel Melnick, producer Allen Adler, and Barry Sandler; Hiller on set with Ontkean and Jackson.

20th Century Fox / Courtesy Everett Collection

“It took two women to say yes,” Sandler said. “I don’t think any male studio head, straight or gay, would have sanctioned that film at the time. God bless ’em, they did it. They said they wanted to be pioneers. And Sherry stood up and said, ‘I want to make this movie,’ and was pretty tough about it.” (The wife character would eventually be named Claire, after Townsend, who died in 1995.)

After Sandler wrote the script from Berg’s story, and the two of them worked together to revise it, they submitted it to Townsend, who loved it. Townsend and Lansing then gave it to Melnick, for whom Lansing had worked at MGM and Columbia Pictures, and whose production company was at Fox.

Melnick, who died in 2009, was known as a bold tastemaker and an influencer. The New York Times once wrote of him: “Strewn with pieces of modern art and banks of white chrysanthemums in silver planters, his house is as dramatically black-and-white as a chessboard. Handsome, fiftyish, lithe and tanned, he wears with grace the $100 Turnbull and Asser shirts that are custom-tailored for him in London.”

He said yes right away. Sandler said, “Danny Melnick called me at 1 in the morning when he finished reading it. One in the morning! He said, ‘I’ve never been so moved.'”

With an important producer attached to Making Love, Berg and Sandler began to make a list of directors. “We had been thinking of younger directors, and in many cases, gay directors who weren’t necessarily even out, but were either gay or had a gay sensibility,” Berg said. Then Melnick called, saying that Lansing had an idea for one: Arthur Hiller. Berg was shocked. Hiller was in his fifties at the time, and very straight: He had been with his wife, Gwen, since their childhoods in Edmonton, Canada. On top of that, Hiller embodied mainstream success. Berg said, “He was just coming off one of the great 10-year runs a director ever had: The In-Laws, Popi, Love Story, Hospital, Plaza Suite. And I’m thinking, And now Arthur Hiller wants to take on a little three-person drama about a guy coming out of the closet? Good luck.” They were excited about the idea, but it “seemed impossible,” Berg said.

Hiller was supposed to direct The Verdict for Fox, but the Making Love script won him over. The director died this past August, but in a December 2013 interview in his Beverly Hills home, Hiller, then 90 and sipping a Diet Coke, said, “I liked the fact of what it was saying. It felt good to me.”

Berg said, “This I later heard from Arthur himself — he said, ‘I read the script, and I cried. And I thought, I really don’t know these people. So I read the script a second time, and I cried even more.'”

Hiller dropped The Verdict in order to do Making Love.

With an urgency that the timeliness of the movie demanded, and rumors that the larger-than-life, brutish Denver oilman Marvin Davis would soon buy Fox, it was time to start casting.

They tried to get stars first, going after Harrison Ford, just after of Raiders of the Lost Ark (“No way,” Sandler said); Richard Gere; William Hurt; Tom Berenger; and Michael Douglas, with whom Lansing and Melnick had done The China Syndrome. “He was sort of toying with the idea, but everyone around him said, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it. Don’t ever kiss another man onscreen,'” Sander said. “Sherry was really trying to push him for it. And he kind of wanted to. But in the end, he didn’t.”

      

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