In the weeks before the 78th annual Academy Awards, Brokeback Mountain producer Diana Ossana already suspected what few outside Hollywood could imagine: Her film was going to lose the Best Picture race. ''Several people told me they knew a lot of Academy voters who just refused to see the film,'' says Ossana, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Larry McMurtry. This tragic love story between two men had dominated the critics' awards and banked $178 million worldwide. It even captivated sellout crowds in states like Oklahoma and Ohio just not, apparently, in Academy screening rooms. ''What are they afraid of?'' McMurtry asked Ossana. ''It's just a movie.''
But Brokeback was more than a movie. It was a phenomenon that commanded the cultural conversation for months, from Jay Leno to YouTube to the cover of The New Yorker. More important, it proved that straight audiences would snap up tickets to a same-sex romance. Since then, a few gay-themed films have been released (e.g., Notes on a Scandal). But seemingly no studio nor any studio art-house division has greenlit a film with a gay lead character. ''I don't think any studio responded by saying, 'Quick, dust off whatever gay dramas we have!''' says one former studio head. As surprising as it seemed that Brokeback could lose the Oscar to Crash, the real shock is just now setting in: Brokeback may have changed nothing.
When audiences complain that Hollywood is out of touch with the rest of the country, it's invariably because a movie is deemed too liberal. When it comes to gay characters, however, it's out of touch for the exact opposite reason. In the past decade, America's attitudes toward homosexuality have shifted, particularly among young people.
A recent national poll of college freshman found that 61 percent approved of gay marriage, up 10 percent from a decade ago. Kids in high school grew up watching Will & Grace and can't recall a time when Ellen wasn't gay. These days, you might catch the gay romance on As the World Turns or get sucked into a bitchy same-sex speed date on MTV's Next. You could be captivated by Dr. Liz Cruz on Nip/Tuck or arrested by Det. Shakima Greggs on The Wire. And, of course, you can watch anything on the gay network, Logo, or the de facto gay network, Bravo. This is not to say that TV is perfect. A recent study by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation calculated that the number of gay regular characters on scripted network prime-time television had actually declined, to just 1.1 percent. That study didn't look at cable or reality TV, nor the total audience watching those shows. Regardless of whether the number of gay characters is up or down this year, the letters LGBT have become a part of television's alphabet soup, and audiences consume it, in their living rooms, by the millions.
While television has been fostering greater acceptance for gay people, movies remain stuck in the 20th century. Almost two years after Brokeback, the best Hollywood can do with gay content is the ''I'm not gay!'' punchlines of Wild Hogs or the homoerotic homophobia of 300. Even the ''gayest'' studio movie of the year, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, climaxed with stars Adam Sandler and Kevin James horrified by the idea of a same-sex kiss. Here's the weird thing: Walt Disney, the company behind Wild Hogs, is the corporate sibling of ABC, which, with Ugly Betty, Brothers & Sisters, and Desperate Housewives, is the most queer-inclusive broadcast network around. So what gives? How can TV shows be so progressive while movies seem so...old?
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