Cover Story

Hollywood's Newest Players

Gays work behind the scenes to give entertainment a makeover

A generation ago, Hollywood's powerful behind-the-scenes gays were as discreet as the gay stars they whitewashed for the public. In 1986, the widely respected William Morris agent Stan Kamen — the Michael Ovitz of his day — died of AIDS without ever having publicly acknowledged his homosexuality.

But as the first post-Stonewall generation of gay executives and creative talent moves into prominent positions, dissembling is no longer in fashion. ''It's almost a badge of honor to say, 'I'm gay,''' says attorney David Colden.

Far from suffering any stigma, gay execs have discovered that openness can enhance their careers. Amblin producer Bruce Cohen (The Flintstones), for example, didn't have to persuade Steven Spielberg to back the drag comedy To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar — it was Spielberg who took it to Cohen to produce.

A right-wing canard posits that gay power brokers seek to promote a ''gay agenda'' to undermine traditional standards and values. In fact, a gay agenda may exist — but within Hollywood's power structure, it's less a conspiracy than a matter of slow spadework toward the goals of professional acceptance, the banishment of negative stereotyping, and some systemic changes. Some guidelines:

FORGET THE GAY GODFATHERS The gay and mainstream media have tended to fixate on a handful of powerful gay men like Dream Works partner David Geffen and manager Sandy Gallin, whose circle of close friends includes designer Calvin Klein and Fox TV founder and SKTV chairman Barry Diller. They've been dubbed the Velvet Mafia, implying that they rule by cabal. Geffen dismisses such talk as ''nonsense,'' saying, ''I have no idea [why the label is used], nor do I care. It's just something people like to call famous gay people.''

True, following established Hollywood practice, members of Geffen's circle occasionally network — when Michael Jackson was shopping for a manager, Geffen suggested Gallin. And, individually, many have supported gay causes. But as publicist Howard Bragman observes, ''the term 'Velvet Mafia' reminds me of the anti-Semitic stuff that was said in the past about Jews controlling the industry.'' Another insidious myth — that a ''gay casting couch'' ushers homosexual actors into roles — is denied with equal fervor.

CONSCIOUSNESS-RAISING BEGINS AT HOME The priority for many gay executives is to improve work conditions — Hollywood's employees are notoriously insecure, and many gay workers became even more so after the AIDS onslaught. Ironically, the issue was highlighted in the wake of straight actor Brad Davis' death from AIDS in 1991, when, in a book proposal that came to light posthumously, he talked of hiding his illness for fear of losing work.

Concerned about the situation, Diller met with then MCA president Sid Sheinberg in 1991, and the two pledged $125,000 to create Hollywood Supports, a group addressing the problems of homophobia and fear of AIDS. The following year, at Sheinberg's directive, MCA/Universal became the first studio to extend health insurance benefits to the partners of gay employees. ''It was just the right thing to do,'' Sheinberg says. By granting gay workers the same health-care rights as their heterosexual counterparts, the company set a precedent the symbolic importance of which was even more liberating than its economic impact. ''Now at MCA,'' says former Universal exec Nina Jacobson, ''you would have a bigger problem if you were a homophobe than a homosexual.'' Other studios have followed suit, with the exception of the financially conservative Disney and the political conservative Rupert Murdoch's Fox. Both companies say they're studying the issue.

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