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TIME:  More gay-themed movies coming out of the celluloid closet


Objects of Our Affection Gay films are moving into the mainstream.
But you don't have to be gay to find that a good thing
By RICHARD CORLISS

   Fate, that impish old bitch, has thrown the smart one and the cute one in bed together for the first time. So far, they have been just friends, but now what? The cute one, topless and asleep, rolls over against the smart one, who suddenly dares to hope and grazes his love object with his fingers. A caress leads to a kiss--and then the cutie pie bolts up awake. Comedy! Drama! Horror! And, since the characters are both men, in a scene that stirs a smiling shudder of recognition in viewers straight and gay: Breakthrough!
   Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, a bubbly musical comedy romance that wowed 'em at Sundance, is as modest as it is beguiling; its director credit reads A TOMMY O'HAVER TRIFLE. But the trend it represents has some heft to it. There are more gay-theme independent films than ever--"an explosion hitting the marketplace," says Marcus Hu, co-president of Strand Releasing. And they aim to appeal to viewers of all sexual orientations. Gays have come out of the celluloid closet and into the movie mainstream.
   Not mainstream movies, exactly. In films like As Good as It Gets and My Best Friend's Wedding, homosexual characters appear in sympathetic but supporting roles. In indie films, which are made inexpensively for niche audiences, gays get star treatment: in The Opposite of Sex, Love and Death on Long Island and, by year's end, a dozen more. Just as important is the attitude behind many of the new films. Instead of ghettoizing the gay experience, it integrates it into familiar Americana--gays and straights laughing, loving, misunderstanding one another. As O'Haver says of Kiss, "The idea was to set up these labels of straight and gay, and then by the end of the film forget that Billy is gay. The labels don't really mean that much." That is an aim of the new Gay Wave: to tear off the labels of stereotype, the better to consider the common fabric of our emotional lives.
   In movies, gays were first ignored, then scorned. By the early '90s, with
AIDS doing its dirty work, gays got to be pitied. But they were typically portrayed as a separate species, the exotic other; and films about them tended to be about their gayness, its birth and death. "It was either 'Mom, I'm coming out of the closet' or 'Oh, my best friend is sick,'" says David Elzer of Trimark, which distributes Kiss. "It was issue, issue, issue. Now we're coming into a new age. Billy's story is universal. Everyone has longed for someone else who may or may not have loved them back." Says Ray Price, head of the company's film division: "The movie is so wholesome that you could take your mother, your sister, your Ronald Reagan uncle, and it'd be O.K."
   Of course it's O.K. Kiss and its siblings, including Victor Mignatti's Broadway Damage and Brian Sloan's Big Chill-ish I Think I Do, are as geezer friendly as a sappy sitcom. Like the ruck of hetero indie films, many in the Gay Wave have ambitions no higher than a Friends rerun. They are comedies of courtship manners.
   Kiss and Broadway have identical plots: a smart guy falls for a hunky guy and spends the whole movie waiting to be kissed by him. Even the supporting characters are similar. Whereas straight film romances may feature a wisecracking gay neighbor, the gay movies are about two guys and a chirpy- cynical woman friend--Eve Arden on Fire Island. With their bright colors and show-tune overlay, these films are unapologetically romantic. They're at their most endearing when they attend to the crucial, clumsy negotiations at the beginning of any relationship, and to that old-fashioned movie wallop, the impact of a first kiss.
   Most important is the films' mood: romantically retro. The sunny disposition, the swooning sentiment, the neat haircuts whisk you back to the pastel '50s--to Doris Day comedies and Gene Kelly musicals--and, even earlier, to the studied innocence of MGM's teen tuners starring Mickey Rooney and Judy

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