There’s a great scene in Mel Brook’s 1983 remake of “To Be Or Not To Be,” where Brooks (playing the leader of a tacky theatrical troupe) finds himself caught in the middle of Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland. Nervously, Brooks visits the Nazi commander (played by the hilarious Kenneth Mars) and asks permission to stage a show in the local theater. Mars scowls and says he’ll allow Brooks to put on his show as long as he doesn’t use any “Jews, Gypsies or Homosexuals.” Brooks stares at him in shock, then blurts out, “How the hell am I gonna put on a show with no Jews, Gypsies or Homosexuals??”
Every once in a while someone will ask me if I've ever experienced any homophobia in the entertainment business. I’m happy to report that my answer is "rarely." As reflected in that brilliant Mel Brooks joke, gay people have been so entrenched in show business for so many centuries that we largely walk in and out the door unnoticed. Occasionally some poor, unenlightened clod will shoot off his or her mouth (this tends to happen mostly with stand-up comics) and then the shit hits the fan. Apparently these poor bastards are unaware that nowadays there are gay people with last names like Geffen. There are queer super-agents and lesbian studio heads. That fag joke that killed in the old neighborhood, doesn’t play so well on the larger stage of Hollywood. It pays to remember that in addition to being socially conscious and possessing wonderful taste, we gays have extremely long memories.
Once someone tried using my sexual orientation against me, but I think it was less an expression of homophobia than an act of desperation. It all began when a producer approached me about a possible rewrite on a script he had purchased. It was the story of three slacker dudes fast approaching 30 who couldn’t seem to grow up. The script was a little long, but it was funny and honest. The most glaring problems were with the female characters. They all spoke like robots who’d been programmed to recite from self-help books. I didn’t get how this could’ve happened until I was summoned to meet with the writer-director. “Danny,” (we’ll call him) was a dark, spinning nutjob. If Don Rickles and Howie Mandel had had a love child, it would have been "Danny." Since his script was largely autobiographical, I suspected he didn’t really want anyone coming near it. That suspicion grew stronger when I started my pitch and Danny kept interrupting me every five seconds. Knowing the producer’s eyes were on me, I tried to stay focused. Slowly, I inched my way through the script, gradually winning a few concessions from Danny here and there. But then, when he sensed that the producer was liking my ideas, the big guns came out.
Out of nowhere, Danny started peppering the conversation with small toxic comments like “It’s like when you’re married to a chick for a few years and…Do you know what I’m talking about?” It was a shitty, but effective tactic. Danny was turning me into “the gay guy” who couldn’t possibly understand the story he was trying to tell. Seamlessly, he steered us into a discussion of a scene where the characters were watching a football game, then forced me to admit that I knew nothing about sports. Then, playing what he must have thought was his trump card, he casually mentioned his two year-old son and asked, “You got any kids?” That was it. I met his eyes and paused for a millisecond -- just long enough to communicate that I was done fucking around. I smiled my best Joan Crawford smile. “I’m gay, Danny. I don’t have any kids. But interestingly enough, I used to be a kid and I remember it vividly.” The producer thought this was hilarious. With the ball back in my court, I forged ahead; calm, professional and merciless. Suddenly, I was the one interrupting Danny (pretty much any time I felt like it). When I was done, I stood up, shook his hand and wished him well with his movie. Unbelievably, I got the job, although Danny and I never laid eyes on each other again.
Truthfully, I never think about my being gay as anything other than a fact of life -- Like my height, eye color or skin tone. Many years ago, I had a short (very short) sexual fling with a successful screenwriter who was deeply in the closet -- So deeply that I was only allowed to come to his Westside home under cover of darkness and we were never seen in public together. He was astounded that I was openly “out.” Wasn’t I concerned that it would hurt my career? Wouldn’t it “limit” me in the studio’s eyes? I thought this was sort of hilarious coming from him. First off, despite the fact that he was recently divorced, the guy wasn’t exactly Joe Butch. Helen Keller would have known he was gay. Secondly, his stock in trade was writing “chick flick” romantic comedies for female stars. It was self-delusion taken to new heights.
Who knows? There have probably been a few times I wasn’t hired because I was gay. I know of a couple of jobs I didn’t get because I was white. Generally, I’m hired to write character-driven material that’s both funny and poignant. And there’s a reason for that. Since I never liked B.B. guns or team sports, I spent a lot of my childhood on the sidelines. That was hard at times, but as a result I became the self-appointed friend to the friendless – the oddballs, the fat kids, the geeks. Since I rarely had anywhere to go after school, I often hung out with grown-ups where I sat listening to conversations I had no business hearing; absorbing intimate snapshots of the compromises and hard truths that marked adult life. Being gay would teach me compassion and provide me with the single most effective (and durable) weapon in my arsenal: a sense of humor. In short, it gave me my voice (as a person and as an artist). Strange, isn’t it? Who’d have thought all of that would have come about... just because long ago, deep inside my mother’s body, one little chromosome bumped into another and said “Hey! Wanna go for a drink at the Abbey?” For that tiny inexplicable incident, I will be forever grateful. After all, there's nothing more reassuring than knowing who you are.
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being oddly middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv