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Ryan Johnson, Published September 26 2013

Johnson: Liberace biopic shows Hollywood studios need to quit ignoring gay characters

A movie starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon made by the guy behind the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy should have prompted a heated bidding war in Hollywood.

But the idea that this film was “too gay” meant it couldn’t get a $5 million investment from studios that instead opted to sink a whopping $215 million into box office flop “The Lone Ranger.”

Director Steven Soderbergh said he had to wait 13 years to finally make “Behind the Candelabra,” the story of the complicated relationship between pianist Liberace and a much younger man. It was worth the wait, drawing 2.4 million viewers for its HBO premiere earlier this year and winning 11 Emmys on Sunday.

It dominated its supposedly more mainstream TV movie competition, including another HBO biopic, “Phil Spector,” that starred Al Pacino but only had 750,000 viewers.

It’s been eight years since “Brokeback Mountain” was a critical and commercial hit. The film cost $14 million to produce, but took in $178 million at the box office, making it the fifth-highest-grossing Western since 1979 and eighth-highest-grossing romantic drama since 1980.

I bet Johnny Depp wishes he could say the same about his western, “The Lone Ranger.”

Even years after the incredible success of “Brokeback Mountain,” Hollywood still shies away from offering up movies that depict lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender characters as anything more than a stereotype on screen just long enough to deliver one or two lines.

The movies that do get released often rely on characters that prove to be little more than funny gays – think “The Birdcage,” an entertaining-enough film with characters so over the top that they’re meant to be laughed at, not empathized with.

It’s the same reason I avoided watching the hit TV series “Will & Grace,” a prime example of the oft-repeated message in pop culture that gay people are fabulous one-dimensional jokes, all flamboyant and snarky best friends rather than real people with real lives.

This summer, GLAAD released its first-ever Studio Responsibility Index to see how Hollywood’s six largest film studios did with LGBT inclusivity.

The findings are hardly a surprise. In 2012, just 14 of the 101 major releases had any LGBT characters. Of those, only four had a character on screen for more than a few scenes.

Even the inclusive movies were problematic. I loved the latest James Bond flick, “Skyfall,” but the only LGBT character was Javier Bardem’s villain, who implies that he’s bisexual in one scene. Even worse, his bisexuality is only alluded to as a way of making the character seem more evil and deranged.

It’s a common problem in Hollywood, where minorities usually are treated terribly or completely ignored. Look to the bulk of teen horror films, when it’s clear from the first few seconds that the black friend in the group will be the first character to die.

American TV has done better, offering up more complex relationships and storylines in shows like “Modern Family” that score top ratings against the LGBT-less competition.

There’s clearly a demand for stories that go beyond “The Birdcage” and dumbed-down stereotypes. Including a cameo from openly gay MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts for a few seconds in “The Avengers” just isn’t good enough anymore.

Even if film studios don’t care about the human impact, they should pay attention to the commercial success of these big LGBT films. There’s money to be made from a Liberace biopic, not just from a costly reboot of an outdated franchises.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587