It might seem perfectly normal today, but releasing a gay mainstream film in 1997 was bold and brave.
In 2018, critics and audiences alike raved about “Love, Simon” which told the story of a young man struggling to come out and accept his sexuality. But 21 years ago, another film helped pave the way for films like it, and found a surprisingly warm reception at a time when LGBTQ positive films were still incredibly rare.
Director Frank Oz says he was inspired to make “In & Out” after watching Tom Hanks accept the Best Actor Oscar for 1993’s “Philadelphia.” But instead of replicating that film’s dramatic arc, he wanted to use the power of comedy to tell a meaningful story that would help build compassion and understanding for those facing the very real challenges of coming out.
In the film, everyone knows that their beloved high school English teacher Howard Brackett (played by actor Kevin Kline) is gay, except for Howard himself. When one of his former students wins an Oscar, he accidentally outs Howard in front of millions.
At the time, the movie received a lot of attention for its pioneering 12-second kiss between co-stars Kline and Tom Selleck, but what holds up most today is the story of one person struggling to come to terms with their own identity and how it affects those around them.
Over the course of the film, a number of characters, straight and queer, help him come out, eventually finding acceptance both with himself, and from those who know him best.
Despite the potential for controversy, the movie was a hit at the box office and earned an Academy Award nomination for co-star Joan Cusack.
In fact, Oz says that from the early stages of production through the film’s release he only ever faced one complaint from an anonymous reviewer at a preview screening.
“I don’t think about my movies very much after I make them,” Oz said, “but I’m very proud of that movie.”
It’s also funny, which helped build a bridge to straight audiences.
Groundbreaking films like “Philadelphia,” “Angels in America,” and “My Own Private Idaho” made audiences think and feel about series issues facing the LGBTQ community. While Oz says he was moved by them, he knew he needed to do something different with his own attempt to address the often painful, and sometimes tragic, stories of coming out.
“It’s very delicate to do a movie on a subject like that,” he said. “Comedy is a very effective way to get verboten ideas across.”
When Howard and Peter Malloy (played by Tom Selleck) share that big on-screen kiss, it’s awkward and silly but also brings the audience in emotionally as Howard first starts to seriously come to terms with his sexuality.
Not everything in “In & Out” has aged perfectly, but it was an important piece of inclusive art that paved the way for future LGBTQ work.
After all, the film ends somewhat awkwardly with a dance number set to YMCA’s “Macho Man,” which speaks as much to the time it was released as to the place of LGBTQ culture in America in 1997. Though even moments like that won some praise at the time for not just “tolerating” gay culture, but actually celebrating it.
A large part of that authenticity is owed to the inclusion of gay men in the creative process, including the screenwriter Paul Rudnick and its producer Scott Rudin.
“It was my film in the sense that I directed it,” Oz said. “But they had a tremendous responsibility to their community. And I felt responsible to that community and to them.”That’s a lesson Hollywood is still learning.
“In & Out” isn’t a perfect movie, but it was perfectly brave and bold in ways we can still learn from.