Monday, March 4, 2024

Film at 25: “In and Out” Still an Appealing Gay Comedy Despite Cringeworthy Moments

Director: Frank Oz

Writer: Paul Rudnick

Starring: Kevin Kline, Joan Cusack, Tom Selleck, Matt Dillon

Synopsis: A midwestern teacher questions his sexuality after a former student outs him at the Academy Awards. 

Gay films in the 1990s were few and far between, especially when it came to wider audiences. The comedy genre in particular was mostly a wasteland for LGBTQ+ content, but three films in the middle part of the decade opened up lots of possibilities—The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which won the Oscar for Best Costume Design; To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, which was rated PG-13 and developed a large cult audience; and The Birdcage, which was a smash hit upon its release in early 1996. Mike Nichols’ crowd-pleasing comedy remake especially showed there was a massive audience for gay comedies, and so in 1997 along came In and Out, which at the time felt like the first LGBTQ+ movie advertised to all audiences, not only adults. It had a great cast, a seasoned comedy director, and just the right tone with its subject matter to reach almost everyone. 

The set-up to the film is famously inspired by Tom Hanks’ acceptance speech when he won Best Actor at the 1994 Academy Awards for his performance in the LGBTQ drama Philadelphia. Near the end of his speech, Hanks called his high school drama coach Rawley Farnsworth and his former classmate John Gilkerson “two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with.” Screenwriter Paul Rudnick listened to that moment and wondered, what if Hanks had just accidentally outed one or both of those men? And what if he was about to be married to a woman? Howard Brackett is that man in In and Out, a drama teacher engaged to his dear Emily, shocked when his former student Cameron Drake says his name on the Oscars telecast and then tells the world he’s gay. 

It’s a premise that wouldn’t fly so well these days, but in 1997, this was high-concept hilarity that was destined to bring in people who flocked to see The Birdcage the year before, and even some new viewers who might not otherwise take a chance on a gay comedy. Kevin Kline has always been a greatly respected actor, but he was especially so in the 1990s after successful comedies like Soapdish and Dave and acclaimed dramas like Grand Canyon and The Ice Storm, the latter of which also opened in September 1997. His presence brought in curious audience members, along with a stellar supporting cast including Debbie Reynolds, Tom Selleck, Wilford Brimley, Matt Dillon, and the fantastic Joan Cusack, who achieved the film’s sole Oscar nomination. 

In and Out is still a delight to watch, more for its cast than the now somewhat dated screenplay. Moments still give plenty of laughs, like the presentation of the Academy Awards in which presenter Glenn Close announces extremely seriously one of the five Best Actor nominees as, “Steven Seagal for Snowball From Hell.” Dillon has fun playing a rich, egotistical actor trying to make amends, and Reynolds and Brimley have great comic timing as Howard’s parents.

But it’s the divine Cusack performance as Emily that has aged the best by far, her character’s sweetness early in the narrative turning to disbelief and rage by the time Howard tells her “I’m gay” when they’re saying their vows at the altar. She’s been solid in the movie up until this point, but when she goes on her emotional rampage, eventually ending up at a bar in full wedding dress, her reaction to finding out the sexuality of Tom Selleck’s character Peter Malloy is an all-time classic: “Is everybody gay?” 

What has aged the worst are all the stereotypical gay jokes about Howard’s clothes and mannerisms, his students commenting on his every movement, his parents trying to find answers to their many questions, Howard’s unstoppable desire to dance around the room like a crazy person to “I Will Survive.” Moments like these were perfectly amusing in 1997, but they’re cringeworthy now, probably nothing worse than the school principal unable to say the word “homosexual” out loud in its entirety. 

But In and Out broke some barriers, too, and that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Director Frank Oz, who’s made so many comedic gems in his long career like Bowfinger and Little Shop of Horrors, and openly gay screenwriter Paul Rudnick, who also penned the 1995 gay comedy Jeffrey as well as the brilliant 1993 sequel Addams Family Values co-starring Joan Cusack, did a hell of a lot right in In and Out, starting with making Howard three-dimensional, passionate, interesting—and Oscar-winner Kevin Kline always takes the character’s journey seriously. The ending doesn’t cop out, and that long kiss shared between Kline and Tom Selleck is a particularly important moment in the history of gay mainstream cinema.

It’s not anywhere near perfect, but there’s still a lot to like about In and Out all these years later, despite LGBTQ+ cinema having transformed monumentally throughout the last couple decades, every year the amount and quality of the content growing more and more. How fitting that the new movie Bros, the first ever R-rated gay romantic comedy from a major studio, is hitting theaters exactly twenty-five years to the month that In and Out, one of the first mainstream gay comedies released by a major studio, first appeared before audiences. We’ve come a long way, and although Frank Oz’s hit comedy might have aged poorly in some respects, it was ultimately a step in the right direction.  

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