University of Central Florida film professor Barry Sandler's phone lines were buzzing in 2005, when Brokeback Mountain was poised to score an Oscar victory before inexplicably losing to Crash. The calls made sense. Sandler, openly gay since the early '80s, is one of the pioneering figures in advancing the image of gay people on and off the movie screen, having penned the groundbreaking Making Love in 1982 and still active in the community.
Reporters wanted Sandler's thoughts on how the landscape had changed in 23 years, from the premiere of Making Love to the box-office surge of Brokeback. It's changed for the better, Sandler says, even if the roster of gay writers and directors who have secured a mainstream hit remains small.
"Things have changed a lot, I think due to the prevalence of gay characters on television," says Sandler, who will be teaching courses on feature writing and the films of Mike Nichols in the fall. "It's one thing with movies, where you have to go and buy a ticket. That's a big move, to go to a gay film. But with TV coming into your house with gay characters, it destigmatizes the sense of what's forbidden and whatever negative images people have of gay people. When you have Will & Grace and Six Feet Under on every week, it increases the familiarity that gay people are out there. It's a long process, but over the years our profile has really emerged much more strongly in the public awareness."
Sandler is doing his part to keep that profile positive, on and off the silver screen. Each summer, he mentors a screenwriting lab at OutFest, Los Angeles' gay and lesbian film festival, and he was named one of the most influential gay artists in America by The Advocate. He has two gay-oriented projects in development, a long-awaited adaptation of Patricia Nell Warren's 1974 novel The Front Runner and an original script, a dystopic science-fiction film about the hetero-brainwashing of gay teens called Perfect Young Men, bought by Regent and Here! TV.
But opportunities for gays in the movie industry weren't always as fertile. (Though few of them open on 1,000 screens, there are now an abundance of gay-themed films released each year to niche markets.) When Sandler was starting out, gay love stories were unheard of.
"I grew up when the only gay images were very negative stereotypes: criminals, suicidal, humiliating buffet jokes, the comic foil — denigrating images of gay people," Sandler said. "There was never a positive image of a gay man onscreen. `Making Love` would be historic."
It took a while for Sandler to muster up the courage to write Making Love, his most personal movie up to that point. When Sandler scripted Making Love, he already had five features to his credit, the first two written while he was still an undergrad at UCLA. The second of these, The Kansas City Bomber, launched his career, and the movie's origin became the stuff of legend around the university.
"In Los Angeles, I saw this peculiar phenomenon called roller derby," he recalls. "I didn't know anything about it, but I thought, what a great backdrop for a movie. It was this seedy carny atmosphere of skaters, and it was not quite a sport, like wrestling. It was more of a circus culture. People really bought into it, or at least wanted to believe in it.
"I wrote a part with a female protagonist to find out why a woman would get into roller derby; what would she gain? And the biggest female star of the time was Raquel Welch, who I thought would be perfect. She was a pop-culture diva, so I thought that her as a roller-derby queen was a hot commercial idea.
"I didn't want to see it lying in a pile of scripts. I thought, I've got to get it to her attention. I found a movie-star map to where she lived. I found the house and parked, and here I was: a UCLA film student, like 20 years old, and when I went up and rang the bell, her assistant answered. I said, ‘Hi, I know it's unconventional, but I wrote this screenplay for Raquel. I think she'd be great, and I want to get it to her.' `The assistant` read the script and called me and said, ‘I really like it, and I think Raquel will like it.' Ultimately Raquel flipped over it.
"Reporters thought it was a great PR story, so they really exploited it. It was one of those Horatio Alger kinds of stories, a one-in-a million-thing. She could have easily slammed the door in my face and said, ‘Get the fuck out of here.'"
Kansas City Bomber went on to be one of the first wide-release movies of the 1970s, and Welch even made the cover of Life magazine. That success in tow, Sandler scored again with Gable and Lombard, a sweeping account of the eponymous movie stars' tumultuous relationship. The Agatha Christie adaptation The Mirror Crack'd, with Angela Lansbury and Tony Curtis, followed.
After that, Sandler was ready to explore more personal issues, resulting in Making Love, the story of a man in a seemingly happy marriage who comes to the realization that he's gay. Sandler sees a bit of himself in both the latent homosexual Zack — he, too, was engaged to a woman at one point and went through a similar state of sexual confusion — and the openly gay Harry Hamlin, who opens Zack's eyes to everything he was repressing.
Directed with compassion and warmth by Love Story's Arthur Hiller, Making Love became the historic movie Sandler predicted it would be. To speak to the film's legitimacy, Sandler came out of the closet to the media and was profiled on 20/20 and The Today Show.
"It was important to do it, for people to break down stereotypes," he says. "People had this perception of gay people being drag queens and hairdressers. But if this average guy came out on TV and had no fear and no shame and no guilt, people might say there is nothing to be ashamed of. At the time, people were saying, ‘You're crazy, it'll kill your career.'"
Quite the contrary. Sandler went on to write the cult classic Crimes of Passion for director Ken Russell, an endlessly quotable, over-the-top prostitution comedy-thriller which was adapted for the stage in 2005 in the U.K.
But it's Making Love that solidified Sandler's legacy. The film continues to show on television and was released on DVD last year, and Sandler says he still hears from people who find the movie therapeutic, even life-changing.
"I can send you e-mails that I've gotten still to this day," Sandler says. "I meet people constantly who say they were so moved and that it could change their lives. At the time, I was getting huge amounts of mail. To have that kind of effect on people was really gratifying for me."[email protected]