Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Arthur Hiller | Making Love

perfect couples

by Douglas Messerli

Barry Sandler (screenplay, based on a story by A. Scott Berg), Arthur Hiller (director) Making Love / 1982

Los Angeles couple Zack Elliot (Michael Outkean) and his wife Claire (Kate Jackson) are the perfect couple, he a popular oncologist and she a television network executive. Having met in college, they have now been married for eight years. They both share a love for Gilbert and Sullivan musicals and the poetry of Rupert Brooke. And, most importantly, their real estate agent has just found the perfect home for them, with Spanish-influenced design elements, P & G (peg and groove) hardwood floors, a “view from every window,” and with two fireplaces, one in the living room and other, as Claire has always hoped for, in the bedroom. As the agent declares: “It is the ideal young married couple’s home.” Zack loves the place equally, but is afraid that at this early point in their careers they just won’t be able to handle the finances, a view which she reluctantly shares; it’s just not the right time, both of them disappointedly having to decline the house of their dreams. But it is the early 1980s, and the future looks so promising—at least from a Reaganite/Republican point of view—that Zack soon after changes his mind, the couple over the early scenes moving into their new house and planning for a child, a future Rupert. This blessed pair, in fact, do spend early scenes making love, just as the title has warned us to expect.

     Indeed, this privileged couple is so idyllically rendered in Arthur Hiller’s 1982 drama that any seasoned moviegoer is already on the lookout for something wrong or something soon to happen which might encroach on their already almost realized “American Dream.” All right, at a dinner party at Zack’s parents house we perceive that his father, Henry (Arthur Hiller), is more than a little dominating and a bit disdainful of his son’s career; his mother, Christine, nonetheless seems supportive and loving. Claire fights with her fellow producers for a more dramatically serious anthology of plays, perhaps something closer to Playhouse 90, but she has no success in convincing them; yet she is about to be given an even more prestigious position in the network.

     Zack has already been worrying her by his inexplicable hours, his lateness in coming home, the times she has called him to find he’s not at work; is he seeing another woman? On the other hand, we also know that he is personally attentive to some of his elderly patients—in one particular instance a woman who may need a mastectomy—taking time out to talk with them on a personal level the way few doctors show their caring. All right, there is that time while Zack is driving when a motorcycle with two hunky gay boys pulls up alongside him that when takes a double look, his gaze remaining just a little too long on their intimate hugs and nestlings. Another moment of revelation occurs when on his way home Zack pulls up in a backstreet strip where several hustlers stand, inviting one good-looking guy into the car before he gets cold-feet. And what about that short, hit-and-run visit to a gay bar?

     To be fair, director Hiller and writer Barry Sandler aren’t truly playing cat and mouse with their audience’s expectations. From the very earliest scenes they have already imposed a second narrative layer upon the film in which the woman who we soon after discover to be Claire and a man, who eventually we recognize as the handsome patient of Zack’s, Bart McGuire (Harry Hamlin) speak of a time in the future after their relationships have fallen apart, providing a myriad of evidence—including a stack of Gilbert and Sullivan records the man’s lover has left him—that clues us into the fact that the former lover of whom he is speaking is Zack.

     Frankly, I find these confessional monologues to be interruptive and narratively unnecessary. The story contains all the information that their statements reiterate. Yet they attest to the honesty and integrity that Hiller and his writer display in their painful recounting of how a happily married man suddenly begins to realize his true sexual desires and suffers for not only being able to admit them to himself but because of the possibility that he have to abandon all that has previously defined him in order to seek out love in the form of another male.

      This 20th Century-Fox Film, with the full backing of the studio’s head of development Claire Townsend and Head of Studio Sherry Lansing, was one of the first to honestly portray a story where a happily married man leaves his wife for a gay man with the hopes of living an equally fulfilling life. As if just to prove just  how radical this concept was we later read of the difficulty in finding a well-known actor to portray the role Harry Hamlin says ended his own career. At first they sought Michael Douglas to play the role of Zack, but he passed. Others such as Tom Berenger, Harrison Ford, William Hurt, and Peter Strauss claimed conflicts of scheduling, while the vast majority of actors Hiller approached for the two roles advised him that they did not want to be considered.

      Sandler makes it quite clear that the movie might not have been made had it not been for the women behind the project. “I don’t know if a male head of a studio – straight, gay, or indifferent – would have made this movie, but really I think it took a woman in 1980 to be able to say, “Yes, I’m going to make this movie.”

      Although this film from the beginning posits, for one of the first times in the history of LGBTQ filmmaking, that its major character might equally find happiness in the homosexual world that he had found in his previous heterosexual one, writer Sandler, working with his then-lover A. Scott Berg, still felt the necessity—or we might argue demonstrated the reality of the era—of having Zack suffer the now-clichéd patterns of coming out: the painful alterations between curiosity, denial, attraction, exploration, denial, and admission. For most LGBTQ individuals, the process is a slow and gradual one building up over the years beginning in childhood, but for Zack, at least as portrayed in the movie, his homosexual desires have been so very closeted that he hardly has time to adjust to the suddenness of his new feelings—which is perhaps how it must have almost seemed to the straight actors portraying gay men kissing and even portraying sex upon the screen.


      This is further complicated when Bart, Hamlin’s character, himself plays coy about his gay self-identification, perhaps simply to entice Zack out of the closet, but also one senses to protect himself from becoming too deeply involved with his doctor-friend.

       That further brings up another set of problematics with the film script’s premises. Since Claire and Zack have been so deeply in love, how does one represent her sense of betrayal and justified anger with the sudden end of a marriage through which she has partially identified her own being without turning her into a monster for whom we can no longer have any sympathy? The balance, as the saying goes, is an extremely delicate one, and Sandler’s handling of this issue also falls into cliché-ridden patterns of anger, rejection, self-questioning, denial, self-sacrificial acceptance (she’ll permit him to have outside gay sex if only he remains within the shell of the heterosexual relationship), and finally acceptance and withdrawal. Hiller and Sandler attempt to encapsulate these reactions in short scenes, one of which takes her on a rather unbelievable visit to a man whose telephone number she found written on a book of matches, who, since he and Zack never again encountered one another, has no idea what information she is seeking. 

      Basically, however, the movie does justice to her point of view. Of far greater significance is how to portray Zack’s lover Bart. The movie, by this point, has moved into the territory like Hiller’s earlier film Love Story into pure soap opera, a genre generally grounded in normative values that are challenged and, with disastrous results, transgressed, Zack is represented as desiring the same kind of monogamous relationship he had with Claire, only with a person of another gender.

      In the pre-AIDS early 1980s, however, many if not most gays had so such values. Desiring a different bed-mate every night was not seen as a tragic flaw but rather as something joyful and desirable, a way of sexual existence that rejected hetero-normative values. Bart, who expresses just this point of view, accordingly, comes off almost as a villain not only for the hetero-conditioned Zack but for heterosexual audience members who might nonetheless still be sympathetic with the film’s argument. Contrarily, the gay novelist Bart goes much further in attempting to accommodate his new lover’s desires than you might have expected him to. Zack, both in his trauma of coming to terns with his new life and his demands that his lover maintain the same monogamous values he has grown used to puts an enormous burden on the normally free-floating and popular bar-going Bart Maguire.

      In the post-AIDS / COVID-ridden world of 2020 Bart’s sexual appetites read almost like a outline for self-destruction, whereas when this movie was originally released Hamlin’s character might have been recognized as far more appealing to LGBTQ audiences. That reason alone might explain much of the backlash that this work received within the gay community at the time it appeared. It would be interesting to compare and contrast this film with Bill Sherwood’s far more complex exploration of similar issues in his Parting Glances of only three years later.

     By the time it is revealed that Zack has found a permanent companion in an investment banker named Ken—one could not possibly imagine a more appropriate occupation and name (as in the Barbie’s doll’s male companion) for the normative-patterned relationship Zack has sought—and that Claire, apparently now a housewife living in Brentwood with three children, one of them bearing the remnants of her and Zack’s relationship in the boy’s given name, Rupert, we have been set-up for the tear-jerking reunion of the two that can only remind us of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were (1973); like those film’s figures from the past coming together for one last time, Claire and Zack are both in a hurry to scuttle off into the new lives which they have made for themselves.

     By the time it is revealed that Zack has found a permanent companion in an investment banker named Ken—one could not possibly imagine a more appropriate occupation and name (as in the Barbie’s doll’s male companion) for the normative-patterned relationship Zack has sought—and that Claire, apparently now a housewife living in Brentwood with three children, one of them bearing the remnants of her and Zack’s relationship in the boy’s given name, Rupert, we have been set-up for the tear-jerking reunion of the two that can only remind us of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were (1973); like those film’s figures from the past coming together for one last time, Claire and Zack are both in a hurry to scuttle off into the new lives which they have made for themselves.

       If I seem at all derisive of Making Love, however, I need also to commend its creators not as much for their often lauded “groundbreaking” subject matter, but for making a picture—at a huge financial loss for its studio—that represented a true “coming of age” masterwork, not as that term is usually used to describe a young man or woman’s coming to terms with his or sexuality but rather to characterize how an entire generation of theatergoers would come see queer people in general. As gay rights activist Dennis Altman put it, Making Love was one of the only films of the early 1980s that "suggested a willingness to portray homosexual relations as equally valid as heterosexual ones" and that "the wariness with which the film was promoted suggests real change will be slow." Anyone even slightly interested in queer cinema needs to see this movie and watch it again if they saw it when first released.

Los Angeles, December 21, 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (December 2020).   

 

 

 

 

  

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