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It just ain't box office

By Lawrence Henry
web posted May 14, 2001

Tom Cruise

A couple of weeks back, Tom Cruise sued another actor for $100 million for libel. The other actor, who performs in pornographic videos, said Cruise had had a homosexual affair with him, and that that affair was the cause of Cruise's breakup with his wife, Nicole Kidman. Cruise's complaint said, among other things, that, if movie fans thought he were gay, they would be "less inclined to patronize Cruise's films, particularly since he tends to play parts calling for heterosexual romance and action adventure."

Commentator Andrew Sullivan, who is gay, wrote, on his website, www.andrewsullivan.com, "Next time Hollywood's elites start prattling on about their pro-gay politics, don't stifle a guffaw. They care about one thing only: the bottom line. That's a defensible position. What's indefensible is their liberal posturing at the same time." Okay, solid so far.

But Mr. Sullivan also wondered why there is no such thing as a gay leading man in Hollywood. "There isn't a single openly gay lead actor in the business in 2001. Why? I can't believe it's because there isn't one - or an aspiring one." Here, the ordinarily rational Mr. Sullivan seems to be holding two exclusionary thoughts at the same time. Gay men aren't box office. He said so himself.

Hollywood has a formula, always has had. Various aging screenwriters (contemporary low-rent Aristotles) teach that structure in classes advertised in all the Los Angeles newspapers, and they make a fine living doing it. You start with an "inciting incident," or, as mystery writer Jim Frey once put it, "Plot's easy. You take a character and put the screws to him." You build to a series of sub-climaxes, ending at two key points (act one, act two). You introduce one or two complications along the way. Then you build the whole thing to a (somewhat) unexpected payoff, when the hero wins.

And the hero always wins. Yes, sometimes he ends up in jail, or sometimes he ends up getting killed, but for the most part, even in reversal formulas like female buddy pictures, the hero wins. And what does he win? The love, or at least the erotic regard, of a female counterpart; the defeat of an enemy; the admiration and cheers of the audience. When the hero does not win according to this formula, the film doesn't make money. Critics lauded Clint Eastwood's Bronco Billy, but audiences paid (and still pay) to see Dirty Harry.

Check out your basic trash TV channels, and see what movies show up in syndication. Philadelphia? Never. Who wants to watch a movie where the hero's first basic peril (the inciting incident) is that he might poop in his pants? But Nowhere to Run, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Rosanna Arquette, can be seen (it seems) almost every weekend. Jean-Claude kicks butt, and at some point Rosanna takes off all her clothes, and the two end up in bed together. See? Box-office.

Now, there's another key part of the box office formula, too: A producer has to be able to raise enough money to make the movie, and the movie itself has to make enough money so the producer gets to make another one. Enter the star system. Movie stars are identified with the roles they play. They are not really actors, but sales icons. Acting ability is secondary to another quality. Stars must first sell deals. ("I can get Cruise and Diaz for this one.") Then they must sell tickets.

Hollywood has a word for this. A star is said to be "bankable." Tom Cruise rightly saw the porn actor's claim as a threat to his bankability. Other claims could have had the same effect: "Tom Cruise is really bald." "Tom Cruise wears a corset." "Tom Cruise has a colostomy." "Tom Cruise's hobby is strangling cats."

Back to Andrew Sullivan's two contradictory thoughts: In movies as in life, you can't have it both ways at once. You cannot simultaneously enjoy the goosey thrills of forbidden behavior and be mainstream. You cannot pose on the cutting edge and appeal at the same time to gangs of crude teenage mall rats, the basic movie-ticket audience. If everyone wore chains and black leather, rebellious teens would be researching old Brooks Brothers catalogs to find out what to wear. They'd be bringing back the fedora.

In the brute Darwinism of Hollywood, gay mainstreaming crashes on the shoals of the quotidian downmarket. No matter how many school districts try to portray "alternative" families in a "positive light," teenagers will be teenagers. The current generation will probably end up smoking like chimneys and tearing through the capitalist world with a money-making vengeance. And getting married, men to women, and women to men.

Along the way, they'll buy tickets to movies starring actors like Tom Cruise.

Lawrence Henry is a regular contributor to Enter Stage Right.

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