Ethics & Public Policy Center

In and Out

Published in EPPC Online on September 1, 1997



Perhaps the most unforgettable moment in In and Out (written by Paul Rudnick and directed by Frank Oz) comes as Joan Cusack, having just been jilted at the altar by Kevin Kline, who has picked that moment to decide that he is gay ( “Was there any other time you could have told me this?” she asks in exasperation), walks into a roadhouse bar, still in her wedding dress, and propositions the first man she sees. This is Tom Selleck, who tells her he is gay too. The camera pulls back to an exterior shot of the bar. There is a pause before the door slams open and Miss Cusack steps out onto the porch. At the top of her voice she screams to the night sky: “Is everybody gay? Is this the twilight zone?”

The scene is also significant because it tips us off to the true nature of this gay fantasy. For a persistent feature of gay life and thought is the belief that everybody is gay, or at least that everybody has the potentiality to be gay and would secretly like, at some level, to be gay. The idea sorts oddly with that other mainstay of contemporary homosexual ideology, namely that one’s sexual orientation, straight or gay, is laid down by fate (i.e. the genes) and unalterable. But the tension between these two contradictory articles of faith gives gay intellectual life in the 1990s something of its distinctive flavor.

In and Out is a sleeping beauty fantasy which relies on article number one. Kline’s character, a high-school English teacher in Greenleaf, Indiana called Howard Brackett, is the fairy princess, awakened to his gayness by a kiss from Tom Selleck, who is a kind of media prince and a reporter for a sleazy tabloid TV show. Up until that moment, Howard has lived his life as an utter naïf, a man in his late 30s or early 40s who has never married and who adores Barbra Streisand but who has apparently never considered the possibility that he might be gay before a former pupil, now a famous movie star called Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), outs him on national television at the Oscars. He is genuinely bewildered, as is everybody else in town—until The Kiss.

Such innocence! It is like the film’s assumption that the one infallible indicator of homosexuality is devotion to Streisand schmaltz. Rudnick loves that it is impossibly innocent, and he loves knowing that he and the gay culture from which he writes is experienced enough to know that it is impossibly innocent. The same dynamic is at work in his depiction of the too-good-to-be-true little town of Greenleaf, Indiana, where wholesome high school students (though, apparently, they include no blacks) sing with full throated affection:

Hail to thee, O Greenleaf High

’Neath the Indiana sky. . .

The whole town is innocent with Howard Brackett’s own innocence, and is only waiting to be awakened to tolerance and sexual freedom by Rudnick’s kiss.

This he applies when Cameron Drake returns to Greenleaf and confronts the bigoted principal of Greenleaf High, played by Bob Newhart, at the graduation ceremony, inducing the entire town there assembled to stand up and proudly announce that they are gay in order to express solidarity with Howard when he is sacked. The fantasy is thus not only of innocence awakened, but of bigotry and hatred and, with them, all moral censure and even disapproval, vanquished forever in a perfect little Norman Rockwell town.

To Rudnick, as to many another amateur psychologist, this American idyll wants only honesty and good will to be perfect. Thus, the response to Howard’s coming out at his wedding among a circle of old ladies presided over by his mother (Debbie Reynolds) is to unburden their souls of their own deepest and darkest secrets: One says that her rice krispie treats are not her own recipe but taken from that of another, now deceased. “These are a dead woman’s treats!” she cries to her horrified audience. Then others confess: “I hated The Bridges of Madison County,” or “My husband has three testicles. It’s disgusting.”

The point is that wholesomeness and peace and happiness depend not upon repressions and inhibitions but (what an idea!) on letting them go. This is a point of view which may not be so well supported by evidence as it is by the faith of our near contemporaries, but Rudnick and Oz have the wit and the lightness of touch to make such touching and even rather old-fashioned naïveté charming rather than irksome. In and Out is, obviously enough, a gay fairy tale. But oh God, that it might be true!

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