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Making a bold career move Commentary: First, Ellen DeGeneres, and now her significant other, Anne Heche. Is show business in the grip of lesbian chic?

One question troubling Hollywood these days is whether the comely 27-year-old actress Anne Heche has ruined her career by revealing herself publicly to be homosexual. Now that it is known she prefers women to men for her partners in love (or at least one woman), will some connection to her audience be broken, an essential chemistry or fantasy quotient irreversibly dimmed?

Heche is the partner of Ellen DeGeneres, that Promethean lesbian now unbound and glowing on the heights of network television. Heche is a beautiful woman, with hair of Botticelli gold and porcelain features. She is usually cast in romantic leads opposite better known male actors, such as Tommy Lee Jones in "Volcano," Johnny Depp in "Donnie Brasco" and Harrison Ford.

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She is a starlet, which is to say not yet a star.

Heche's coming out presents a problem for the people who invested the time and money to enhance the obvious natural attributes she already has, to promote her, cap her teeth, whatever. If the public turns away, this investment goes south.

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Ivan Reitman, the director-producer of a romantic comedy Heche is to make with Harrison Ford, already describes himself as "nervous." It's natural for investors to ask themselves whether audiences who see Heche portray a heterosexual woman hot for her man will now find her unpersuasive? Suppose they laugh at her?

Reitman has even voiced a perverse hope that Heche is really bisexual -- as if, possibly, that would make a difference.

The movie-star breed

Reitman's apprehension is not groundless; in the entertainment world, movie stars are a breed apart, unlike stars of the theater, say. The same may apply to incipient movie stars, such as Heche.

According to Jerome Christensen, an English professor at Johns Hopkins University who teaches the history of Hollywood: "In motion pictures the star comes carrying with him or her a lot of baggage that has nothing to do with the role. The star image defines the role as much as the script does. In most cases you cast to take advantage of that star image."

For instance, every character John Wayne played, no matter how it was written, became John Wayne. Who could imagine him otherwise?

Heche declares that her exit from the closet was prompted by a desire to be honest about herself, a motive easily accepted in her case. It has been reported that her father, a Christian minister and pianist with whom she used to sing in church, had suffered from the strain of leading a clandestine gay life and died of AIDS at an early age.

Honesty, of course, is always admirable, if not always necessary. In today's sexually permissive society, especially in entertainment, how much strain can there be?

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And could there be an additional reason for Heche's confession, so extravagantly public, starting with the White House Correspondents' dinner April 26 at the Washington Hilton?

Homosexuality is already frequently portrayed in the movies and on television. It is usually done sympathetically, though for the most part by character actors. And straight actors play gay roles: Robin Williams ("The Birdcage") and Tom Hanks ("Philadelphia") leap to mind. But so far no actor who specializes in romantic lead parts has come out.

Making a breakthrough

Perhaps Anne Heche realized that the future of most Hollywood starlets is not to be a star, rather something closer to a white dwarf. Seeing the opportunity for a breakthrough, and an added thrust to her career, did she confess her sexual preference before some other lesbian actress beat her to it?

There is no proof of this, but the times suggest the assumption is not outrageous. The 39-year-old DeGeneres' coming out on her television show, April 30, has been celebrated as heroic. She gathers applause at every turn -- this side of Alabama, at least.

Pop-cult prophet Howard Stern reportedly suggested that all of show business is currently gripped by a kind of lesbian chic.

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"I think it is strongly cued by the Ellen situation," said Tom Kiefaber, owner of the Senator Theatre, who has been divining the tastes of movie audiences for decades. "It seems the time nowadays is for this kind of coming out."

If Heche's gamble pays, Ivan Reitman will be able to relax. Also, Heche's film with Harrison Ford, "Six Days, Seven Nights," won't be out for a year, more than enough time to outlast the attention span of the movie-going public.

Audience accepting

There is a third consideration. Movie expert Christensen believes audiences have always been far ahead of the moguls of Hollywood in this area.

"Where most people, especially conservatives, regard motion pictures as imprinting certain values on American audiences, in fact, in most cases, we see Hollywood is really well behind in the kind of norms that are accepted in an upper-middle-class audience."

And there have been examples in the past of movie stars who have been quite open about their unorthodox sexuality, if not publicly declared. Cary Grant, for one.

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"In early movie magazines you can find photos of Grant and his lover, Randolph Scott, lifting weights together at home," says Christensen. "They lived essentially a homosexual lifestyle in a beach house at Malibu. Grant's movies include moments when he cross-dresses, wears women's clothes, nightgowns."

Men frequently lived together in the Thirties, but usually because they couldn't afford more private accommodations. Certainly not problem for Scott and Grant.

None of this had an adverse effect on the careers of either man. Nor did Marlene Dietrich's flirtation with lesbianism, as in the movie "Morocco," do anything more than heighten interest in the German-born star who liked to dress in men's suits.

Christensen likes to compare the motion picture industry and the armed forces in this matter. Don't ask, don't tell has always been the guiding principle in both institutions.

Questions raised

Two other questions are raised by this affair: Does it deserve the attention it's getting? And does it, as some critics say, raise deep questions about our culture?

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The answer to the first is surely yes. The way people respond to the products of mass entertainment helps us assess where we are with regard to the shrinking inventory of taboos.

As to the second, the very use of the word culture in this context seems to equate the totality of what we think, how we behave, the sum of our art and scholarship, with the bedroom mores of a minority (so far) of the population.

A reasonable person could say it is evidence of expanding social tolerance, that Ellen DeGeneres and her partner, Anne Heche, are able to be open about their sexuality.

Could Rock Hudson, who was revealed as a homosexual near the end of his life and died of AIDS, have gotten away with it? Probably not. Thirty-five years ago, audiences might not have been approving of it, or indifferent, as they seem to be today. Hudson's calculation, if it ever occurred to him to make one, was that the time was not right.

"Back in the Fifties I think homosexuality was such a taboo subject it would have been quite scandalous," said Dr. James McGee, director of psychology at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. "It could have been the end of his career."

This does not stand in contradiction to the experiences of Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, for they never came out. Had Cary Grant stood up and announced he was gay and proud of it, the reaction would probably have thrust him, almost overnight, back into the less than glamorous life of Bristol-born Archie Leach. Had Rock Hudson decided to reveal his true sexual inclination, probably the world would have been deprived of all those gay (in the old sense) and witty love scenes with the virginal Doris Day.

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A caution is in order to those deficient in years and experience who might have seen a few of those Hudson-Day romantic comedies and smirked at the idea anyone might have considered them sexy. They are probably unaware of what came before them.

There was a time when married people in the movies always slept in twin beds, when the word pregnant was never used, or a woman shown with a bulging belly as the result of actual sexual intercourse, which apparently didn't even take place between Mom and Dad. The movies told us Americans were chaste and believed in the stork.

What we watched

Americans who watched these films, and believed they were a reflection of reality, were ignorant no doubt. They were also a minority within the population.

Remember "The Purple Rose of Cairo"? This was Woody Allen's none-too-funny film set in the Thirties about a quivering, self-effaced, movie-obsessed housewife who escaped the cares of her life by bolting to the local Bijou every chance she got. Her infatuation had such force she actually brought the characters on screen to life, or a kind of ephemeral life.

Were there -- are there? -- fans like that who believe in the people up on the big screen?

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Yes, but they are fewer. McGee, the psychologist, thinks, "That kind of infatuation with movies was unique to that era."

There is too much entertainment competition these days, he believes, too many other distractions that preclude great numbers of people having their minds captured by Hollywood.

Thomas Cripps, author of "Hollywood's High Noon," agrees, to a certain extent. People who go to the movies today derive much the same satisfactions that people did in the Twenties, he believes. But the audiences are smaller.

Effect on careers

To Kiefaber, the audiences are both very different and much the same. Because of this he does not think Heche's career will be harmed. "Today's target audiences are pretty much between 15 and 25. In that audience they are pretty much used to this sort of thing."

He also said they do invest themselves in movie heroes, and idolize them regardless of what their off-screen life is like. But they are fickle, without the commitment of earlier fans.

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This may not be their fault. Cripps says that Hollywood today fails to provide the continuity it once did, which encouraged fan loyalty. "There is no Gary Cooper or Joan Blondell to give that TC continuity. That is found on television."

Cripps would not bet that the professional futures of DeGeneres or Heche are absolutely secure.

"Anybody who makes a startling, honest revelation draws a good press," he said. "But only for a time. I would be hesitant to make predictions about their careers. I would just watch."

Pub Date: 5/11/97


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