Boy meets boy...

Playwright Paul Rudnick discusses the long journey to Jeffrey

Over the last couple weeks, actors Weber and Weiss--usually the objects of female ardor--have been quoted frequently in the national press about their onscreen gay liaison. Most reporters in the mainstream media have focused on the two steamy kisses they exchange in the film. Weiss says it was no big deal, and Weber concurred, "except for the beard coming back at you. That was strange for me."

Rudnick, whose credit as co-producer ensured he was on the set almost every day and "could annoy anybody I wanted to and not get fired," says Weber and Weiss didn't hesitate when it came to El Smoocho Grande.

"One thing we found about working with actors on stage, gay or straight, was that since Jeffrey had to spend the entire play saying 'no,' the moment where he could finally let go was a big relief. It was the same with Steven and Michael.

"By the time we worked up to the big climactic kiss, they'd played the whole love story together. They didn't need rehearsals. It was the final scene we shot, and the set was cleared so both actors could feel safe. They knew it had to be a Casablanca-level kiss, something to make everybody swoon."

Jeffrey works better as a delicious series of showy performances than a cohesive story, and nobody makes a wilder--and more potentially controversial--splash than stage actor Nathan Lane, who was widely consoled earlier this year in the national media after being snubbed by the Tony Awards for his New York stage work in Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! In the movie, Lane plays a Catholic priest who cruises the altars for quickies. Cornered by an angry Weber who's just been pinched while he was kneeling to pray, he pours out his cosmic view of life, which is based--not coincidentally--on a love of famous Broadway musicals.

When Weber expresses shock that a man of the cloth would be so unabashedly homo in his pursuits, Lane is nonplussed. "Oh, please," he says. "I'm a priest. In most people's minds, that falls somewhere between hairdresser and florist."

"I guess I have a bias towards stage-trained actors," Rudnick admits in reference to Lane's hilarious work. "They seem to handle language so much better. And I'd worked with Nathan before in Addams Family Values, as well as Christine Baranski" (who plays the assertively Jewish organizer of an HIV fundraiser, a Hoedown For AIDS).

There is a landmark quality in Jeffrey, a sense of revolution that was decidedly missing in the overly cautious, $200 million hit Philadelphia. Forget the posturing-as-victim that Tom Hanks did as an AIDS patient to win his first Oscar. Assuming that there is still a stigma attached to playing a sexual gay man, Steven Weber had much more to lose when he agreed to play the amorous, life-loving Jeffrey, as did Michael T. Weiss playing the affable Steve, who must learn to orchestrate his life with a time-bomb always ticking in his head. Both actors, having earned their current success in TV roles, have expressed a desire to become movie stars. If so, they've chosen a risky start.

Perhaps even more bold is Patrick Stewart, who sashays throughout the film (and snatches almost every scene) as Jeffrey's interior-designer confidante who must ultimately come to terms with the HIV status of his lover Bryan Batt, a costumed Cats chorus boy "now and forever."

When the play was first staged, Rudnick received flak from gay critics for portraying homo men with stereotypical personalities in stereotypical professions--flamers who were actors, waiters, interior decorators, chorus boys.

"Thirty years ago, if these characters (Sterling and Darius) were played as the butt of jokes, then I could understand the outcry," he says. "But as I've written them, they're the strongest, sanest people in the story. I'm offended by the idea that certain personalities should be banished because they're too flamboyant. It seems to me that liberation should be about options, not just creating another set of rules."

Rudnick, himself a gay man who's enjoyed enormous success within the Hollywood machinery, has some very strong opinions about where media images end and reality begins.

"As a community, we have to be careful about feelings of entitlement, because we can't vote on whether Tom Cruise kisses Brad Pitt (in Interview With the Vampire). Certain gay activists have to remember that Hollywood isn't a branch of the federal government--we can't just petition and expect results.

"Gay and lesbian filmmakers have to make their own stories, and prove they're profitable at the box office. Slowly, that's beginning to happen. It's easy to find homophobia everywhere--and it does exist everywhere --but everything depends on the individual talent. Movies are difficult to make period--what matters is the people you work with, and the faith you have in the material."

Rudnick rhapsodizes about a future he admits won't happen anytime soon. "I can't wait until homosexuality is greeted with a kind of ordinariness, when gay and straight characters are woven together in the same film and nobody notices. That will be the real victory."

Until then, he has been pleasantly surprised at the ubiquity of gay identity in America. "In shopping this movie around to gay and lesbian film festivals across the country, I was shocked to discover how many there were, and in such small towns. I predict homosexuality will replace the prom in American culture."

Jeffrey. Orion Pictures. Steven Weber, Michael T. Weiss, Patrick Stewart. Screenplay by Paul Rudnick. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Opens August 18 at the UA Cine.

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