On its opening weekend, my husband and I braved The Grove here in Los Angeles – I avoid this claustrophobic clusterfuck of an outdoor mall like the 405 – to see Todd Field’s TÁR, the movie that’s already got buzz building of a third Oscar for star Cate Blanchett. I can only compare TÁR to rarified works like MULHOLLAND DRIVE, THE 25TH HOUR, and PARASITE: the film’s unsettling examination of the nuances and contradictions in our human experience places it so far outside most movies’ vulgar black-and-white depictions that talking about the film in terms of awards recognition or even technical craft cheapens the conversation. And the not-incidental detail that our title character, celebrated musical composer and conductor Lydia Tár (Blanchett), is a self-described “U-Haul lesbian” gives the film an added kick for this viewer.
In the film, just as Tár reaches the apex of her storied career, the suicide of a former student sparks allegations of inappropriate sexual relations and cultural insensitivity that threaten to destroy her legacy. No movie as yet has examined #MeToo or cancel culture through a LGBTQ lens, and while it’s a stretch to lump TÁR into Netflix’s LGBTQ+ queue (even if it was nominated for the Queer Lion in Venice), the film most likely won’t end up there for the same reason it won’t be up for any GLAAD awards, either. TÁR addresses so many icky, hot-button contemporary issues at such a frosty, objective remove, I’d guess the picture only got made due to Blanchett’s involvement; Field himself said he would have abandoned the project if she hadn’t said yes. Whether we can consider TÁR an “LGBTQ+ Film” or not, I find it embarrassing that a straight writer-director and lead actor got there first. 5 years after #MeToo, LGBTQ filmmakers have yet to make a film that examines our experience with this seismic cultural event. Which is especially troubling since some of its most notorious players are part of our community.
From 2008 to 2012, I lived in the Villa Francisca apartments on Palm Avenue in West Hollywood, smack in the middle of what they used to call Boys Town (do they still call it that? I have no idea), which meant I was right off the stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard where all the gay bars reside. There were also a ton of gay clothing stores (there’s no other way to describe them), a 24-Hour Fitness (where I was never able to actually sit down in the steam room, which always resembled Penn Station in a towel), and the Big Gay Starbucks, which was such a headache-inducing scene that I much preferred the quieter Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on the corner of SMB and Hancock. The screenwriter Dustin Lance Black – post-Oscar win for MILK but pre-marriage to an Olympic swimmer 20 years his junior – reportedly lived in an apartment up the street, but I never saw him.
One day, I went into the Coffee Bean for my usual medium black and saw director Bryan Singer holding court at a table with three clearly admiring males (you couldn’t call them men, but calling them boys didn’t seem right, either). They were very young and very blond and listening to whatever story he was telling them with rapt attention. Singer looked fresh-faced. Confident. Excited. Happy. I’d heard all the whispering about questionable behavior with young men for years, but there didn’t seem anything off about this scenario. The blond guys seemed like they wanted to be there. And Singer himself seemed like an older brother who was genuinely enjoying their company.
Cut to late summer 2020. Post-#MeToo and the period of the pandemic when all dining was outdoors. I was waiting with a friend for our coffee orders at Commissary on the corner of SMB and Sweetzer, when I see Singer again. This was well after Singer had been fired from the film Bohemian Rhapsody, unceremoniously dumped from his production deal at 20th Century Fox, and eviscerated as the subject of an article in The Atlantic detailing all sorts of sexual misconduct, criminal and otherwise, from the mouths of on-the-record alleged victims. At Commissary, Singer was trailed by another gaggle of young gays, but this group was hardly of the clean-cut type I saw him with years earlier, more of the rode-hard-beyond-their-years variety I see often in WeHo. They all looked, sounded and acted as if they’d just come off a weekend-long binge, something with which I was intimately acquainted. Singer himself seemed a completely different person. Gone was the enthusiastic, white-T-shirted glow. His skin was tanned and toughened; his signature pale blue eyes hard. What I noticed most was that he held his head up; no sunglasses, no apparent shame or attempt to avert his gaze, no acknowledgement of the sidelong glances and titters of the other customers, their moral superiority as transparent as his companions’ enjoyment of the notoriety. The energy he transmitted, standing in the middle of his pitiful entourage, was that of a walking corpse unaware it’s rotting from the inside, the way Tyrone Power looks in the third act of the original Nightmare Alley. His energy didn’t scare me so much as inspire curiosity. Which is what I’ve always been as a writer: curious about the villains. Because, like Lydia Tár in her eponymous film, no one is the villain of their own story.
I have no idea if anything written about Bryan Singer in The Atlantic, or Deadline, or Variety or The Hollywood Reporter, or any other publication is true. What I do know is that rumors of his on- and off-set conduct were all over the place in Los Angeles long before those stories were published. What I also know is that no one in Hollywood cared anything about those rumors until the #MeToo movement brought several industry heavy hitters down, when we finally started talking about sexual misconduct, lopsided power dynamics, and exploitation in a public setting. The one thing I read over and over again in these articles was that the behavior of most of these men was an open secret; way too many people knew about their alleged misdeeds for anyone to feign surprise once they became front-page news. If they did – and I’ll speak for myself here – I didn’t buy it.
Let’s consider the case of House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon, a playwright I admired until reports of series star Kevin Spacey’s inappropriate treatment of young actors and production assistants surfaced. Before #MeToo happened, Spacey (Oscar winner for Singer’s The Usual Suspects) was ordered by HoC HR to undertake sexual harassment training as the result of a complaint filed against him by a crew member. Willimon claimed he knew nothing about Spacey’s behavior when alleged victims started speaking to the press post-#MeToo, but then the HR training from years earlier came to light, and Willimon tripped all over himself trying to explain how, as showrunner, he couldn’t have known that his star, producer and reason for the whole show’s existence was on the receiving end of a formal harassment complaint. The excuse offered was that Willimon was so busy writing the show, he wasn’t aware of anything else happening on the set. To which my response was: if the showrunner doesn’t know about something this problematic – and documented – regarding the number one name on the call sheet, then exactly what show is he running?
While my empathy and ache were for the victims, bravely forthcoming about the experiences they described, my curiosity remained firmly on the villain(s) of the piece. Like Lydia Tár, their party line was the old “it wasn’t me, it’s not mine, I didn’t do it” when not blaming the victims themselves or describing every incident as one big misunderstanding. We’ll never know what really happened, at least not in any objective way. We can’t know what’s a lie and what’s willful self-delusion or even misremembered trauma. The interrogation of this is why Macbeth is my favorite Shakespeare play. Shakespeare lets us inside the heads of Macbeth and his wife. He shows us what they did behind closed doors. He reveals the thoughts that transformed them into the people they ended up, as their souls rot from the inside. And yet he never asks us to empathize with or pity them. Whether or not we identify with them is a question for each audience member to answer for themselves.
I wanted to question the predators. I wanted to question their victims. And I wanted to do it through a character who, like me, felt empathy, curiosity, resentment, and revulsion for both of them in a world that aided and abetted the former, and ignored or demonized the latter until neither served its interests any longer. And back in 2011, long before #MeToo, when my emotions were all over the place following the death of my father, the breakup of a friendship, and a perfect storm of financial and professional setbacks, I funneled all my confusion about myself and the world around me into my work and did exactly that.
The script I originally titled Pieces is the story of a pathologically jaded gay man (gee, Chris, anyone we know?) named Rory Dennis (his name now serves as the script’s title), a public defender assigned the defense of Shane Holloway, a twenty-something party boy who is accused of murdering the 60-ish, rich, bullying, gay Hollywood studio head, Steven Sumner, with whom he lived. The plot and characters were based on stories I’d heard and experiences I’d had, before I even knew what a hashtag was, or that a Hollywood come-to-Jesus about these very issues was just over the horizon.
Pieces is also the most inside-baseball script I’ve ever written about the social dynamics between gay men. As such, I didn’t give a shit how “unlikable” the characters were, and I didn’t worry as I was writing about whether or not their depiction was “good for the gays.” I was merciless in detailing how lousy we can treat each other within the community based on my decades of experience as an out gay man: the unspoken hierarchies defined by external attributes, the passive-(and not-so-passive)-aggressive bitchiness, the superficiality, the self-righteous hypocrisy – all the stuff that drove me bananas and which I saw on a regular basis in WeHo (and the other cities I’ve lived in like Austin and New York, for that matter) that no one ever wanted to talk about in public lest it make us look bad or – God forbid – insincere with our displays of rainbow-colored togetherness.
I didn’t intend to send this script out into the world; I figured it was the kind of thing a writer hammers out as a personal exorcism and then shoves in a drawer, never to see daylight again. But something in my head told me to stage a reading, just so I could hear its paint-peeling verbal exchanges out loud. In late 2011, I called up some actor friends and invited a small group of people whose opinions I trusted over to the Beverly Hills Playhouse on a Saturday afternoon. At the end of the first act, I found myself crouching down in my seat, worried I’d be tarred and feathered by my friends for letting gay characters speak this way to and about each other. When we broke for intermission, I went outside to take my lumps from the smokers in attendance. The Co-Artistic Director of Celebration Theatre, who’d been responsible for putting up my first play, turned to me with a look in his eyes like he’d just witnessed a ten-car pile-up. “Chris,” he said with a heavy exhale, “People need to see this shit.” That was a surprise. But I believed him. So, I ran with it.
Since then, the script has undergone much restructuring and rewriting, even as the basic story remained the same, not to mention becoming ever more timely as the Harvey Weinstein revelations of 2017 led to a reckoning in Hollywood and the cancelling of many, many careers, Spacey’s and Singer’s included (neither have worked since), as well as the Hollywood Reporter’s 2021 expose on the abusive, bullying behavior of gay producer Scott Rudin, the allegations of which came as a surprise to precisely no one in the industry (the movie Swimming with Sharks, which was reputedly inspired by the experience of working for Rudin – and starring Spacey as the abusive producer character – was released way back in the ‘90s). While not technically a Hollywood case, there were also the multiple drug-related deaths of Black men in the West Hollywood home of white Democratic donor Ed Buck, which were perceived as ignored by the WeHo powers-that-be until local activists refused to shut up about them, leading to Buck’s conviction for providing the methamphetamine that killed these men.
Pieces won the playwriting award at 2012’s NYC Fringe Fest and got uniformly great reviews (save one guy who found its depiction of gay men to be some sort of backslide, no matter how realistic; you can’t win ‘em all). The production proved so popular via word of mouth that, at our last performance on the Cherry Lane Theater stage in the West Village, the line stretched around the block, and we had to turn people away, leading to an encore run the following month at SoHo Playhouse. The Fringe success landed me a literary agent in New York City, and she immediately set to work pitching the play to Off-Broadway theatre companies. I thought, “Here we go! This is it! The Big Break!”
And then: Crickets.
Playwrights Horizons: Pass. Public Theater: Pass. MCC: Pass. Manhattan Theatre Club: Pass. The New Group: Pass. Roundabout: Pass. New York Theatre Workshop: Pass. LCT3: Pass. Atlantic Theater Company: Pass. And many, many others: Pass.
We sent the script to Neil Patrick Harris’ agent, hoping to get his interest in playing Rory: No response.
Also, to Jim Parsons’ agent: Not a peep.
In a moment of either dogged determination or lunatic desperation, I packaged up a copy of the script and left it for Zachary Quinto at the stage door of the Booth Theatre, while he was (magnificently) playing Tom in The Glass Menagerie: Nothing.
I was beginning to think that Smash’s second-season arc of “living room reading to workshop to festival to Off-Broadway to Broadway to Tony Awards in a single season” might have been employing a wee bit of artistic license.
I continued to send Pieces out to actors, directors, theatre companies, producers, you name it. A bigger production never materialized, just enough rejection letters to paper my Hell’s Kitchen studio and several others. Okay, so New York theatre wasn’t interested. What about the city in which the script was set? I moved back to Los Angeles and adapted Pieces into a screenplay.
I pitched the script to several producers, mostly gay, and no one bit. Then I’d read in the trades that virtually all of them had their own teen coming-out movie in development. Right, the one you’ve seen a hundred times and will likely see a hundred more. (The most cringe-inducing pass was from one of the producers of a recent Oscar-winning gay love story, who said that since he’d just made a “gay movie,” he couldn’t make another so quickly – as if all stories about gay people are the same, or that his prior film contained a single character, theme, or plot point similar to the ones in Pieces. This appraisal came from another gay man, mind you.)
I decided to try a different approach. I hired a small production crew to shoot a proof-of-concept short made up of a few pivotal scenes from the first act, which, thanks to my DP and actors, looked great and got the point across. Unfortunately, not one major LGBTQ film festival picked the film up as a selection (the short I’d directed a year earlier that featured two nude sex scenes did not have the same problem), and the only smaller one that did put us in the “LGBTQ Horror” program (I guess ‘cuz Shane has blood all over him in the opening shot?), where it was sandwiched between two shorts that used Grindr as the setup for a mini-slasher flick.
Pieces did get optioned by a small production company in 2020, and a gay director coming from drama-series television looking to make his first feature was quickly attached; I loved his and the producer’s vision of the film as a gritty L.A. noir. With financiers saying we needed a name actor to get this difficult movie funded, the producer set about pitching the roles in the script to practically every gay actor you can name off the top of your head. They all passed. Most didn’t offer a reason, but one – who came from New York theatre, oddly enough – reportedly said he didn’t want “to play a character that angry,” referring to the lead role of Rory Dennis (I’m still scratching my head over that one). After two years of trying to get anyone’s interest whose involvement would help get the movie made, I decided to let the option lapse and take the script back, regroup, and reassess. The whole ten-year experience from New York to L.A. underlined how the LGBTQ arm of the entertainment industry had no idea what to do with this subject matter and/or no inclination to make the attempt.
Pieces is not a love or coming-out story. It could care less about straight people’s opinions of its characters. It asks tough questions about our community, our self-destructive tendencies, how we do or don’t emulate the exploitative behavior we see all around us in mainstream society. Maybe there is a hesitancy to acknowledge the sides of us that aren’t very flattering, and that, coupled with the fact that I was (am) a complete unknown with no influential advocates meant the script was battling tough odds.
You could also shrug and dismiss all of the above with, “Yo, Chris: maybe they just thought you wrote a shitty script.” Maybe they did.
And yet I’d seen how audiences responded in New York. I saw word of mouth take that play from a half-filled house on its first performance to an award-winning, sold-out, extended success. I’ve received emails from audience members expressing gratitude for discussing these themes. Something about Pieces spoke to the people who spent a few hours with its characters. I don’t think I did anything overly remarkable; the structure is basically Chinatown by way of Gay Hollywood. I just told the truth and treated theatergoers as adults who could handle it.
In recent years, the focus on creating varied representation within LGBTQ-themed film and television has resulted in more physical diversity. The race, gender identity, and/or cultural backgrounds of the characters are more all-encompassing, but what I don’t see is a greater diversity in point of view. Most LGBTQ characters, regardless of those identifiers, are falling in love, coming out, or dealing with some external oppression. Rarely do we encounter much substantive discussion about our daily lives or our interaction with each other, not to mention the really difficult stuff with which we need to reckon, like the fact that some of the most notorious alleged abusers in Hollywood are gay men with huge box office hits, Oscars, Tonys, and industry influence to their names. As we’ve seen with our straight counterparts, until we deal with this head-on, not with performative condemnation but with prescriptive curiosity, history will continue to repeat itself.
So far, TÁR is bringing in arthouse audiences, likely for the same reason I pushed my way through the crowded gauntlet of The Grove: to witness Blanchett’s career-best performance in a role and a movie that defy easy categorization. My husband, a composer and conductor himself, laughed out loud at the film’s final humding
er of a shot. I walked away queasy, wondering the same thing about Lydia Tár that I wondered about Singer, Spacey, and Rudin upon watching their respective downfalls. No matter how uncomfortable the admission, these people are all fellow humans: how do they assess their behavior in the light of hindsight? Do they deserve any pity or forgiveness? Is total forfeiture of their previous lives the only penance we’ll accept? Are they humbled enough to learn anything from this experience and admit where they were wrong? Are any of us? Do we not believe people can change, or is that possibility irrelevant in light of the alleged perpetrators’ crimes? I claim no answers to these questions. But the biggest question of all: why are we so scared to ask them?