“In & Out”: A Gay Comedy Classic Turns 25
Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of one of the first major studio films to humanely center the experience of gay people. In & Out featured an all-star cast and was received warmly by audiences and critics. It remains an under-appreciated landmark of gay cinema a quarter century after its release.
In & Out: The Backstory
In 1994, beloved American icon Tom Hanks won his first of two consecutive Best Actor Oscars for his performance in Jonathan Demme’s masterful drama Philadelphia. In the film, Hanks played Andy Beckett, a man who takes legal action after being fired by his employers after being diagnosed with AIDS. In his now-legendary Oscar acceptance speech, Hanks tearfully mentioned his high-school drama coach Rawley Farnsworth and his former classmate John Gilkerson, calling them “two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with.”
Upon seeing this, writer Paul Rudnick’s wickedly clever creative mind apparently thought: “What if Tom Hanks just outed those people on one of the world’s biggest platforms?!”
And thus, In & Out was born.
Rudnick, himself openly gay, was already an acclaimed novelist, playwright, and screenwriter at the time he wrote In & Out, having gained acclaim for projects like his award-winning off-broadway play Jeffrey and films like Sister Act and Addams Family Values. His script was brought to the screen by director Frank Oz, who initially gained acclaim as the puppeteer behind a host of iconic characters (e.g., Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, Yoda) and subsequently became a well-established film director, with numerous hits under his belt (e.g., The Dark Crystal, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). The film was produced by a team that included Scott Rudin, who has a whopping 18 Tonys, an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Grammy (not to mention a long list of abuse allegations).
The idea that In & Out is a comedy centered on a gay man’s coming out journey hardly seems revolutionary by today’s standards. But as is usually the case when looking back at films released decades ago, context is key. At the time of its release in September 1997, only one genuine comedy blockbuster about gay people had ever been released in the United States — 1996’s The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane and directed by the incomparable Mike Nichols. In & Out was also released just a short few months after Ellen DeGeneres sent seismic waves through Hollywood — and the United States — by coming out as a lesbian on her hit sitcom. Major Hollywood projects centering gay people were exceedingly rare at the time (… and, actually, they still are).
The film’s exceedingly clever plot focuses on Howard Brackett (Oscar winner Kevin Kline, A Fish Called Wanda), a beloved English teacher and track coach in Greenleaf, Indiana. His life is thrown into utter chaos when his former student Cameron Drake (Oscar nominee Matt Dillon, Crash) wins an Oscar for playing a courageous gay man and dedicates it to Howard (a la Tom Hanks). There are two major problems. First, Howard is not gay. At least he doesn’t think he is. Second, Howard is days away from getting married to his long-time fiance, fellow teacher Emily Montgomery (Oscar nominee Joan Cusack, Working Girl).
The sleepy town of Greenleaf is subsequently invaded by paparazzi, including the gay, compassionate, and desperate-for-ratings Peter Malloy (Emmy-winning television icon Tom Selleck, Magnum, P.I.). Malloy tries to convince Howard to embrace his true identity, but Howard resists as he is deeply afraid of breaking Emily’s heart and disappointing his parents Bernice (Oscar-nominated film legend Debbie Reynolds, The Unsinkable Molly Brown) and Frank (Wilford Brimley, Coccoon). He finally comes out at his wedding ceremony, prompting an epic meltdown from Emily and his subsequent firing by the school’s conservative and homophobic principal Tom Halliwell (Emmy-winning television legend Bob Newhart, The Bob Newhart Show).
The film rallies for an ending in which Howard is appears on the verge of living happily ever after having been affirmed and validated by his community and having fallen in love with Peter. It was something very unique, progressive, and special at the time of its release. And, as I recently discovered, it still packs a punch today.
The film garnered buzz at the time of its release for a number of reasons. Not only was it one of the rare mainstream comedy focused on gay issues, but it tread into territory The Birdcage did not by featuring a climactic, passionate kiss between two men. (Kline and Selleck share a pivotal 12-second kiss in the film.) The filmmakers also cast their “gay comedy” with some of the most beloved and iconic actors in American history in a clever bid to woo many viewers who would have otherwise been turned off by the controversial aspects of the film’s plot. Television stars in the 1970s and 1980s didn’t get much bigger than Newhart and Selleck and Kline and Reynolds were widely beloved movie stars. Additionally, cameos by superstars like Whoopi Goldberg, Glenn Close, and Jay Leno only reinforced the fact that many Hollywood power players were no longer afraid of being associated with anything and everything “gay.”
The film was well-received upon its initial release and currently has a 71% critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an average rating of 70 out of 100 on Metacritic. It was a solid hit commercially, grossing $68 million in the U.S. on a $35 million budget. Perhaps most impressively, it did shockingly well during one of the most competitive awards seasons of the decade despite its relatively early release date and the general bias against mainstream comedies that most awards granting organizations hold. Among its accolades were Golden Globe nominations for Kline and Cusack, the Critics Choice Award and New York Film Critics Circle Award for Cusack, an MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss, the GLAAD Media Ward for Outstanding Film (Wide Release), and — most impressively — an Oscar nomination for Cusack.
It is exceedingly rare for purely comic performances in big studio films are virtually never acknowledged by the Academy. In fact, of the 96 acting nominees since Cusack, only 7 could arguably be considered to have replicated Cusack’s feat — Renee Zellweger for Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), Johnny Depp for Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), Diane Keaton for Something’s Gotta Give (2003), Meryl Streep for The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder (2008), Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids (2011), and Maria Bakolova for Borat Subsequent Movie Film (2020). And some of those are debatable. It is a testament to the brilliance of Cusack’s performance that she overcame the genre bias and made the final five. (She lost to Kim Basinger for the deadly serious film noir L.A. Confidential.)
Cusack’s performance and her richly deserved Oscar nomination is what is remembered most about In & Out a quarter century later, but it deserves attention for more than her brilliant work.
In & Out: Revisiting the Film in 2022
I watched In & Out numerous times as a teenager, but only once or twice since I came out. I was curious to see how it would hold up, especially given that LGBTQ representation in the media and societal attitudes have progressed so much since the film’s release 25 years ago. I was delighted to find that the film was not only still relevant, but also still wildly funny, utterly charming, and surprisingly sensitive.
One of the first things that struck me about the film was its brisk pacing. It unfolds at a fairly rapid pace, but never feels rushed thanks to director Frank Oz and the editing team of Daniel P. Hanley and John Jympson. It tells a fairly complex story in a mere 92 minutes, resulting in an immensely watchable film that never outstays its welcome.
Rudnick’s script is razor-sharp. The one-liners are hilarious and sometimes brutal, but never overly mean-spirited. The script satisfyingly satirizes the hypocrisy and ignorance of bigots without ever getting preachy. It pokes fun at stereotypes of gay men while remaining witty and humane. Take, for example, the iconic scene when Howard is listening to self-help tapes to act more manly. The hilarious scene is simultaneously a satire of the effeminate tendencies of such gay men, a skewering of toxic masculinity, and also a glorious moment of liberation for Howard. Rudnick’s script also gets in some terrific jabs at Hollywood during the wildly clever Oscars ceremony spoof at the beginning of the film.
But the script is more than just a laugh riot. Rewatching the film, I was struck by how every single significant character in In & Out has more depth than the plot actually necessitates. Sure, Howard is mild-mannered and a tad effeminate. But he is also a man who loves his family, his job, and his hometown and is terrified of the prospect of losing it all. Emily is an angry, spurned woman. But she is also an insecure woman who has hinged her self-worth on her romantic relationship, only to find herself completely unmoored when the relationship ends. Peter is a ratings-hungry tabloid reporter, but he’s also a man who himself faced adversity when he came out later in life and is deeply invested in Howard’s journey. And these are just a few examples.
Even more impressive than the film’s writing and directing is its acting. As I mentioned earlier, the decision to cast all of the major roles with widely beloved icons was a bold and clever one. But it wasn’t “stunt casting”; the actors cast truly were perfect fits for their respective roles. Bob Newhart’s droll, twitchy shtick works perfectly and steals every scene he’s in. Debbie Reynolds makes the most of her limited screen time with perfect line delivery and charming intensity. Wilford Brimley injects unexpected depth to his good ol’ country boy persona. Matt Dillon is hilarious as the vacant A-lister who begins to realize that he has lost touch with his roots. Just as he did in his memorable recurring role on Friends the prior year, Selleck is exceedingly charming while being deeply grounded and heartfelt. Kline brings the humanity, precision, and flat-out brilliance that he nearly always does to the central role of Howard. If the character had come off as a subject of pity or ridicule, the film simply wouldn’t have worked. Kline’s remarkably tricky performance is executed exquisitely.
And then there’s Joan Cusack. She starts off wide-eyed and innocent, as Emily submissively going through the final weeks of wedding preparation. After the incident at the Oscars, she begins to unravel and her anxiety and insecurity bubble to the surface. After she is dumped at the altar, Cusack explodes into rage with some of the most hilariously delivered lines in film history (“Was there, oh, I don’t know, ANY OTHER TIME YOU MIGHT HAVE TOLD ME THIS?”). Then she sinks into utter desperation and gets an uproarious climactic scene. Still in her wedding gown and drowning her sorrows in liquor at a local bar, she tries to seduce Peter after he expresses kindness toward her. When she finds out that he, too, is gay she has a frantic, exasperated reaction that is perfectly executed. Quite simply, Cusack gives one of the most brilliant comic performances of the decade. And her well-deserved Oscar nomination is one of those rare times when the Academy makes a surprise inclusion that is utterly inspired.
Some critics and moviegoers lobbed criticism at the film for its climactic scene in which Cameron Drake crashes the high school graduation and denounces the school for firing Howard. Realizing the injustice of it all and how much Howard has done for them, several students subsequently announce that they are gay to show solidarity with Howard. It is a big moment that I will admit brought a tear to my eyes, but it doesn’t entirely work. As some pointed out, it’s a bit too pat, optimistic, treacly, and theatrical. Thankfully, the utterly euphoric coda that follows gets the film right back on track before the credits roll. If the final act was fine-tuned, this film could have been a masterpiece.
My recent rewatch of the film made me realize that I didn’t just love In & Out as a teenager because its such a great comedy with so many actors i adored. I was drawn to it because it was one of the very few things I saw growing up that humanely centered the experience of gay people (a community I always knew at some level I was a part of). Although the film does pay attention to how Howard’s coming out affects those in his life, the primary focus and the empathy always resides with Howard. It also struck me how rare it was to see gay romance on the big screen at that time. I believe it was the first time that I ever saw two men romantically kiss in a way that was intended for shock value. Not only was seeing that kiss on the big screen thrilling, but I now realize that this film helped cement my belief that despite what I heard in church, at school, and on TV, a gay man could find love and live happily ever after.
I may not have come out until a few years after In & Out did, but I now realize how the film helped me learn that things might just be okay if I did someday.