The PG-13 romp In & Out was released 20 years ago. Directed by Muppets alum Frank Oz, any discussion of the film always includes the incident of its inspiration, Tom Hanks’s acceptance speech after winning an Oscar in the category of best actor for Philadelphia. Hanks credited his high school drama teacher Rawley Farnsworth and former classmate John Gilkerson as “two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with.” In Philadelphia, Hanks plays a gay lawyer fired from his firm for having HIV. Paul Rudnick—Jeffrey, Addams Family Values—wrote the In & Out screenplay.
Hanks supposedly got the okay from Farnsworth and Gilkerson before outing them to the world. Yet the storyline for In & Out strays from this detail when actor Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon) wins an Academy Award and thanks his high school teacher Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline), punctuating the tribute with “…and he’s gay.” Howard and his fiancé Emily Montgomery (Joan Cusack) watch the award show and are shocked to hear the proclamation from Greenleaf, Indiana, where the shit begins to hit the fan of conventional life. Howard, Emily and their community are upended, with the media flooding the small town to bug Howard for interviews. Howard’s principal, Tom Halliwell (Bob Newhart) is chagrined on many levels. Throughout the onslaught, Howard insists he is straight to everyone, particularly to Emily who had shed 75 pounds in preparation for their ideal wedding. Most of the press eventually leaves town, except one entertainment reporter, Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck, genius casting), sticks around to cover the wedding of Howard and Emily. Even with the absence of most of the media, Greenleaf folks look upon and treat Howard differently. What ensues is an unsuccessful attempt to have sex with his bride-to-be and a 12-second onscreen kiss between Howard and Peter—who beforehand reveals himself to be gay. That kiss stirs something in Howard, though he tries to suppress it with a self-help tape. Howard goes so far as his wedding ceremony, where instead of reciting vows he says, “I’m gay.” Throughout the widespread heartache that follows (especially for Emily) Howard is fired, though Peter offers his support and encouragement. In an echo of real liberal life, college kids and Hollywood come to the rescue—as Howard attends the graduation of his former students, one graduate that he had successfully mentored declares that he too is gay, followed by his other former students. In a symbolic ice-cream-social nod to Spartacus, the rest of the Greenleaf community proclaim gayness, and movie star Cameron flies into town to give Howard his Oscar statue.
In & Out was positively received for attempting to mainstream homosexuality in comedy, perhaps the easiest genre in which to challenge conventions. A big part of the story’s premise relied on how Howard’s mannerisms informed Cameron’s dramatic depiction of a gay soldier, and most of the picture works because it’s delicately handled with humor implemented by stellar performances (Joan Cusack was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress). The so-so ending could be considered far-fetched: Howard’s mother (Debbie Reynolds) gets her big, fat Middle America wedding by renewing her vows with her husband (curmudgeon Wilford Brimley), with the whole town present for the occasion along with reporter Peter and Oscar-winner Cameron, the latter on a date with jilted-bride Emily, culminating in all celebrators dancing to “Macho Man” by the Village People.
For good measure, other films released in 1997 include Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (a box office flop but worth a gander to see The Lady Chablis, now deceased, playing herself), I Know What You Did Last Summer, Titanic (Academy Award Best Picture), As Good as It Gets (also lauded with Oscars and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Greg Kinnear portraying a gay artist), and The Full Monty.
In & Out entertainingly predicts the eventual outcome of acceptance of LGBTQ citizens in a place like Mike Pence’s Indiana. There has been significant steps forward in the last 20 years since the film release, especially with Obama Administration victories for the LGBTQ community. Even though at present the country is faced with backward, regressive, oppressive sham policies set by President U. Bum kowtowing to a select “evangelical” base, it is good to keep in mind the seismic shift in prevalent attitudes to foresee the process has not stagnated, well exemplified by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah during the public backlash against the ill-guided ban on transgender persons in the military: “I don’t think we should be discriminating against anyone. Transgender people are people, and deserve the best we can do for them.”