20 Movies 20 Years Later

A Seemingly Progressive Gay Comedy Looks Very Different When Viewed 20 Years Later

“In & Out” turns 20 this year.

20 Movies 20 Years Later remembers and explores the films that touched us back then and still resonate today. Join A Plus as we rewatch movies released in 1997 and celebrate their contributions to pop culture.

Amid a year that gave us spectacle films such as a romantic drama set aboard a doom-bound ship with Titanic, a laugh-out-loud sci-fi flick about secret agents keeping track of alien life with Men in Black, and a dinosaur-sized adventure sequel with The Lost World: Jurassic Park, it was a movie about a gay teacher in a small town that is perhaps the most complex in retrospect.

1997's In & Out — directed by Frank Oz and written by Paul Rudnick — is a romantic comedy that was inspired by the tearful speech Tom Hanks gave when accepting an Oscar for 1993's Philadelphia. In it, he calls his high school drama coach Rawley Farnsworth and former classmate John Gilkerson "two of the finest gay American, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with." In & Out takes a "what if" parallel world based on this moment: What if these men weren't out? Better yet, what if they didn't know they were gay?

Kevin Kline — who was a hot commodity in the '90s after winning an Oscar for 1988's A Fish Called Wanda — plays high school English lit teacher Howard Brackett. Howard is engaged to fellow teacher Emily Montgomery (played by Joan Cusack, who snagged an Academy Award nomination for this role) when a former student of theirs, Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), wins an Oscar for playing a gay soldier in the fake film To Serve and Protect. During his acceptance speech, Drake thanks Howard personally before he casually telling the world "... and he's gay."

This moment sets off a chain of events where Howard's family — parents Bernice (Debbie Reynolds) and Frank (Wilford Brimley) — and the rest of the fictional small Indiana town of Greenleaf questioning Howard's sexuality. Spoiler alert: Howard eventually comes out while standing alongside Emily at the altar, obviously the wrong place for this revelation. Before this, however, the entire nation becomes obsessed with learning more about this mysterious teacher who has been thrust into the limelight, with a gay entertainment TV reporter named Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck) descending upon the town to get the full story. An eventual 12-second and passionless kiss between Howard and Peter becomes the big moment this movie will come to be remembered for — and, therein lies the beginning of my issue with this film.

As a gay man myself, my problem with this kiss is not because of any religious, traditional, or conservative values but with how it is the peak of how bland this movie represents what it is to be homosexual. The kiss — which was called "ho-hum" by the New York Times is unexpected yet comical, intense yet unthreatening, and passionate yet bland all at once. In a film that leans on its main character being gay, this move almost ensures that there will be no other naughty moments going on. As is described in American Film History: Selected Readings, 1960 to the Present, Howard is a "highly lovable character who is so unaware of his own sexual desires that he is completely acceptable to mainstream audiences." A kiss like this takes away any sexual nature that Howard might have and, as you'll see, desiring men is never something Howard does. Howard's gayness, as you'll see, lies in particular tastes and interests as opposed to preferring men over women. This, of course, was a necessary evil if In & Out was to perform well for a mass audience and, given that it made nearly $64 million on a $35 million budget per Box Office Mojo, that's exactly what happened.

Besides this smooch, there are plenty of harmful generalizations and stereotypes that are played up in In & Out. If we start chronologically, the first one comes the day after Cameron outs Howard at the Oscars, when Howard shows up to teach and his students explain that "of course he thinks you're gay" because of Howard being an English teacher, loving poetry, being "prissy ... but not in a bad way," being smart, well-dressed, really clean, having an affinity for riding bicycles, and having a long engagement to Emily, and being a "decent human being." Not only that, one kid surmises, but Cameron was in a gay-themed movie, "so his brain is, like, already going that way." Their advice for facing the media outside the classroom: "Watch the hand."

Howard's students, who appear throughout the film, have another moment of somewhat insulting the gay community. In the locker room, a few of the boys listen to the same boy from the previous clip explain to them "two times where it's OK to do, like, gay stuff — two emergency situations." Those are "prison, when it's a substitute" or "guys in space ... not on purpose. It just happens because they're weightless and they float into each other when they're asleep." Being gay is equated to being "wrong" and "against nature — it's basic plumbing" with audiences then getting explained a horrendous anatomy lesson. The boys also react negatively to Howard entering the locker room, something they hadn't done before, labeling Howard a predator without necessarily using the word.

In what may be the most offensive moment to me — though most comical to viewers — in the entire movie is when Howard attempts to rid himself of any gayness with the aid of a self-help tape that promises to make you more manly and masculine — you know, not gay. Howard — dressed as a lumberjack — is instructed to stand tall, to untuck his shirt, to grab his genitals, to speak more manly, and to resist dancing at all costs. By failing the "ultimate test" to resist the urge to dance because "men do not dance," Howard gives in and surrenders to Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" by strutting his stuff with reckless abandon. Dressing a certain way, not moving one's body a certain way, and presenting one's self in a certain way do not determine sexual orientations. This stresses that Howard's tastes and preferences that are not manly somehow make him gay and not the fact that he may like men.

The ending is no better. After coming out, Howard is fired by the principal (Bob Newhart) but is saved when pretty much the entire town stands up and declares that they are all gay in an attempt to save Howard. Let's first just point out that this is a discriminatory hate crime that doesn't get treated as such. This is something that would not go down in this day and age but was just another plot device for In & Out. Beyond that, the fact that everyone claims they're gay to show solidarity is the equivalent of saying that you don't see color when there are race issues. Not seeing color just disregards an entire group of people and, in a way, makes them less seen than they already were. By everyone declaring they're gay, it detracts from the fact that Howard has just discovered a new side to himself late in life and will most likely be going through some adjustment period. Being gay isn't a fad or a frivolous thing to call yourself because there are many who have been treated extremely poorly — in many cases killed — for being that way.

Perhaps I'm seeing In & Out this way because I'm looking at it through 2017-colored glasses. Seeing how far we as LGBTQ people have come since 1997, it's actually hard to adjust to the world portrayed in this movie on first watch. At the end of the film, right before Bernice and Frank renew their wedding vows, we see Howard and Peter getting ready in their tuxes. I'll admit that, when I first saw this scene, I immediately thought they were getting married and that it was going to be happily ever after. Now, thinking back on that, it's almost ludicrous that I thought this, as same-sex marriage was only legalized in 2015 — a full 18 years after In & Out was on the big screen. As a gay millennial man, this is the world I'm privileged to know, and to be married to my partner in, and seeing a familiar world depicted but to not have that even be an option — as cheesy as it would have been — for an ending is kind of tough to digest.

I would stop short of calling In & Out triggering for me, but it's the vanilla way being gay is used as a punchline throughout the entire 90-minute runtime that irks me. The stereotypes evoked, the playing up of effeminacy equaling homosexuality, and the diminishing of Howard's gayness at the end all combine to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Performances from the likes of Kline, Cusack, and the rest of the main cast do save it a bit, but — given the intriguing LGBTQ options out there today — I don't know if I'll be paying In & Out another visit anytime soon.

In & Out is available on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Starz, Vudu, and YouTube.

Cover image: Paramount Pictures

GET SOME POSITIVITY IN YOUR INBOX

Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.