It took until 2018 for a major studio to produce a movie with a gay teen lead; that 20th Century Fox’s “Love, Simon” is a romantic comedy about coming out makes it even sweeter. Adult LGBTQ filmgoers got to see a story that looks even a little bit like their own, while knowing the impact it will have on a younger generation. Much like the movie’s director, teen television superstar, Greg Berlanti, they remember a time when the only queer people onscreen were psychopaths or murder victims.
Best known for teen comic-book shows like “The Flash,” “Supergirl,” and “Riverdale,” Berlanti got his start with the original “edgy” teen drama: “Dawson’s Creek.” That show was the first time Berlanti broke barriers, when he lobbied for network television’s first romantic kiss between men (Prior to that, “Will and Grace” showed a peck.) Berlanti and “Dawson’s” creator Kevin Williamson introduced the character of Jack McPhee (Kerr Smith) together, but experienced pushback the following season when Berlanti wanted to show Jack’s first kiss.
“I had to threaten to quit [‘Dawson’s Creek’], basically because they wouldn’t let us have the characters kiss,” Berlanti said. “At the time … there were shows that were fine to show lots of violence in network, but they wouldn’t allow a kiss between two gay characters. They asked me to run the show that year, and part of my agreement with them was that they would allow the character, Jack, to have a kiss. There was a lot of negotiation about that kiss.”
20th Century Fox
Because of television’s fast metabolism, Berlanti noticed a marked change within a few years. “I went from executives telling me, ‘You’re not allowed to have a gay kiss. If you’re gonna have a gay kiss, you have to shoot it from across the street.’ To within five years—’Wait a minute, why would you cut away here? Wouldn’t the characters kiss?’ And I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, sure. I’ll go back and put a gay kiss in the scene.'”
Berlanti hopes mainstream movies might see the same kind of rapid change that television underwent in the mid-aughts. “In TV, when we were trying to do certain kinds of LGBT representation over the last 15 years, walls started to fall, then they fell really fast. And we were able to get more and more specific with the storytelling. Cinema has always been at the forefront of that stuff. But I don’t think that mainstream studios have been.”
This is not Berlanti’s first foray into filmmaking, though “Love, Simon” is his first major-studio movie. Sony low-budget division Screen Gems released his first feature in 2000, “The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy,” which followed the lives of a group of gay friends living in West Hollywood. The movie starred Dean Cain, Timothy Olyphant, and Zach Braff, and was generally well received, with critics praising Berlanti’s script for portraying normalizing gay characters. Nevertheless, Berlanti stressed that his analysis of the film industry comes as an audience member rather than an insider.
“If movies are going to remain vital, then they have to tell the stories that feel like our world, especially the human ones,” he said. “It’s pretty apparent that audiences don’t want to see all the same people on the screen. Hopefully, stuff changes fast and furious, and it doesn’t take another however many years before there is another mainstream studio film with a gay lead front and center.”
Indie films have long been telling queer stories, often to great critical acclaim and sometimes even earning a profit. Following Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005, there was a steady stream of quality queer films in the awards conversation, most recently with “Carol,” “Moonlight,” and “Call Me By Your Name.”
“Love, Simon” is an entirely different kind of movie, aimed at teenagers and released by Fox in 2,402 theaters nationwide. Berlanti likens the difference between indie and studio films to the broadcast-versus-cable divide.
“HBO was doing it the same time we were doing ‘Dawson’s,'” he said, referring to shows like “Oz” and “Six Feet Under.” “They were doing really daring and specific stuff that was inspiring. But we had a different platform with a slightly different version of the medium that we had to work in, with standards and practices. But you knew that it was going to be consumed by more people.”
“Love, Simon,” with its diverse teen-idol cast and tearjerking blend of comedy and sentiment, seems to take a page directly from the Berlanti playbook. However, he joined the project only after Fox committed to making the movie.
“This was supported by the studio from the beginning,” Berlanti said. “Everyone who was involved prior to myself, that I’m aware of, the producer, executives, writers, and the writer of the book were all straight. And they still saw the need for something like this. Which speaks about them as people, but also how important allies are in all of this.”
Berlanti, for his part, had the same experience many LGBTQ critics described while watching the film. “It was filling a void that I didn’t realize that I needed, until I was actually was witnessing the scenes. You know? I guess that’s just the power of representation, that I wasn’t even totally aware of.”
“Love, Simon” is currently playing in theaters nationwide.