In & Out

Paramount Home Video, 1997

Frank Oz

Paul Rudnick

Kevin Kline, Joan Cusack, Tom Selleck, Wilford Brimley, Bob Newhart, Gregory Jbara, Lauren Ambrose, Shawn Hatosy, Zak Orth, Glenn Close

Rated PG-13, 92 minutes

Little Pink Houses
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, May 2009

Although Hollywood still badly needed to catch up to independent cinema, by the late 1990s Tinsel Town had made many strides towards depicting LGBT themes in mainstream films. In & Out (1997) was a definite step in the right direction. Directed by Frank Oz from a script by out playwright Paul Rudnick (Jeffrey), In & Out explored coming out as a screwball comedy.

In & Out was inspired by Tom Hank's acceptance speech when he won the 1994 Oscar for his starring role in Philadelphia. He thanked his high school drama teacher, praised him as a fine gay American, and inadvertently outed him in the process. Kevin Kline stars as Howard Brackett, a teacher in a small town who finds himself in the same dilemma. Howard has been living a peaceful life in Greenleaf, a small town in Indiana. He is beloved by his students and is engaged to be married. In three days, he will finally wed a fellow teacher, Emily Montgomery (Joan Cusack), following a three year engagement and almost a lifetime of friendship. His life is perfect in an Andy Griffith Show kind of way.

Until his life gets turned upside down when a former student, Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), wins the Best Actor Oscar for playing a gay soldier. As he accepts the award, Cameron names his high school English teacher, Howard, as being the greatest influence in his life, and then hastily adds "...and he's gay." The entire town was watching and Howard is soon hysterically trying to reassure everyone that he's not gay. Reporters swoop down, like vultures, on Greenleaf and Howard is in the middle of a media circus, fleeing questions like "Should gays be allowed to handle fresh produce?" and "Do you know Ellen?"

With his impending marriage just three days away, Howard suddenly finds himself questioning his identity. His students tell him that he dresses gay and he rides a bicycle to school. The boys in gym class cover themselves up when he walks into the locker room. Howard loves Barbra Streisand and he becomes self conscious when he receives Funny Girl as a present at his bachelor party. Howard is also a virgin; he and Emily pledged to wait until their wedding night before having sex and this also become suspect. To make matters even worse, he is being stalked by Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck), a gay television tabloid reporter who is convinced that Howard is a closet case. Howard denies this until Peter kisses him, long and hard, on the mouth.
The script to In & Out is Paul Rudnick at his best. In & Out is a very funny film that exploits gay stereotypes and small town American values and turns them upside down and inside out. Everything is a Norman Rockwell painting until this happens. Rudnick knows how to subvert a stereotype and make it funny. Howard's barber insists that he's a stylist. When Howard declares that he is not watching Funny Girl at his bachelor party, one of the others asks "How about A Star Is Born?" Howard, pretending that he is talking about someone else, goes to Confession. When he describes "his friend's" three year, celibate engagement and insists that "he respects her", the priest says "he's gay" and suggests that he go have sex with her now. Howard runs straight to Emily's house, throws her on the bed, and then freaks out when he sees Richard Simmons on the television.
The funniest scene involves Howard's last ditch effort to prove to himself that he is straight. Discarding his usual wardrobe, he dresses in jeans and flannel and listens to a self-help tape called "Be A Man - Exploring Your Masculinity." The voice on the tape extols such macho virtues as punching someone and biting his ear. Grabbing his crotch, he repeats after the tape "Yo," "Hot damn," and "What a fabulous window treatment!" (The tape yells back "That was a trick!") Then "I Will Survive" starts playing and he is told that "manly men don't dance under any circumstances" and "at all costs, avoid rhythm, grace and pleasure." He resoundedly flunks the test as the tape yells at him to stop dancing and stop waving your arms around!
The assembled cast is perfect. Kline, whose gift for comedy was legendary in A Fish Called Wanda, knows just when to be over the top and when to hold back in order to get the most laughs. Joan Kusack is hysterically funny as the bride-to-be who lost 70 pounds for Howard and then all of her self esteem when she is left at the altar. Tom Selleck, who was the very embodiment of 1970s testosterone television, allowed himself to he cast against type. He is properly full of himself as the tabloid TV reporter. Matt Dillon is very funny as actor Cameron Drake (and the clips from his gay soldier movie, To Protect And Serve, brilliantly skewer the conventions of self-serving Hollywood "message films"). Debbie Reynolds and Wilford Brimley are a hoot as Howard's flabbergasted parents and Bob Newhart portrays the homophobic principal as a sanctimonious wimp.
There were only a couple of things that bugged me about the film. Comedies don't always conform to all the rules of logic, but it seemed a tad far fetched to me that Howard could be the football team's coach and not know that he was gay until he was 40. It happens; I know quite a few guys personally, especially Bears, who came out in their 40s, even 50s. People in the closet sometimes can be oblivious but I think constant exposure to naked young men in a locker room might have tipped Howard off earlier.
There were objections to In & Out from the gay community, and some of them are valid. Small towns like the one depicted here are often bastions of homophobia and many felt that In & Out trivialized the entire coming out process. It's true that Howard is about to lose his teaching position - and it is appropriate that this detail was included in the script - but the cornball Capra-esque ending, in which the students and then the entire town stands up at a graduation ceremony and claims that they are gay too, stretched credibility even in a comedy. I know it was meant to be uplifting but it goes on for way too long until it just becomes cloying; Rudnick is a great gag writer but he is often guilty of lathering on the sentimentality just a little too much.
The film is firmly on Howard's side but it also still completely affirms wholesome American values, even more than The Birdcage did the previous year. In & Out ends with a wedding; for a moment we are led to believe that is Howard and Peter's but it turns out that Howard's parents are renewing their vows. Even so, I laud the film for having Peter tell Howard that he did the right thing when he didn't marry Emily - even as Howard is screaming in front of the TV cameras, "I just came out at my wedding and Martha Stewart is furious!"

In & Out was a subversive film by mainstream Hollywood standards but it was still packaged so that it would appeal to the straights, as well as the gays, in the audience. Still, it was a sign that things were changing. The long kiss between Kline and Selleck was widely reported in the media at the time. While it is true that the scene was comic, rather than romantic, it was still daring by Hollywood standards. It's worth noting that test audiences responded well to the kiss and even felt that it should have been even longer.

But, all quibbles aside, watching In & Out again ten years later was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It was as funny as I remembered it and, aside from some corniness at the end, quite satisfying as cinema. Rudnick and Director Oz were a perfect team. Unfortunately, the less said about their next collaboration, The Stepford Wives (2004), the better.


More about Paul Rudnick:
The Stepford Wives

More about Frank Oz:
The Stepford Wives

Lauren Ambrose also appears in:
Six Feet Under

Glenn Close also appears in:
The Stepford Wives