Bruce LaBruce’s Academy of the Underrated: Making Love

Talkhouse Film's champion of the cinematic underdog shares his affection for Arthur Hiller's pre-AIDS gay melodrama.

One of my film mentors, the late, great pioneering gay critic Robin Wood, used to tell his students that he didn’t understand the concept of “guilty pleasures” in cinema: you either like the film or you don’t, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about the pleasure it gives you. Revisiting Making Love, the 1982 Hollywood film directed by Arthur Hiller, I can gladly confess that it pleasures me in multitude of ways – as a melodrama, a tear-jerker, a social issue film, an event film, and even, in my own mind, proxy porn. The movie also reads now, unavoidably, as camp (which I take great pleasure in), but it also remains an accurate and significant document of pre-AIDS gay life in the liberation era, and a reminder of how difficult it was, before the plague years, for people to come to terms with their homosexuality.

Arthur Hiller, a TV journeyman director who ended up making a number of Hollywood romantic blockbusters (Love Story, Silver Streak), was also known for serious fare like The Man in the Glass Booth and his masterpiece, The Hospital, a savage critique of institutional healthcare penned by Paddy Chayefsky. Making Love might be regarded as an attempt at something in between, a romantic love story based on a taboo social subject. Although made-for-TV movies such as That Certain Summer had tackled the topic, quite daringly, in the seventies, there had been no Hollywood film up to that point to address the “issue” of homosexuality so directly.

The movie starts with still images of the three main stars, Michael Ontkean (Zack), Kate Jackson (Claire) and Harry Hamlin (Bart), actors who had cut their teeth in television (Ontkean and Jackson reunited from their stint on The Rookies) and all, after the film was released, would largely return to TV. Next come two direct-to-camera “interviews” with Claire and Bart, presumably taken just after their mutual break-ups with Zack, possibly (according to an interview with Jackson), talking to their respective shrinks. (She also says it was director Hiller behind the camera interviewing them.) The narrative device gives the film a made-for-TV movie feel, a genre that often dealt with serious social issues in a melodramatic style. Ontkean and Hamlin were both screen heartthrobs at the time with potential for becoming movie stars, the former having made a splash with his infamous (and incredibly sexy) ice-skating jockstrap striptease in George Roy Hill’s Slapshot (1977), the latter appearing half-naked throughout the sword-and-sandal epic Clash of the Titans (1981). In a recent interview, Hamlin infers that his appearance in this controversial, gay-themed movie may have ended his film career, and indeed both actors wound up mostly doing television, Ontkean most notably in his endearing and enduring turn as Sheriff Harry S. Truman in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Jackson, of course, had already achieved superstar status as Sabrina Duncan on the TV smash Charlie’s Angels in the late ’70s.

Making Love rolls out the gay angle in a kind of made-for-TV style that is helpfully obvious for the clueless viewer in its psychological shorthand. While Zack, the earnest young jock doctor, idles his sports car at a stoplight, who should pull up beside him but two gorgeous gay clones on a motorcycle being uncomfortably cozy with each other. Cut to Zack telling his wife Claire that they’re definitely going to buy their dream house after all, even if they can’t afford it. The film defines Zack in a series of scenes of butch assurance – playing basketball, taking his wife to a country and western bar. He is also established as impeccably moral and sympathetic, saving face for the girl who performs terribly in a singing contest at the bar by warbling with his wife even more terribly a Gilbert and Sullivan song, the composers that, along with poet Rupert Brooke, bind the painfully normal couple in questionably heterosexual romantic bliss. They also watch An Affair to Remember on TV together, whose lines they both know by heart, their love of classic Hollywood movies affirming their soulful attachment, but belying Zack’s repressed homosexual tendencies. Zack is also an empathetic doctor who makes house calls, visiting late at night a female patient whose husband left her after her mastectomy despite Zack’s assurance that he wouldn’t, her anger toward Zack causing him to drive post-haste to the closest gay cruising area. We forgive the film this blunt psychological montage knowing that it’s intended to soften the blow of what’s to come.

Meanwhile, Bart, the pill-popping pothead novelist, prefers to work out alone, and narcissistically, in front of his full-length triple mirror, a portentous prelude to the legion of gay Instagram body fascists of the future. He cruises bars in his butch assurance red-and-black lumberjack flannel plaid shirt, but declines to have a post-coital chili-burger with his latest trick, loathe as he is to pursue romantic attachments, then goes out and has one by himself instead. He returns home and watches Raintree Country alone with his popcorn on his fancy new VHS projector, the film carefully conceding his more feminine side, and neatly paralleling him with Zack, his soon-to-be paramour.

Thanks to his triple mirror, Bart notices a lump on his neck, obliging him to visit his doctor, whose absence is being filled by none other than Zack, instigating the flirtiest doctor’s examination one could ever hope for. “I read your first book,” Zack tells Bart. “Good tough writing” – its toughness adding yet another tier of butch assurance not necessarily expected from the Uranian crowd. When asked, Bart confesses that he doesn’t do drugs if you don’t count coke, pot, Quaaludes, Percodans and acid. Finally, Bart shows the good doctor his lump, certain, in that hypochondriacal way the homosexuals apparently had even before AIDS, that it’s a tumor, or a swollen lymph node. When Zack assures him that it’s nothing of the sort, Bart wisecracks (as is his wont), “Great. No more anxiety. How am I supposed to get through the rest of the day?” The handsome fellas have lunch together, afterward helping out a Girl Scout in distress (the two are nothing if not morally unimpeachable), and Zack buys Bart’s latest novel, cryptically entitled Good Intentions.

The movie literally cruises along, with Bart cruising Griffith Park, remarkably full of gay clones mating in broad daylight at lunch hour (those were the days), and Zack ruefully gazing from his sports car window at the entrance of the Spike, the infamous leather bar on Santa Monica Boulevard. Meanwhile, Kate Jackson, the erstwhile TV Angel, argues at work, in her capacity as a TV executive, for more quality programming, then, with a roll of her eyes, testily digs into a pilot script called Callahan’s Dolls, the in-joke none too subtly rendered. Claire is clearly an early cinematic post-feminist character, snapping as she does at her male colleague, “Stop calling me honey!”

Following the big set-up, we finally get to the main event: Zack and Bart’s hook-up. After making excuses to Claire yet again on the phone, Zack ends up going to Bart’s bachelor pad. As foreplay, Bart starts out confessing his perverse childhood fantasies. “Can you imagine a 10-year-old kid writing about adultery and incest? I used to have a brother and sister doing it under the lemonade stand!” (For the unschooled audience, incest fantasies are a gateway to the slippery Freudian slope toward homosexuality.) “Do you ever want a family?” Zack asks, desperately hanging on to his increasingly distant hope for heterosexual ordinariness. “Not really,” Bart replies. “Somehow I just don’t think it’s in the cards.” Although the film is prescient about a number of gay trends of the future, family values assimilation, thankfully, is not one of them. Zack deflects Bart’s insinuations about his sexuality by asking him about his own proclivities. “OK, I admit it. I have done some experimenting,” he explains. “I’ve gotten into a lot of different scenes. I’m a writer. I have to open myself up to new things. Expand my horizons.” Zack isn’t having any of it. “Why don’t you just say it,” he says, forcing the issue. “I’m gay,” says Bart with a shrug and a shake of the head.

Both actors are brilliant in this delicate, nuanced scene, but Hamlin displays a particularly sensitive understanding of his character: he captures the combination of defensiveness, pathos and pride of the newly liberated gay of the era. His investment in the role is remarkable and fearless, shifting subtly between butch and femme, owning his bottomness as he subtly sashays through the film in his shortie gym shorts and professorial glasses. Acting as father confessor, mentor and seductress, Bart finally seduces Zack with the ultimate line: “Physician, heal thyself.” So as not to traumatize the audience too much, the first kiss is shot tastefully, from a distance. The second kiss, in the bedroom, after they gently remove each other’s shirts, their bodies, as in a female melodrama, slatted by shadows from a Venetian blind, is closer, and shockingly intimate. At this point, as they kiss, and the heartbreaking Leonard Rosenman score kicks in, I always lose it.

I confess that along with certain other films, like Cassavetes’ A Child is Waiting and Guy Green’s A Patch of Blue, Making Love is a movie that makes me start to blubber, no matter how many times I’ve seen it, even as the opening credits roll. This historic gay screen kiss, although not the first, is a far cry from the twisted and tortured one between Rod Steiger and John Phillip Law in The Sergeant in 1968, or the stilted, tight-lipped one in Sunday, Bloody Sunday in 1971, during which Peter Finch once revealed that he “just closed his eyes and thought of England.” Watching Making Love when I was a very young man, before, like Zack, I totally owned my own homosexuality, I must admit it had a profound effect on me; after watching it on the afternoon of its theatrical debut, I went back the next day to watch it again.

Bart is predictably cold toward Zack after he relieves him of his gay virginity, which makes Zack lash out at him for his slutty ways. “Where are you going, Westwood?” Bart asks. “No, that must have been last night’s trick,” retorts Zack, already adapting the acid tongue of the rejected homosexual. In voice-over, Bart explains his position to the audience, no doubt on the edge of its seat: “Ya know, I can score five nights a week. So it’s a different person every night, so what? I like diversity.” As a pre-AIDS movie, Making Love presents a much more honest portrayal of the libertine sexuality of gays of the era, than, say, Philadelphia (1993), which expected us to believe that Tom Hanks caught AIDS from a single, errant blow job in the balcony of a dirty porn cinema.

Suspicious that her husband is seeing another woman, Claire reluctantly takes a higher TV executive position (“You’re the best man for the job,” her boss declares) and is obliged to take a meeting in New York, allowing Zack to spend the whole weekend with Bart. (Women always have to pay the price for those pesky promotions.) Zack and Bart frolic in a swimming pool and play video basketball together (more butch assurance) before getting into the nitty-gritty at Bart’s pad. Bart confesses he went to a gay bar for the first time the night his homophobic father, who always unsuccessfully tried to push sports onto his sissy son, died; Zack reads Bart’s new outline for a novel and tells him he thinks it’s phony, and chastises him for his promiscuous ways. The binary line has been drawn – monogamy and romance on one side, cruising bus terminals on the other – and after two short days, they break up, Bart dealing the final, low blow: “I’m really not into Gilbert and Sullivan.”

The second scene we’ve all been waiting for arrives not long after – Zack’s confession to Claire that he’s gay. After watching an Audrey Hepburn movie on TV and calling her distant father, Claire finally has it out with her husband in another extraordinarily honest, if psychologically reductive, scene. Ontkean, an underrated actor, delivers his painfully earnest confession with real conviction: “I’ve had repressed desires that have surfaced. I find that I’m attracted to men.” Claire is blindsided, and gives him two sharp slaps worthy of Joan Crawford, reinforcing the melodramatic references throughout the film. (Bart is back alone in his apartment watching Liz Taylor movies, and waxing poetic, in V.O., about his identification with Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe.) Claire tells Zack it feels like the time her father abandoned her after her first trip to Radio City Music Hall (absent fathers always play big in gay psychodramas), and says wistfully, “It’s a helluva way to say goodbye.” Zack deals his final, low blow: “I finally found someone who I felt was making love to me,” the title of the film neatly explained. Alone, Claire rips a Gilbert and Sullivan album off the record player and smashes it (she earlier broke a plate, another female melodrama staple), but comes to the conclusion she will always be in love with her gay husband, and pledges to call her first-born Rupert, after their favorite obscure poet.

Rather than cut straight to the chase – the The Way We Were regretful reunion scene – the film inserts a fascinating little scene in which Claire, having found the number of a trick on a matchbook in Zack’s pocket (he was obviously not quite as chaste as he let on), goes out of curiosity to visit the mysterious fellow at his dumpy adobe. Her worst nightmares are confirmed. The trick is somewhat sympathetic to her plight, but shows her no mercy. “I have more tricks coming into this apartment than bargain day at Woolworths,” he proudly informs her as she winces stoically. And the pièce de résistance: “I’ll tell you something, he must have been a pretty hot little number or I never would have given him my phone number.” It’s a moment reminiscent of Paul Schrader’s Hardcore (1979), in which a porn star tells George C. Scott that the lost daughter he’s searching for was the “freakiest bitch” he ever worked with. But the scene is a testament to the film’s attempt to present a certain unvarnished truth about the gay sexual zeitgeist of the time.

In the final, heart-wrenching scene, Zack and Claire are reunited, after two years, at the funeral of Winnie, their daft poetry mentor (over)played by Wendy Hiller. Zack is in a monogamous relationship with a very butch, handsome professional with whom he lives on the Upper West Side of New York; Claire is married in the suburbs of L.A. with a child, whom she tells Zack she’s named Rupert. All violins are cued. Claire pulls a “Hubble” (anyone who’s seen The Way We Were knows what I’m talking about) and touches Zack’s hair, the star-crossed pair still clearly in love, but torn asunder by queer circumstances out of their control. Zack drives away forever, and we are left with a regretful Claire as the opening strains of Roberta Flack singing the theme song, “Making Love,” rise up over the closing credits. I, for one, have already used up every Kleenex in the box.

Bruce LaBruce is a filmmaker, writer, photographer and artist based in Toronto, Canada. Recently there have been retrospectives of his films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and at MoMA in New York City. His latest feature, The Misandrists, will be released in 2018.