BY David Keeps
February 09 2010 9:00 AM ET
To all these endeavors Shankman brings anundeniably gay sensibility that makes his mainstream success seem all the more subversive. His politics are candy-coated, and some of his biggest hits—2003’s Bringing Down the House (with Steve Martin and Queen Latifah) and the film adaptation of the Broadway musical adaptation of the nonmusical John Waters’s film Hairspray—contained satirical critiques of racism yet appealed to both black and white audiences. “In Hairspray you have an African-American boy holding a knife and singing a love song to a white girl tied up in a chair,” he says. “But you can say pretty much anything if you do it with a smile on your face.”
When asked, as he often is, why his work doesn’t speak to his sexuality, Shankman grins. “I remember I got criticized after I made The Wedding Planner. ‘Why didn’t he make a gay movie?’ Did you see Wedding Planner? It’s full of pink, and look at Jennifer Lopez’s hair. It’s the gayest thing you’ve ever seen.”
Beneath his cheery films and sunny disposition, Shankman admits to “still having a lot of dark in my head.” He came out in the generation before everybody was very loud and proud, he explains. Though he doesn’t anymore, there was a time when he felt both fear and guilt about being gay. The son of Ned, an attorney and talent manager, and Phyllis, a therapist dealing with human sexuality, Shankman was raised in the wealthy Los Angeles enclave of Brentwood, destined, he says, to become a Jewish-American prince.
“But I had a sexual identity crisis at 3 years old,” he says of a cross-dressing phase at that young age. “My parents put me into an observation program where the therapist attempted to deprogram me. It was very damaging to my self-esteem. My parents didn’t [realize], and it’s been very hard for them to think they had delivered me into the hands of such a monster.” He recalls one harrowing session in which the 3-year-old Adam was told not to say he wanted to be a girl. “ ‘If you do,’ ” Shankman recalls the therapist warning, “ ‘you will never have friends and no one will love you.’ ” Shankman recalls that as he heard those words, he looked at his feet, which would one day become the vehicle for his artistry and self-acceptance. “I have stopped believing it,” he says of the therapist’s pronouncement, “but that wound will never go away.”
At 17, then a gymnast who dated girls, Shankman was accepted into Minneapolis’s Children’s Theatre Company. Before he left Los Angeles for Minnesota, his mother took him out to lunch. “In the middle of the salad course she said, ‘Oh, by the way, I know you’re gay,’ and I almost died choking on a lettuce leaf,” he says. On a father-son road trip to the school, his dad also offered unconditional acceptance of a sexual orientation Shankman had not yet accepted as his own.
“My parents outed me, and then I had to catch up,” he says. It took some time, even after he moved to New York at 18 to attend the Juilliard School. He earned admittance by wowing the admissions panel with a self-choreographed “crazy modern ballet” audition that he compares to Jennifer Beals’s performance in Flashdance. The AIDS epidemic had made safe sex the big news story among gays at the time he arrived in New York City. “I only had sex once in five years,” says Shankman, “and I was so vanilla.”
An opportunist in the best possible sense of the word, Shankman moved back to Los Angeles after dropping out of Juilliard and lied his way into his first gig as a choreographer. A movie directing career was launched when a short film he made was shown at Sundance and led to his being hired to helm The Wedding Planner within 10 minutes of meeting with the film’s producers. “I have never dropped the ball since,” he says. As a result, his professional growth and personal confidence soared.