Screenwriter Barry Sandler was ready for a challenge. By 1980, Sandler had racked up an impressive résumé of glossy mainstream credits that included the romantic biopic Gable and Lombard, the Raquel Welch roller derby vehicle Kansas City Bomber, and the all-star whodunnit Evil Under the Sun. The time had come for him to write something more personal. With the encouragement of his then-boyfriend, writer A. Scott Berg, Sandler penned the screenplay for Making Love, about a married doctor (Michael Ontkean) who comes out to his wife (Kate Jackson) after an affair with a gay writer (Harry Hamlin). As the hugely anticipated release of the semi-autobiographical film, regarded by many as the first studio movie to treat gay people respectfully, approached, Sandler knew he’d need to be open about his being gay. In an interview with The Advocate at the time, he spoke about how liberated he felt. “Once you acknowledge to the world, once there are no more secrets, you’re no longer concerned about going to a party with another guy. I don’t give a shit anymore. This is who I am.” Sandler, who now teaches screenwriting at the University of Central Florida, would go on to write numerous other films, including the electrifying Ken Russell-Kathleen Turner collaboration Crimes of Passion, which he is planning to mount for the stage. The GLAAD Award-winning writer speaks with The Advocate about the 1982 film, reveals which actors refused to star in it, and shares what he sees as its legacy.
The Advocate: What inspired you to write Making Love?
Barry Sandler: I was involved in a relationship with Scott Berg, and it was around the late ’70s-early ’80s, and I was sort of reassessing where I wanted to go as a screenwriter. I had done a number of films that were more glossy and Hollywood. These were films that really didn’t challenge me in terms of who I was and where I wanted to go, you know, probing complex themes that I was looking to do. Scott was really instrumental in getting me to dig deeper and he really thought it would be a good, not really a challenge, but to do the first gay-themed film to come out of Hollywood that shows a positive portrayal of gay people. It had never been done before, and … have you ever seen The Celluloid Closet?
I’m in that film, so we talk about it. Whenever a film depicted gay people, they were either the butt of jokes or comic figures to laugh at or suicidal or desperate or pathetic. Growing up and being inundated with those kind of gay images, it forced a lot of people into the closet or else they grew up with a feelings of fear or shame or guilt or unwillingness to admit to who or what you are. With Scott pushing me and my own conscious need as a writer to probe deeper and also, you know, the idea of writing a movie that would hopefully, if not reverse the trend, certainly be a breakthrough in terms of depicting gay people as real human beings who go through, you know, who are recognizable and identifiable, and who have the same kinds of needs and problems as anyone else, and most importantly can accept our identity and live a happy, successful, gratifying life, accepting who you are, being honest with who you are, and I thought that was a very, very important movie in 1982 to make.
It was certainly groundbreaking.
It had never been done before, and I knew that it was going to be a difficult time trying to get it going, which, ironically enough, it really wasn’t. But as for what propelled me or inspired me to write it, it was a number of things. It was Scott pushing me, it was my own reassessment of where I wanted to go as a writer, and it was also I felt a need to make a positive statement that hopefully the next generation of young gay and lesbian men and women coming up would have something a little more positive to look at on the screen that could help them feel a little better about who they are and possibly not necessarily not have to hide in the closet. Now, I’m not trying to sound humanitarian or anything like that, but I just felt since I am a creature of the movies, growing up in the movies, and because we do get so much of our sensibilities are so shaped by what we see in the media, and this is really before cable TV and all that, but by images and film and books and television, and I felt I could utilize whatever talent I have as a screenwriter to possibly shape or make an impact or shape human attitudes.
What was the studio’s initial reaction to the screenplay?
The fear was that in 1980, which is when it was written, it was the beginning of a conservative era. Reagan was about to be elected and I felt the odds were probably against us for getting this film made, and I said I don’t want to go out on a limb and write this thing and not have anyone want to make it. Because, you know, studios are notoriously gutless when it comes to doing anything dealing with … well, they certainly were then … doing anything with sex or sexuality or anything that might be perceived as subversive. Scott was very close with Claire Townsend, who was head of development at 20th Century Fox right under Sherry Lansing, and the irony is it was two women. Sherry ran the studio, and Claire was one of her people in command in development who really got the movie off the ground. We went to Claire and then to Sherry and said, “This is the movie. If the script turns out, would you be willing to make it?” And they said, “Yes, absolutely.” And I had enough confidence that the script would turn out, but I needed the assurance that if it did, they would make it. And Sherry did say, “Yes we want to make this movie.” I don’t know if a male head of a studio – straight, gay, or indifferent – would have made this movie, but really I think it took a woman in 1980 to be able to say, “Yes, I’m going to make this movie.”
What happened after Sherry agreed to make it?
I went off and wrote it. I mean, Scott and I hammered out the story, and then I went off and wrote it. And then, we did a second draft, and we turned it in, and almost immediately, they jumped at it. Danny Melnick, who was a big producer at the time, had done a lot of big movies, like Altered States, Close Encounters, and All That Jazz, came aboard Fox and read the script, called me at 1 in the morning, and just said he loved the it. He was very moved by it, and I mean this great guy, this great producer, said, “I want this to be my first movie at Fox.”