Living Out Loud
BY Jeremy Kinser
April 22 2011 6:15 PM ET
Near the beginning of the remarkable new HBO film Cinema Verite, Santa Barbara, Calif., businessman Bill Loud, played by a terrific Tim Robbins, proclaims, “We’re like the West Coast version of the Kennedys.” Loud, though a chronic philanderer, doesn’t seem to realize the irony in those words when he decides to allow producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) and his camera crew, Alan and Susan Raymond, to document the life of his family. The film follows the Louds in front of and off camera as the 1973 PBS series An American Family changes their lives forever. The documentary would not only introduce a new television genre — the reality show — but also former Advocate columnist Lance Loud, the first openly gay man most viewers had ever seen on the small screen.
The series captured the early-’70s zeitgeist as 10 million viewers tuned in each week to watch the family slowly disintegrate in front of the cameras. Bill hid his affairs with other women from wife Pat (a sensational Diane Lane), but she eventually found him out, then awkwardly asked him for a divorce and demanded he move out of their house, all as the cameras rolled. But perhaps the program’s most lasting impact came from the couple’s flamboyant son Lance (Thomas Dekker, perfectly cast). Lance was accepted by his family as their coolest member, but Pat was roundly criticized when the series aired for being so supportive of her gay son at a time when homosexuality was rarely represented on television. Married Academy Award-–nominated filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (American Splendor) have fashioned the story of what happened to the Louds into a timely cautionary tale that will premiere on HBO Saturday night. Springer Berman and Pulcini discuss their already acclaimed new film, the legacy of television’s first nonscripted series, and the importance of the late gay pioneer Lance Loud.
The Advocate: You’re both probably too young to have really been aware of the series, but do you have any memories of it from its original airing?
Shari Springer Berman: Well, actually neither one of us watched it because we were too young, but I do remember hearing about the Loud family. And I remember it specifically because I thought it was a funny name — you know, the Loud family. And then when we started making documentaries and really immersed ourselves in watching as many of these great landmark documentaries as we could, like Salesman and Grey Gardens and Don’t Look Back, we actually wanted to see American Family and realized that it wasn’t available. So we actually never got to see it until we signed on to direct this movie, and then it was a really bad bootleg DVD version that you could barely hear and you could barely see. When we actually started talking to the Raymonds, they said, “Let us send you a better version of the movie.”
What do you see as the impact the show that had on viewers in the early ’70s?
Robert Pulcini: It was the first time anything like this had ever been done. And I think it was the first time television discovered this voyeuristic quality that watching reality could attract so many viewers. I mean no one involved in this project had any idea that it would become the ratings phenomenon that it was and cultural phenomenon.
Springer Berman: It was a huge cultural phenomenon and everybody was talking about it, but it wasn’t necessarily in a positive way. People were really offended and upset by the whole concept of letting cameras into your home, and it seems like there was a different relationship with privacy in the early ’70s than we have now. Because now, nobody would think twice about that, and in the early ’70s, it was really looked down upon to air any dirty laundry in public. And then on top of that, Lance and Pat were really attacked. I mean the things that were written, even in The New York Times. It was shocking how homophobic it was against Lance and against Pat for accepting Lance.
When I told people that we were making this movie, so many gay men of a certain age said to me, “Oh, my God, that show changed my life. That gave me the courage to come out to my family or to live my life in a certain way.” So I think it had a huge impact in the gay community, but there was a lot of backlash against Lance and Pat.