Hail Mary

By Dale Hrabi

Originally published on Advocate.com January 05 2009 1:00 AM ET

Even by acclaimed actress standards, Sigourney Weaver isn’t particularly normal. She chooses her words with unusual precision. Her skin creases too authentically. Her eyes focus on yours in an oddly insistent, laser-lock way that reminds you of being heavily cruised: It has a penetrating curiosity, a “cut the shit” frankness, as if to say I know that you know that we’re --

Until she glances away, that is, to eat a perversely small lamb burger or a crème brûlée she’s ordered “without the brûlée.” In a disappointing nod to celebrity convention, she’s asked to be interviewed in a generic Manhattan patisserie where she passes, largely unnoticed, among the establishment ladies. Weaver understands, though, what it’s like to be different, even marginalized: “Growing up, I was always very vulnerable. I wasn’t cool,” she says. “And almost every character I’ve played has been a woman who doesn’t fit in.” Her résumé is, indeed, full of loners with a deviant passion for gorillas, high-risk space travel, or—in her latest project—God in his least appealing, gay-bashing guise.

Prayers for Bobby, which airs January 24 on Lifetime Television, is based on the true story of Mary Griffith, a homophobic devout Christian who drove her gay son to kill himself at age 20 in 1983 -- then renounced homophobia and transformed herself into a renowned pro-gay activist. Weaver, who’ll return to the big screen later this year in James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster Avatar, agreed to star in Bobby, a cautionary tale that’s carefully calculated to play in Peoria, partly because she knew it would be seen. “I’ve done some really good independent movies that didn’t find an audience in this country,” she says, citing the barely seen dramas Snow Cake (2006) and The Girl in the Park (2007). She also hoped Bobby will chisel away at bigotry: “I’m horrified by how hard Americans are making it for my gay friends to live. To me, that’s un-Christian.”

Watching the movie, it’s strange to see Weaver -- a worldly Ivy Leaguer who briskly deploys words over lunch like “diffident,” “apocryphal,” and “fuck” -- embody such a narrow-minded character. Mary Griffith believed she was raising a perfect brood of fresh-scrubbed zealots in her San Francisco–area commuter town until Satan inconveniently seduced her second-eldest son. “What got me was her sincerity,” Weaver says. “She truly felt she couldn’t accept Bobby as gay because that meant he was going to hell.”

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Ignoring Bobby’s protests that he hadn’t chosen damnation (“Why would I choose to have my whole family hate me?”), Mary taped scraps of healing scripture to his bathroom mirror, beseeched God to forgive Bobby for standing with one hand perched girlishly on his hip, and piously shred his self-esteem until he was writing in his diary, “I want to take a fuckin’ ice pick to my face and stab it ’til there’s nothing left.”

“As a mother,” says Weaver, whose only child, Charlotte, is 18, “I was shocked by Mary’s inability to listen to her son. Her heart wasn’t open. She was just convinced that he could stop and be her Bobby again.”

Weaver knows what it’s like to fall short of blind expectations. After her first appearance as Alien’s Lt. Ellen Ripley turned her into an international “dykon” (one website praises her “general studliness” and “femme bitch top persona”), she’s encountered gay fans who seem convinced that she herself walks around New York in tiny panties wielding a flamethrower. “It’s flattering,” Weaver says, “but they’re in love with [Ripley], not me. I feel incapable of helping them understand that I’m not this strong, wily creature. I mean, I run from spiders.”

She also knows what it’s like to be rejected. Neither she nor her upper-class family (her dad was legendary TV exec and Today show creator Pat Weaver) was prepared when she shot up to the undainty height of 5 feet 11 inches at age 11 and was forced to come out -- as a giraffe. Ridiculed at school, she eventually stopped sobbing and took preemptive measures. “I would make fun of myself before someone else could,” Weaver says, “constantly making jokes about what a goon I was.” Her campaign earned her dubious yearbook honors such as “Freshman Fink” or “Junior Birdman,” but her sense of self-worth didn’t recover.

Her determination to embrace her oddness reached new heights in her hippie Stanford years, when the English lit major and her flautist boyfriend began cohabiting in a tree house, dressed as elves in “harem pants and little vests with blue pom-poms.” She dismisses insinuations that she must have smelled (“I was a clean elf…when I could find a shower”) and bristles at the suggestion that committing to an alternative elf lifestyle is arguably super-gay. “I don’t think you should make generalizations about elves,” she says. “They come in all flavors and colors.”

Despite this empowering imp romance, the still-gawky Weaver was soon being humiliated again. The famously harsh professors at the Yale School of Drama, where she sought a postgrad degree, fixated on her height, declaring her uncastable. “They told me I had no talent and would never get anywhere,” she says. For three years they shamed her with token roles while foisting so many leads on Meryl Streep, one year behind Weaver, that Streep turned to a school psychiatrist, Weaver says, to cope with her guilt over the favoritism.

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“For a long time,” Weaver adds, “I was obsessed with proving my professors wrong.” Her first real ally was the gay absurdist playwright Christopher Durang, who cast her in his off-Broadway productions, allowing her to approximate a theatrical career until she became an instant brand name with 1979’s Alien, a movie she initially resisted as too trashy to impress her New Haven tormenters. (Cringing, she convinced herself she was playing “Henry V on Mars.”)

The Yale rejection haunted her for years, the three-time Oscar nominee says: “The only way you can get rid of that sort of obsession is by forgiving the awful people who hurt you. I forgave my professors for being so stupid.” Not entirely graciously -- Weaver was still joking to Time magazine in 2004, “I hope they’re all sitting watching my movies late at night, eating cat food out of a can.”

Forgiving his mother wasn’t an option for Bobby Griffith; he didn’t live long enough to stop blaming himself: “I am evil and wicked. I am dirt,” he wrote, some time before he jumped from a bridge into the path of an 18-wheeler truck. “My voice is small and unheard, unnoticed, damned.” The film, however, depicts Bobby as rather boringly unwicked, a pretty normal late-’70s gay kid. He overidentifies with Marilyn Monroe and covets a Members Only jacket. He crafts apple-head dolls. In an early version of the script, he and a few predictably outcast friends can’t wait to see Alien.

To research the role, Weaver read the same books Bobby’s mom consulted, from the Bible to Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), whose notoriously nasty chapter on homosexuality assured ’70s parents that “fags” like to spice up their pointless, solitary lives by inserting light bulbs up their rectums. “A vicious, vicious book,” Weaver says. “It even scarred me.”

She also spent time with Mary Griffith and her family. “We met in the living room, the same house where it all happened,” she says. “They showed me Bobby’s attic bedroom. The grandkids watch TV up there now.” Weaver was taken aback by Mary’s ability to take responsibility for Bobby’s death without rationalizing her actions. “Her candor shocked me,” she says. “Mary’s view of religion was a mythical kingdom full of cartoonish extremes. And she’s the first to admit that.”

 

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Now 74 and at peace with her guilt after years struggling to separate spirituality from hate -- 16 months after Bobby’s death she was still writing letters to God hoping that Bobby’s soul wasn’t damned—Griffith endorses Weaver’s performance. “She got it exactly right,” Griffith says, “how afraid I was, how assured that God was going to heal Bobby as if it were a slam dunk. Bobby tried to make me understand, but you see, if I condoned him, that would be Satan trying to lead him astray and all that bullshit, excuse my French.”

The only problem with Prayers for Bobby’s commitment to honesty is that the real Bobby wasn’t as blandly relatable as the script suggests. For obvious reasons, the full consequences of his family’s naive bigotry weren’t considered Lifetime-friendly. Self-destructive, Bobby spent months as a prostitute servicing, as he put it, “fat old men with glasses and false teeth.” He was miserably promiscuous, plagued by zits but obsessed with vanity, pumping iron compulsively. On-screen, Bobby is a slender, unthreatening boy next door who’s maybe given some guy a hand job once. His eyes seem to twinkle even when they’re filled with tears.

“Those were decisions the producers made,” Weaver says diplomatically. Daniel Sladek, one of four executive producers, who spent 12 years securing funding and fervently hopes that the film will be shown in schools and save other gay kids, is realistic: “We couldn’t risk not getting the movie made,” he says. “We designed Bobby to be accessible. We didn’t want to give any parent a reason to think, That’s not my son, and change the channel.”

It’s unlikely they will. Weaver’s acting is powerful, literally raw; she gives the sort of makeup-free, flabby-armed, indecorous performance that’s rarely seen tucked between Pantene commercials. It’s also personal. Weaver says that if her daughter, Charlotte, were in Bobby’s shoes, “What I’d feel much more than her being X, Y, or Z, would be her not talking to me. I hope this movie helps people realize you have to love who your kids really are. I hope Sarah Palin watches it.”

Charlotte did hit her mom with a minor revelation recently: “My daughter now has a faux-hawk,” Weaver says with a fond roll of the eyes. When it’s pointed out that a former elf can hardly be judgmental when it comes to unconventional style, she laughs: “Oh, no, I think it’s pretty! I actually call her ‘Elf.’ ”