By David Keeps
Originally published on Advocate.com February 09 2010 10:00 AM ET
* This article ran in the March, 2010 issue of The Advocate.
Rolling up his ready-for-the-red-carpet Gucci tuxedo trousers, 2010 Oscars coproducer Adam Shankman dips his toes into the turquoise water of his swimming pool and lets out a blue howl. “Motherbitch!” he hollers. “Who turned the frickin’ heat off?”
It’s a comically outrageous outburst from the 45-year-old gay TV and film choreographer-director, and a violation of one of the cardinal rules he learned as a teenage dancer: Never let the discomfort in your feet show in your face. The self-described “luckiest chorus boy alive” composes himself, then stares down the photographer’s lens with the ease of an old-school Hollywood star.
Though as a young man he aspired to be a dancer, not a director, Shankman is getting accustomed to life both in front of and behind the camera. He spent the 1990s teaching movie stars to dance in films as varied as Boogie Nights and The Flintstones and the 2000s directing a string of hits including The Wedding Planner and Hairspray, and he has more recently become a television personality with his appearances as a judge on So You Think You Can Dance. Now a permanent judge on the show, he delivers a shot of fabulous realness to the Fox talent competition. On occasion he has been moved to on-camera tears by contestants’ performances, but more often he is snappy and self-deprecating, treating his sexuality as an otherwise unremarkable matter of fact.
“I make so many jokes about being gay, without it being lurid,” he says of his appearances on the show. “It’s not part of any agenda; it’s just who I am. Some of my aesthetic is based on it, but being gay is no more my entire identity than being an American is.”
Shankman’s success on so many fronts could be cited as evidence that being out is no longer a liability in Hollywood. Since 2001 his seven directorial efforts have racked up worldwide ticket sales in excess of $1 billion, and Offspring Entertainment, the production company formed by Shankman and his sister Jennifer Gibgot, has a deal with Disney. On the heels of its 2009 Zac Efron hit, 17 Again, the company has three films on tap this year: a Drew Barrymore romance, Going the Distance; Miley Cyrus’s first drama, The Last Song (written by novelist Nicholas Sparks); and Step Up 3-D, the third installment of the wildly popular dance flick franchise. Shankman is currently linked to over a dozen forthcoming projects, including the film version of the Broadway hit Rock of Ages and a remake of the musical Bye Bye Birdie.
Shankman is one of the most commercial producer-directors most in the industry. Comedies such as The Pacifier and Bedtime Stories have found a broad family audience, and the soapy A Walk to Remember, in which Mandy Moore put marriage before sex, was endorsed by church groups. He is revitalizing the movie musical in a happier, campier way than his contemporary Rob Marshall, director of the more adult Chicago and Nine. Shankman is also firmly enmeshed with the next generation of movie stars and audiences, working with pop icons like Efron and Cyrus and earning street credibility from b-boys and ballerinas as a choreographer and dance show judge.
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.
Today, this go-to studio director has stepped forward as a staunch supporter of marriage equality, using his skills to direct the short Prop. 8: The Musical. “I am an ordained minister,” he says, noting that he married Freddie Prinze Jr. and Sarah Michelle Gellar, a friend he met when he choreographed the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “And I am being told I can’t get married myself?” As a child of divorce, Shankman, who is single, isn’t sure he’d get married himself but won’t accept the idea that he can’t do so if he chooses: “My inalienable constitutional equal rights are not debatable.”
At the moment, the director admits he does not allow himself much time for a personal life. “I have made some not great choices based on working out some old wounds, and trust has become a big issue for me,” he says. “I don’t have the stress of being in a bad relationship, but I do spend a lot of time alone in a crowded room. My life is full, but that fundamental component is missing. I would love to meet somebody who is confident enough to step into my world. But the reality is that work has never failed me or been bad to me.”
Shankman sprints to his walk-in closet, a bedroom-size space stacked from floor to ceiling with some 150 pairs of size 10 designer shoes and sneakers. “Have we established that I have a shoe problem?” he jokes. He claims that he can go from gym clothes to showered and shaved and in a suit and tie with cuff links in 10 minutes. It’s exactly that efficiency that allows him to produce, direct, and still spend a significant amount of time and energy raising money for philanthropic organizations, among them the Point Foundation, a scholarship program for LGBT students. “I can’t look at my track record and say ‘You’re a big failure,’ ” he says. “So I have to do something meaningful with [my success].”
His plans include more personal filmmaking. Shankman briefly sketches out the idea for an art film he’d someday like to make. It would feature several different characters inspired by his New York years in parallel stories that culminate at the last night of the legendary gay disco the Saint.
But first his plate is full with the biggest televised night in show business. “I will always identify as a dancer, showman, and entertainer,” Shankman says, adding that coproducing and choreographing the Oscars is “a slipper-comfortable fit.”
Still, he finds it ironic that although he has been tapped to help reinvigorate the Oscars—a task he has thrown himself into by reaching out to his teenage fans via Twitter and casting alumni from So You Think You Can Dance—he has yet to be invited to join the Academy. “The last time I was at the Academy Awards was 20 years ago,” he says, laughing. “I was a Lycra-clad gymnastic pirate dancing to ‘Under the Sea.’ ”