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At Outfest Awards, Terrence McNally's Legacy Lights the Way

At Outfest Awards, Terrence McNally's Legacy Lights the Way

"Much love."

That was the phrase Terrence McNally (pictured above, in his youth) used to sign off his letters, emails, and phone conversations. They were also the words invoked by Joe Mantello, a longtime collaborator and mentee of the late gay playwright, in his Saturday acceptance speech for the inaugural Terrence McNally Award.

There was indeed "much love" for McNally, who was the first public figure to die of COVID-19 complications, at this year's Outfest Legacy Awards, which due to the pandemic had to drastically change its format in order to proceed.

The nonprofit, which in addition to coordinating two film festivals provides critical services in preserving LGBTQ+ moving images, had to forgo its usual star-studded gathering at Vibiana, a flashy venue in downtown Los Angeles, for its annual fundraiser. Instead, it was held beneath actual stars for a drive-in experience at Calamigos Ranch in Malibu.

Due to the extraordinary times, Mantello — a multihyphenate known for directing the revival of The Boys in the Band and being one of the original Broadway cast members of Angels in America — was not physically present at the Legacy Awards. But he joined via video conferencing, and his face, along with his admiration for the Love! Valour! Compassion! writer, filled the screen.

"He loved curtain calls, and I’m completely the opposite. And he would constantly insist that I join him onstage to bow whenever we had an opening night together on Broadway," he recalled. "And being a bit more shy and a bit more private, I would sometimes resort to lying to get out of it. But I would always be in the audience watching him onstage, big smile, soaking in all the love and appreciation."

"Looking back, it occurs to me that I don’t think that it was vanity that compelled him. I think he just absolutely believed in taking pride in what you’ve made and owning it in spite of what the world might make of it," he said. "I’m trying to do that now in his honor."

Mantello added that he would not be there as an honoree without McNally. "His great gift to all of us who were lucky enough to be his collaborators was sensing our potential before we did," he said, adding, "He allowed me to do my first musical, my first film, my first opera, and the main reason that I was even able to tackle any of these things is that he believed that I could. I think that’s an incredible gift for someone to give you."

The power of pioneers to inspire in a time of hardship was a running theme of the evening, which began with messages from the honorees of the Out 100, Out magazine's annual list of LGBTQ+ trailblazers, including Wilson Cruz and Matt Bomer. Dreamworks and its groundbreaking, LGBTQ-inclusive animated productions Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power were also honored. RuPaul's Drag Race stars Jinkx Monsoon and BenDeLaCreme, who have a new Christmas special, brought some old-school camp and holiday humor to the proceedings.

And even the night's centerpiece film, Uncle Frank, introduced by its own pioneering director, Alan Ball (Six Feet Under, True Blood), focused on gay men in the 1970s who, through the simple act of coming out to family members, helped move the needle.

In another speech, Damien S. Navarro, the executive director of Outfest, stressed that the LGBTQ+ community stands on the backs of those who had paved the way for the modern movement of visibility, including his own mentor.

"It’s been one of those years in which you just have to adapt," said Navarro, who took the reins on the nonprofit last year just before the world changed. "And we really have to look to our elders and those that came before us to understand what kind of strength it takes to take these moments on."

"As COVID continues, we are in trouble," he said frankly. Films, of course, can not be screened in most theaters during the pandemic, so the group's lineup of tentpole events and fundraisers have been significantly altered. But the pandemic has also sparked exciting new changes and initiatives at Outfest, including Outfest Now, a streaming platform that has made the festival accessible to thousands across the country, in addition to drive-in experiences like the one at Calamigos Ranch.

The executive director went on to read letters from some LGBTQ+ viewers who had received free access to the festival due to the generosity of Outfest donors. One was a trans nonbinary person "who has never seen themselves represented onscreen" until the launch of the virtual festival. Others were from people with disabilities and those who did not ordinarily have the means to experience stories from their own community.

Navarro did so after stressing the necessity of "a village to help us back on our feet," the donors whose cars filled the drive-in at the Malibu forest. He called on them to turn on their hazard lights should they want to donate to Outfest. "Light up the sky with our lights tonight," he said. And within moments, they did, raising $50,000 and filling the clearing with blinking lights like fireflies.

Much love, indeed.

Tags: film, Outfest

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