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Leaving Philadelphia 

Leaving Philadelphia 

In May 2003, Ron Nyswaner wrote in The Advocate about his experience as a gay screenwriter. In light of his upcoming film, The Patinted Veil, we'll take a look back at his insights.

The Painted Veil will open this week in New York and Los Angeles. The film is premiering to accolades and good reviews, including two nominations from Film Independent's Spirit Awards. The nominated screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, wrote about his experience as a gay screenwriter and director in the May 2003 issue of The Advocate when another of his acclaimed films, Soldier's Girl, released. The following is his essay about the motivation behind Philadelphia, being a young screenwriter and capturing the story of Pfc. Barry Winchell and Calpernia Addams.


When Soldier's Girl airs on Showtime May 31, 9 1/2 years will have passed since the release of Philadelphia. And the world has changed, more or less: Gay and lesbian characters are staples on television, and same-sex kisses are featured in The Hours. Perhaps being gay isn't the issue it once was.

Homosexuality seemed controversial in the pre-AIDS era, when, in film school, a screenwriting teacher barred me from reading aloud my gay-themed script. Although I protested, the seeds of compromise were sown: My second script told the story of a wedding, with no gay characters, not even a wisecracking caterer.

I continued writing scripts about heterosexuals and found success. It didn't seem cowardly at the time; after all, I was open about my homosexuality with everyone, including employers.

In the mid 1980s, during the teen film craze, I developed a script at Fox about a gay teenage boy and his best friend, a straight girl (presaging Will & Grace by a decade). The project was abandoned after three drafts. I heard a rumor that a junior executive had campaigned to keep the story line alive, only dropping the gay aspect. This executive, by the way, is gay.

My first writing-directing foray, The Prince of Pennsylvania, features Keanu Reeves battling his coal miner father. The character is ostensibly straight but artistic and sensitive. This is what is known as subtext.

Philadelphia was born of grief when a beloved young relative was diagnosed with AIDS. While I understood the outrage that others had the courage to express, my own anger was muted--each of us reacts differently to pain. Hence, Philadelphia is somber rather than fiery and was--by some--harshly criticized. I accept the criticism. Philadelphia did a lot of good; I meet people all over the world who tell me that it changed their lives. Still, I agree that it is incomplete.

Soldier's Girl-- the story of the murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell--has given me the opportunity to come all the way out of my closet: to be sexual, explicit, funny, furious. Ironically, it isn't really a gay film. The characters' sexual identities are difficult to categorize: Barry Winchell was in love with transgendered Calpernia Addams, who considered herself to be a woman, despite her male genitalia. The gay issue seems, in a way, dated. To quote my own script: Very few people are 100% anything these days. Still, Barry Winchell was hounded and murdered because--to his tormentors--he was a faggot.

Have we reached the mainstream? Is our moment running out of steam? Perhaps this question ought to be posed to the parents of Barry Winchell, Allen Schindler, or Matthew Sheppard.

Or Eminem.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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