The film vault: Before ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ there was ‘Making Love’

Christopher MacNeil reminds us about the groundbreaking LGBT themed movie, its impact and its legacy.


Everyone come up for air.

Instead of more talk about a presidential administration that might be the most corrupt in U.S. history, lets come up for air — let’s go to the gay movies.

More than 20 years before the groundbreak and enormously successful “Brokeback Mountain” and lead actors who could have swooned even the most homophobic of straights, there was “Making Love” and its married leading man first exploring and then accepting his homosexuality. While arguably a pioneer in the gay-themed movie genre, less arguably, “Making Love” was a film before its time and, indeed, may have been a victim of its time.

Putting aside the audible groans of some moviegoers seeing two half-naked men in bed locked arm-in-arm in prolonged and passionate kissing, “Making Love,” made in 1981 and released the next year, was neither a commercial nor critical success. At the box office the film recovered $11.9 million of its $14 million production budget and was in U.S. theaters a mere 49 days. The movie’s title song, written by Burt Bacharach, Bruce Roberts and Carole Bayer Sager, was a runaway chart hit for singer Robert Flack, however, but not enough to translate into box office gold.

“Making Love” also generated little attention from mainstream movie critics with perhaps the most influential being Roger Ebert. He dismissed the film as “essentially a TV docudrama, in which the subject is announced loud and clear at the outset and there are no surprises. People have described the movie …in one sentence as ‘Kate Jackson finds out her husband is a homosexual,’ and they haven’t left out much.”

Unseen political and social forces may have at work against the film as well. In 1982, the conservativsm of the Reagan administration had taken power just a year earlier and already had taken root. Any hope for the fledgling gay rights movement to go national and had begun in the more liberal 1970s had been effectively sequestered.

More insidiously, however, an ominous shadow had begun to darken America’s landscape by way of an emerging health crisis that threatened the very survival of the LGBT community – a recently identified disease, fatal to everyone who contracted it and with a name that spread fear and paranoia across the country: AIDS. That AIDS was first identified and contained among gay men and threatened the general, or straight, population effectively quashed hope for LGBT equality by forcing anyone suspected of being gay back into the closet.

But political and social commentary on the state of the gay union are spared in director Arthur Hiller’s movie. He instead confines his subject matter to the impact of homosexuality on a traditional heterosexual marriage when the husband begins to experiment with his long suppressed same-sex urges and ultimately surrenders to his sexual orientation.

Michael Ontkean is closeted and conflicted husband Zach Elliott, a doctor married eight years to Claire, played by Kate Jackson, a high-powered television executive. Zach and Claire are the embodiment of what would be one of the 80s’ catch phrases for up-and-coming power couples: DINK (dual income no kids). Their seemingly idyllic marriage lacks only the kids and a white picket fence to complete their Norman Rockwell snapshot. Their greatest problem seems to be catering to the frequent demands for attention by an elderly and lonely neighbor, Winnie, played with class by British actress Wendy Hiller.

Zach’s same-sex curiosity is awakened unexpectedly by Bart McGuire who walks into the doctor’s office with a case of hypocondria. Bart is a struggling writer and published author who, we are led to suspect, is also a promiscuous gay man. Played to stud perfection by Harry Hamlin, then a relative newcomer, Bart has left behind him a string of broken hearts with an express lane of one-night stands and always keeps himself a safe distance from emotional attachments.

His same-sex curiosity peaked by Bart, Zach nervously checks out a gay cruising spot and lands a guy who’s interested in him. But Zach quickly withdraws when the man he picks up begins to caress Zach’s leg, and it is soon thereafter that Zach ends up in Bart’s living room. After some awkward and contrived dialogue about hidden sexual desires, Zach uncharaceristically and boldy approaches Bart and the two are soon together in bed locked in each other’s arms – and lips.

All the while, unsuspecting wife Claire senses an unidentified wrong with her marriage. Communication with Zach is all but muted and sex between them is nonexistent. Claire forces Zach’s hand over dinner one night in the film’s climactic scene when husband comes clean to wife – and the film quickly advances to its final frame.

Despite Claire’s effort to save her marriage, the union is deemed irretrievable by Zach. By then, he has resigned himself to not having the kind of relationship he wants with Bart and that staying married to Claire would deny her a martial sex life and probably what she wants most – a child.

Their marriage over, Zach and Claire are reunited years later at the funeral of their one-time neighbor Winnie. Zach has gone on to a long-term relationship with another man and a staff position as an oncologist at the prestigious Mayo Clinic. Claire has landed her own success: a seemingly solid marriage to a faithful and heterosexual husband, the white picket fence of a sprawling house and the one thing she wants most: a child.

And Bart? The last we see of him is his silhouhette against the darkness of a seedy alley in a gay cruising district and presumably to Bart’s to his next one-night conquest.

While “Making Love” fails to provide social and political commentary on being gay at the onset of the 1980s, it also does not treat its subject matter offensively by presenting gay men as either effeminate queens or sexual predators. Its focus, despite diaglogue that is sometimes contrived and superficial, is limited to one man’s awakening to a basic truth within him and its impact on his marriage and very life.

Despite any conservative political and social dynamics that might have undermined it, “Making Love” seems not to been career breakers for its three lead actors.

Ms. Jackson came to the film with an already established actress, first with a cult following from her role as the often seen but never heard ghostly apparition Daphne, Quentin Collin’s unrequited and lost love interest in ABC-TV’s gothic daytime soap “Dark Shadows” and, shortly therafter, as the wife of a cop in ABC’s primetime series “The Rookies.” But her role as the “smart” one of “Charlie’s Angels” solidfied Ms. Jackson’s acting personna and celebrity status and within a year of “Making Love,” she landed her third hit TV series, CBS’ “Scarecrow and Mrs. King.”

Ontkean also brought to “Making Love” some name recognition from his role as a rookie cop, coincidentally, on “The Rookies.” Ontkean emerged later in the decade in a starring role on ABC’s critically acclaimed but surreal “Twin Peaks” and from there went on to star in a number of television miniseries.

Hamlin would find probably his most recognized alter ego in the late 80’s to mid 90s as irrasicble and over-sexed attorney Michael Kuzak on NBC’s “LA Law.” But Hamlin, in a 2014 interview, reflected that playing a gay character probably put a “ruffle” in his film career even though he had no regrets. On the face of it, Hamlin may be right. “Making Love” was only his second – and last – starring feature film.

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