When Anne Heche went public with her relationship with Ellen DeGeneres in 1997, she almost lost the leading-lady role she had just landed opposite Harrison Ford in the romantic comedy Six Days, Seven Nights. “To be honest, we did talk about [Anne’s relationship with Ellen]”, Six Days producer Roger Birnbaum admitted to The Advocate in 1998. “But we talked about it for a second and then said, `Who cares?'”
But the film’s director, Ivan Reitman, had more mixed feelings, telling USA Today, “I think it will do the movie some harm, and that makes me nervous.”
More significantly, Heche stopped receiving film roles after coming out.
“I was naïve, hugely naïve,” Heche told The New York Times in May of 1998, shortly before the theatrical release of Six Days. “I fell in love, and I actually didn’t believe people would care. And then everything came crashing down. In an instant. I was told I was not going to have a job anymore. The Hollywood community and friends and family backed away…Nobody was hiring me. And then the word came that everybody was going to wait and see how I did in Six Days, Seven Nights.”
Almost every article about the movie before its release posed the same question US Magazine did in a February 1998 issue: “Will audiences accept an actress in a lip lock with a man onscreen if they’ve seen her in a lip lock with a woman offscreen?”
The answer was a resounding “maybe”. Although mostly dismissed by critics, Six Days, Seven Nights grossed $70 million at the box office ($165 million worldwide)—a respectable amount, but not enough to convince Hollywood that casting out actresses in leading heterosexual romantic roles was worth the risk.
Nine years have passed since then, and some things have changed. Heche married a male cameraman after she and DeGeneres parted, and has continued to work steadily. Lesbian and gay films have become more profitable, moving from straight-to-video films to, at least occasionally, major award-winning blockbusters.
From the recent successes of Transamerica, Brokeback Mountain, and Monster to the more modestly successful releases of lesbian romantic comedies Saving Face and Imagine Me & You, movies featuring queer characters are becoming more profitable, and GLBT films are beginning to enjoy some measure of mainstream commercial success.
Playing gay, too, is not the career-killer it once was, and actresses are no longer typecast based on their on-screen romances. Many established Hollywood stars, from Charlize Theron and Jennifer Beals to up-and-comers like Mischa Barton and Jordana Brewster, are willing to take on lesbian roles in films and TV.
But some things still haven’t changed, including the fact that in an industry that is increasingly obsessed with image, only women who live very straight lives off-screen can play straight romantic roles on-screen.
Like almost everything else in Hollywood, it all boils down to money. Heterosexual romances have been the moneymaking cornerstone of cinema for more than a century. A leading actress who comes out as a lesbian threatens that–she is asking studio executives to have faith in and take a risk on her ability to make the audience forget about her life off-camera.
This was no easy task 10 years ago, but it’s even more difficult now, with the rise of the Internet and 24-hour celebrity news making the personal lives of celebrities increasingly prominent and difficult to ignore.
Because of this, the final frontier of lesbian acceptance in the movie industry will arguably be conquered not when an out lesbian actress can play a leading lesbian role, but when she can play a leading straight, romantic role in a blockbuster film.