The secret lesbian history of “Now and Then”

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Twenty years ago, I was among the legions of pre-teens who immediately fell in love with Now and Then upon first watch. Since then, I’ve probably watched it upwards of 30 times, and I know I’m not alone. The 1995 film followed four female friends who turned into successful grown women and reunite (in a tree house, no less) to reminisce about one special summer. With an all-star cast including Christina Ricci, Gaby Hoffmann, Thora Birch, Melanie Griffith, Rosie O’Donnell, Rita Wilson and Demi Moore, Now and Then was a huge hit, and kickstarted the career for Marlene King, who went on (as most know) to adapt Pretty Little Liars for the small screen.

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“I was just starting out as a writer, and had taken a lot of classes, and people said write what you know—and I decided to write about the summer when my parents got divorced, which was the summer of my 12th grade year,” Marlene said. “A lot of the movie was really what we were going through back then.”

The girls were somewhat younger in the film (closer to 12 than 17) but they still did a lot of things that Marlene said she and friends would do.

“Right behind that neighborhood was a cemetery, and I had some best friends who were very much like the girls in the movie, and we used to have séances back then,” she said. “And there is a real tombstone [like the ‘Dear Johnny’ one in the film], and it was moved one day and we thought, ‘Oh my God, we brought Johnny back to life.’ We spent that whole summer trying to find out the mystery of how that little boy died. … It was back in the day in those small towns when you went out with your friends and you got on your bikes and you didn’t come home until the streetlights came on.”

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Another autobiographical aspect that Marlene worked into Now and Then, however, was erased. Marlene is an out lesbian, and said “The script was written, and then we shot [the movie] with the intention of Roberta being gay.”  Softball-playing tomboy Roberta (Christina Ricci) was a rough-and-tumble softball player who bound her breasts and preferred fighting with her brothers to fawning over boys. But in the mid-’90s, a lesbian of any age was too much to handle. Rosie O’Donnell, who wasn’t out at the time, played the adult version of Roberta, an obstetrician.

“When Roberta was Rita Wilson’s character’s gynecologist [during the labor scene], people freaked out,” Marlene said. “They were like, ‘Ew, she’s a lesbian and she’s looking at her vagina!’ And we were like, ‘What? Seriously? Do you really care?’”

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So while New Line Cinema was initially OK with Roberta’s being gay, they changed the film so that audiences wouldn’t find it “so distracting.”

“They were like, ‘We don’t want people to leave the theater with just those crazy thoughts,’ so it was changed,” Marlene said. A line was added to the adult women’s conversation to “clarify Roberta’s sexual preference.” In the film, Chrissy (Rita Wilson) says: “Roberta, for example, has chosen to be alternative. She lives in sin with her boyfriend, but she is still normal.” Apparently it was less distracting that Roberta have an invisible live-in boyfriend than any kind of relationship with a woman.

“It wasn’t my decision by any way, shape, or form,” Marlene said. “I know Rosie was really upset when they changed it at the last minute, and we all were.” But she said that if she made the film in 2015, she feels confident that Roberta “would totally be the lesbian doctor. Yes, that is definitely something that would be changed if you made the movie today. I’m sure that would be much more open, and much more of an interesting layer to her character. And this just shows you how backwards it was, and how much times have changed.”

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“The character is based on somebody who did grow up to be a lesbian,” Christina Ricci told The Advocate in 2010, “But I was just told to play the shame any teenage girl has when discovering that she’s becoming a sexual being.”

To young gay girls like myself, that shame could be read with the original intent—that Roberta was not interested in boys. That and her close friendships with Samantha, Chrissy and Teeny were such a pivotal part of my adolescence. It was the first film I remember watching and seeing the intimacy of female friendships not only explored, but taken seriously. And while that is something straight women can also appreciate, there was a certain queerness to Roberta (and Samantha too, in my opinion), that persisted despite her sharing a kiss with Devon Sawa or their attempt to de-gay her in post-production.

If Roberta had, in fact, been portrayed as a lesbian, I can only imagine how much good it would have done. At the time, lesbian films were few and far between, and they were certainly not available to 11-year-olds, like myself. (In 1995, the films released with queer female content include Boys on the SideThe Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love and Showgirls.) Any television shows with lesbian or bi characters had them on for very special episodes, Roseanne being the only exception. To have a film aimed at women of all ages showing a tough tomboy who turns into a successful, happy lesbian doctor with great friends who accept her for who she is would have been immeasurably beneficial. The same thing that would have “distracted” some audiences would have given hope to others that were part of an underserved minority.

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Today, with television shows like Pretty Little Liars, Faking It and others set in the halls of high schools being so inclusive of LGBT characters, it’s easy to forget there was a time we were completely ignored. Mainstream film has yet to truly catch up, though, and it is extremely rare that a multiplex movie will include a Roberta type character who is as interested in women as her bravado and wardrobe might suggest. In that way, New Line Cinema was only partly successful in their attempt to hide who Roberta was meant to be. We’ve had to look for subtext so long, it’s basically in our blood. Roberta was one of us, no matter what invisible boyfriend she’s sinning with.

Sadly, the TV series based on Now and Then does not seem to be in the works any more, as Marlene said she didn’t like how ABC Family wanted to alter the concept.

“They wanted to change it so the ‘now’ was present day and the ‘then’ would be the ‘90s. I didn’t want to do that—I felt that kind of ruins how special the movie is,” Marlene said. “The movie still is so special to so many people, I didn’t want to take a chance on changing the time period. To me, there will never be a 1970s again, so to try to set it in the ‘90s when we had cell phones and things like that, I don’t think it would work.”

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But if it the show had worked out, Marlene told us Roberta would definitely be who she was meant to in the film.

“When I first talked about the show with Warner Bros., immediately, I said ‘in script, this was a gay character and I want her to be a gay character on the TV show,’” Marlene said. “And they said ‘Absolutely.’”

It took 20 years, but it’s progress.

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