Bruce Cohen ’83 has watched and helped Hollywood come out of the closet, and he returned to Yale Tuesday to tell the story.
Cohen, the Academy Award-winning producer of “American Beauty,” spoke about Hollywood’s coming of age to approximately 75 people at a Berkeley College Master’s Tea. In the early 1980s, when Cohen entered Hollywood, he said homosexuals revealed their sexual orientations to friends and family, but not to colleagues or employers. Now, Cohen said, “once you’re out as a person [in Hollywood], you’re pretty much out at work.”
And who was the catalyst for this transformation? Former President Bill Clinton, Cohen said.
Cohen said he stayed in the closet to employers early in his career because he never had an opportune moment to come out. Gay issues were not part of daily conversation, he said, and so broaching the topic would have seemed out of place.
“[I couldn’t] stand on a table and shout, ‘I’m gay!,'” Cohen said.
He waited several years to come out to his employers at The Kennedy/Marshall Company because he never felt it was the right time.
“I missed the transition between professional relationship and friendship,” said Cohen, who also produced “Mouse Hunt” and “The Flintstones.”
Cohen said some people in Hollywood stayed in the closet for the same reasons he did. Others feared that coming out would limit their employment opportunities. When Cohen interviewed with acclaimed director Steven Spielberg, his friends told him not to identify his sexual orientation. They thought Spielberg would not hire a gay man.
But when Clinton ran for president in 1992, Cohen said, “Hollywood changed overnight.” In what Cohen called an unprecedented step for a presidential candidate, Clinton held a major fundraiser that targeted gays and lesbians.
“Studio heads, brilliant writers, even some actors came,” Cohen said. “It was the first time that everyone was saying to each other, ‘I’m out and I’m here.'”
Once Clinton introduced gay issues into the public discourse, people could come out at work without making random public announcements, Cohen said.
“Clinton changed the nature of gays and lesbians in America forever,” he said.
The next step was to create a face behind gay Hollywood. In 1995, Cohen founded “Out There” with then-DreamWorks executive Nina Jacobson “to help gay and lesbian organizations get support from gay Hollywood.” Members of “Out There” met once a month to launch political initiatives and to discuss the status of civil rights for gays and lesbians.
Cohen said “Out There” eventually petered out because the organization outlived its usefulness.
“Now [people] know where to find gays and lesbians in Hollywood,” he said.
Attitudes toward gays and lesbians in Hollywood have also changed. Cohen said Spielberg recently informed him that he had decided to hire only gay men.
“Gay men think out of both the left and right sides of their brain” was Spielberg’s explanation, Cohen said.
Now that film crews have come out, Cohen said actors and actresses occupy the frontier of gay Hollywood.
Cohen predicted that two major questions will be addressed in the near future: If a famous movie star were revealed to be gay, would that hurt his chances at the box office? And would Americans object if an openly gay actor played a straight character on screen?
Cohen said he thinks the answer to both questions is, ultimately, no.
But, he admitted, there has been “a long line of [gay] actors who have led double lives [for fear that] coming out would hurt there careers.”
This trend will be reversed, he said, but not by a community effort.
“It’s going to be an individual,” he said. “One brave pioneer.”