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The same old insensitivity makes Hollywood a target

The new thriller "Basic Instinct" is under attack from a gay coalition because all of the women in it are possibly lesbian thrill-killers. Enough is enough, the coalition says. Hollywood has been casting homosexuals in bizarre and depraved roles for so long now that maybe it's time to add a little balance to the picture.

If this protest is seen only as an issue involving freedom of speech, there's an obvious response: Hollywood has a right to make the movies it wants, and any group has the right to protest them. That was the tidy conclusion arrived at the other day in a serene editorial in The New York Times. I agree.

But, come on. The free-speech issue can be taken for granted. The people protesting this film have a different point. They're not trying to prevent Hollywood from making movies. They're asking that the most powerful image-building machinery in the world stop grinding out killer dykes and twisted homo sex fiends as if sexual orientation had anything to do with criminal behavior.

I don't have the statistics to prove it, but my guess is that gay people, as a group, are less prone to violence than the general run of the population. You wouldn't gather that, however, from most of the movies that are made. Hollywood loves to add a touch of spice to its thrillers by adding a gay touch or two, and in "Basic Instinct," the hero policeman finds himself drawn into a lurid world in which every single woman he meets is a lesbian, a multiple killer, or both. Some of them also enjoy kinky sex with cops, needless to say.

The screenplay, by Joe Eszterhas, uses the lesbian angle only for sensationalism. It is not necessary to the movie for any of the women to be homosexual; they could easily be your ordinary straight murderesses. The plot, revolving around the policeman's discovery that he is powerfully attracted to the weird sadomasochistic thrill-seeking of the heroine, is, despite the $3 million price paid for it, not especially original. William Friedkin made a movie in 1983, named "Cruising," which starred Al Pacino as a cop who was drawn into the male homosexual S&M underworld of New York. This is the flip side.

Searching my memory of recent movies in which homosexuals are portrayed in a non-sensational light, I immediately recall "Longtime Companion," the story of a generation facing AIDS. The women in "Personal Best," "Lianna" and "Desert Hearts" were all presented in a thoughtful way. They are the exceptions. Most Hollywood movies present lesbians in a way designed to titillate straight male fantasies. Male homosexuals, on the other hand, are almost never in an overtly sexual light; they're usually villains or objects of ridicule. If a racial or ethnic group were so consistently singled out for sensationalistic exploitation, there would be an immediate outcry--not least from such proud liberals as Michael Douglas, the star of "Basic Instinct." If they were routinely depicted as deranged homicidal perverts, and if their sexuality was of interest only to the degree that it titillated the voyeurism of the mainstream, we would all be able to see the unfairness. Why are we so slow to get the message about how gays feel?

Movies like "Basic Instinct" are defended on the high ground of free speech, but that's not where the true issue resides. Nobody is trying to prevent such movies from being made. The question is, will Hollywood ever make major productions involving gays or lesbians who are portrayed in a more balanced light? We've had cop buddy movies in which the mismatched partners are white and black, Anglo and Latino, young and old, male and female, neat and sloppy, smart and dumb, human and alien, human and robot, and human and canine. How about one where they're straight and gay?

And what about the major stars who defend their right to be in top-grossing box office winners that use sexual sensationalism as a selling-point? Douglas says he sees nothing offensive about "Basic Instinct." In that case, is he prepared to take one of the gay roles the next time around?

Use a little empathy. It's human nature to take pride in our self-identity. Hell, every time I see the Chicago skyline in a movie, I'm glad other moviegoers will see what a good-looking city I live in. That's me the Chicagoan. When I see newspaper movies, I'm glad other viewers can see what a romantic and noble profession I follow. That's me the journalist. If I were Latino, I would take pride in "Stand and Deliver." If I were black, I would cheer "Glory." If I were British, "Chariots of Fire" would touch me deeply, and if I were a Viet combat veteran I would be glad someone told my story in "Platoon." But if I were gay, what movies could I see that would not mock and degrade my identity?

That's all it's really about.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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