The Universal Studios lot, 390 acres of prime real estate just across the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood, impresses a visitor with its sheer size—a physical reminder of the financial clout and starmaking capacity of the studio, one of a handful of major movie companies that were known in gentler days as “dream factories.” Today, with its security checkpoints and unmarked hangarlike buildings, the lot evokes something more akin to a munitions factory, the place where an entertainment superpower assembles the moving-picture weaponry for its global media campaign. But way at the back of the lot sits a more inviting structure, a Tuscan-style office building surrounded by gardens and gracefully arching oak trees. This is hallowed ground: home to Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, where, on the second floor, producer Nina Jacobson has a large office suite appointed with a fireplace, contemporary artwork and a private conference room.
Jacobson struck a production deal with DreamWorks, the studio cofounded by Spielberg, after she was fired from her last job, as president of Disney’s Motion Pictures Group, in July 2006. Given the slate of blockbusters Jacobson had overseen at Disney, including the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and The Sixth Sense, her dismissal, less than a year after she’d renewed a lucrative contract, was unexpected, to say the least.
“Hollywood is agog,” wrote LA Weekly columnist Nikki Finke, whose Deadline Hollywood Daily blog is an industry staple. Jacobson, who is well liked in the business, was left jobless by a corporate restructuring under new Disney chief Robert Iger, and she won widespread sympathy for her unusually forthright handling of the situation.
“There simply isn’t room for everyone in the new structure,” Jacobson said in a press release at the time, eschewing the usual smoke-screen platitudes. In a particularly cruel twist, Jacobson had learned of her demise by phone while her partner was in labor with their third child.
A year after that happy moment was marred by the bitter news, the 42-year old Jacobson, who is openly gay, sits down in her new digs to discuss the state of lesbians in the entertainment industry. Naturally, her firing comes up as well, but what is most interesting perhaps is that the way Jacobson talks about the one could equally apply to the other.
“Honesty is a sign of confidence,” she says of her handling of her dismissal. “My metaphor is that you never see a really powerful man with a toupee, because if he had a toupee, he would be covering up the truth about himself. You would know that he wasn’t proud of who he was. You should never let anybody have anything on you. ‘Tell it like it is’ has always been my calling card.”
Today Jacobson is just one of many lesbians working in Hollywood who, intentionally or not, are on the vanguard for letting their private identities emerge in their public and professional lives. Often they are working mothers or in long-term relationships, and most are completely out to their colleagues. Indeed, a constant refrain heard during interviews for this story is that being lesbian is almost inconsequential for women working in the tolerant atmosphere of Hollywood’s creative community.
“Having a high-pressure job is hard,” says Fox 2000 executive vice president of production Carla Hacken, who brought Walk the Line and The Devil Wears Prada through the production process while raising a son, Beau, with her long-term partner, who is now pregnant with the couple’s second son. “It is hard to stay in a long-term relationship. Being a parent? Hard. Being a lesbian? Easy. In this day and age, that’s the easiest part of it.”
This striking new openness is just one aspect of a wider climate shift in American culture. On daytime television, Ellen DeGeneres is reaching a mass audience on a scale unprecedented for openly gay entertainers. And Melissa Etheridge used her Oscar acceptance speech to say thank you to “my incredible wife,” Tammy Lynn Michaels—a casual comment that ruffled few feathers but would have been unthinkably radical a few years ago. Back then, one must recall, DeGeneres’s career went into a nosedive after she declared her lesbianism on her sitcom Ellen and pursued a very public relationship with Anne Heche.
“Culture evolves over time, and there are moments when the changes manifest or rev up,” says gay mother of two Ilene Chaiken, 50, creator of the soapy lesbian series The L Word, which has grown from a fringe phenomenon to a cult hit during its three-year run on Showtime. “Gay women are having one such moment.”
Among the executive ranks of Hollywood’s power lesbians are women who began their careers in the Nineties and are now mainly in their 40s, and who possess the industry wherewithal to schedule network lineups and greenlight major motion pictures. It’s not axiomatic that lesbian executives create gay-theme content, so their influence is not always self-evident. However, it is safe to say that they are shaping the contemporary popular culture in ways that most Nielsen viewers or cineplex regulars haven’t dared to imagine.
Call them the Rubyfruit Mafia. (Rita Mae Brown’s pioneering 1973 novel, Rubyfruit Jungle, was once considered outré for its explicit depiction of lesbianism.) Open lesbians—this magazine does not out individuals who choose to keep their sexual orientation private—who hold influential positions in the entertainment industry include HBO’s head of programming, Carolyn Strauss, who has overseen such successes at the network as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Big Love; New York–based indie hitmaker Christine Vachon, cofounder of Killer Films; and the Sundance Institute’s head of external affairs, Cynthia Wornham, whose partner, Hammer Museum director Annie Philbin, was an inspiration for Jennifer Beals’s character on The L Word.
“The ‘secret lesbian Hollywood’ used to be like Sasquatch,” says 35-year-old director Angela Robinson, whose 2005 film D.E.B.S. was a homoerotic spoof on female secret-agent flicks like Charlie’s Angels. “You’d heard of it but had never seen it.”
Lesbian Hollywood was clearly no secret this past spring when Robinson attended a girls-night screening of the final episode of season four of The L Word. (Robinson, who recently became one of the show’s executive producers, teasingly calls the series “Dallas for lesbians.”) Several hundred women—lipstick vixens and voluptuous Latinas with a few butch tomboys thrown in—thronged a club, exuding a sexually charged excitement that, when the show began, exploded into cheers and whistles for actress Katherine Moennig’s character, Shane, a sexpot hairdresser, and guest star Cybill Shepherd. (Shepherd’s line “I first suspected I might be a lesbian when I was a sophomore at Wellesley” got a particularly loud hoot of approval.)
Over the din, Robinson told a favorite story that illustrates how candid lesbians can be since the demise of the “Sasquatch” era. A year or two ago, she recounted, she attended a pitch meeting with an important lesbian producer and a group of male suits from the studio. During the usual icebreaking chitchat, the producer asked Robinson if she planned to have children, and the two got into a discussion about how to find a suitable sperm donor. The more squeamish men in the room blanched visibly but did their best to embrace this contemporary version of a family-values conversation. What else could they do? Outright displays of homophobia are strictly out of bounds these days, and the key player in the room was the producer.
That occurrence is increasingly common these days, as projects championed by this generation of women bolster the industry’s bottom line. The Devil Wears Prada was a certified mainstream hit, raking in more than $380 million worldwide. Although the film does have a sympathetic gay character played by Stanley Tucci, one could hardly argue that its primary aim is to forward a gay agenda on an unsuspecting public. On the contrary, Hacken, 46, holds a very old-fashioned notion of success.
“I work for 20th Century Fox, a division of News Corp.,” says Hacken. “My job is to make commercial movies. And when I say commercial, I mean our movies are supposed to make money.”
Still, it is possible to detect a distinctive new sensibility in even such a mainstream project, one that treats homosexuality as unexceptional in itself and includes realistic gay characters in a larger dramatic context (unlike, say, I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry or Will & Grace). As lesbian executives become more powerful decisionmakers in the industry, their personal experience will inevitably inform the projects they create in subtle ways. Film critic Elvis Mitchell, a friend of HBO’s Strauss, points to two recent hits from HBO, Six Feet Under and Big Love, that bear her unmistakable personal stamp.
“Those are both stories about dysfunctional families,” says Mitchell. “That’s her sensibility, which is part of who she is in gender terms and in terms of her sexuality.”
At the same time, it’s striking that the big corporate-owned media companies are cautiously embracing overtly lesbian TV projects built around gay characters. The L Word’s Chaiken, a meticulous woman whose uniform is jeans and crisply tailored men’s shirts, has actively championed positive portrayals of the lesbian experience. She first hatched the idea for her show about eight years ago, after penning a magazine article about same-sex families. She suspected it was probably too early for a drama about a glamorous lesbian community in West Hollywood, but she nonetheless took the idea to Showtime. The two straight female executives she met told Chaiken that their male higher-ups “would laugh them out of their office,” so the idea went no further. A year later, after Showtime scored a hit with the racy gay series Queer as Folk, Chaiken felt the time was ripe to pitch her lesbian soap opera again.
This time she went up the food chain to meet with development executive Mark Zakarin, and Chaiken talked to him about the characters she had in mind, describing their relationships and some of the “arcane sociology of lesbian life,” like the hotly debated question of whether you have to buy a new dildo when you get a new girlfriend. Zakarin, who is straight and in his 50s, was sufficiently won over to champion the show. The L Word has since gained a passionate following and made its lead actresses—Beals is straight; some other cast members are gay—into lesbian icons. This year Showtime helped spin off a Web site called OurChart.com, which originated as a fictional plot detail—a sort of MySpace for lesbians—in an L Word episode. Today it has 80,000 real online members.
“It speaks to the gay market as a whole,” says Chaiken, “but the absolute revelation is that there is significant lesbian buying power. There’s a corporate awareness among the major media companies of the gay and lesbian market, and a real desire to own those markets. And that’s revolutionary.”
Why, then, have there not been more lesbian characters in the movies, beyond the occasional indie title like this fall’s Itty Bitty Titty Committee? One possible explanation is that the financial risks of filmmaking—networks pay millions for TV shows; studios stake tens of millions on movies—inspire caution, if not an outright reluctance to test the limits of public acceptance. (Boys Don’t Cry, created by Vachon and gay director Kimberly Peirce, is a rare example of an indie that grew beyond its modest origins, launching former nobody Hilary Swank as a star.) There are, perhaps for similar reasons, few examples of gay screen actors, male or female, who have come out. The handful of openly lesbian high-profile actresses include DeGeneres’s partner, Portia de Rossi, who is best known for her roles on Ally McBeal and Arrested Development and is slated for appearances on Nip/Tuck beginning this fall, and veteran Lily Tomlin, who only in 2001 publicly acknowledged the nature of her 30-year relationship with longtime creative collaborator Jane Wagner.
The short chronicle of openly lesbian executives stretches back less than two decades to when the generation of women interviewed for this story began to enter the workforce. Strauss, for instance, began at HBO as a temp in 1986, and then came out about her sexuality after moving to Los Angeles in 1990. And it was in the early Nineties when Jacobson told a Universal colleague that, as she recalls putting it, “I actually am not straight.” At that time she didn’t know of a single other openly lesbian executive in town.
In that same era, Hacken was working as an agent at ICM. She agrees that gay women her age lacked role models, but they would soon discover that they didn’t lack for friends, as they bonded in the nascent lesbian community. Hacken’s peers included Jacobson, Strauss, Chaiken and “tons” of other women who grew up in the industry together. While the busy social scene may have been the inspiration for the glamour-girl gay community portrayed on The L Word, not everyone at the time felt she could be open at the office.
“It was certainly an acceptable choice to be closeted then,” Jacobson explains. “Now, in Hollywood, it would be a little pathetic. You would only look afraid.”
The women interviewed for this story insist that coming out has not hurt their professional relationships. Indeed, Jacobson says that when she first broached the subject with a colleague, he’d already suspected the truth. “I thought I had been in the closet,” Jacobson recalls with a laugh, “but apparently not so successfully.” Nor do the women believe that being gay has hindered their careers. Chaiken suggests that the strong and self-reliant personality valued in the lesbian community—she makes proud reference to a type known as the “TCB dyke, for taking care of business”—is well suited to the aggressive manners for which the business is known.
Even so, Strauss, 44, acknowledges that she still knows a few lesbians in the broader Hollywood community—writers and such—who remain closeted to one degree or another. Of their decision to remain private about their orientation, Strauss is unforgiving: “They’re losers.”
“They say it’s going to hurt their careers,” she scoffs. “They’re crazy. Honestly, these people are afraid of being called a dyke. But who cares what some a–hole says?”
Certainly ugly incidents do occur, as in a story told by Vachon about her most upsetting brush with antigay sentiment in the testosterone-fueled world of talent agencies. Vachon, who produced Larry Clark’s Kids, Todd Solondz’s Happiness and Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, recalls a conference call that she and business partner Pamela Koffler made to a talent agency in Los Angeles. Vachon got into a verbal tussle with one of the agents—“a big agent,” she says—over the details of a deal, and as soon as the call ended, Vachon hung up her phone and picked it up again to dial Koffler. But the agency had failed to disconnect the line, so Vachon heard herself being discussed with vile phrases like “f—ing bitch dyke.”
“It was a real punch in the stomach,” remembers Vachon, 45. “I get called hard-ass or bitch a lot. It kind of goes with the territory. But hearing those remarks that are specifically about homosexuality—that was hard. It wasn’t just men there. There was a woman there too.”
Vachon called the agents on a different line to tell them they hadn’t hung up the phone, an experience she dryly recalls as “interesting.” She says industry insiders who have heard the story repeated over the years have asked her if it was true, and she notes that at the agency itself, the incident is still talked about as “a cautionary tale.”
Hollywood’s lesbian community is certainly looser and less cliquish than the Velvet Mafia, a term used to describe the tight group of powerful gay men in the entertainment industry who in the Nineties were known for their highly visible social activities and professional alliances. Most of the women interviewed in this story say their social lives are more defined by parenting, with new friendships forming through the kiddie playdates and school meetings familiar to any mother or father.
“There is not a lot of flamboyance,” observes Mitchell, who argues that women, straight or gay, who came of age during the ERA movement share a feminist agenda of career success, not sexual liberation. “While there is no monolithic belief, there are some similarities among that generation, in that they want to be known as working professionals first and foremost, and not defined by their sexual being.”
The insight is borne out by elite Hollywood publicist Kelly Bush, founder and CEO of ID public relations. Bush, 41, started her business in 1994 and today works full-time while also raising two daughters with her partner of 11 years. “I am extremely fortunate to work in a community where my sexuality does not prohibit my opportunity,” she states. It’s worth noting, though, that Bush was one of several women in this story who initially declined to participate because they didn’t want to be featured in a sensationalistic out list about Hollywood’s power lesbians.
Bush doesn’t believe that young lesbians need to define themselves by identity politics or limit themselves to a community of like minds. She never did. “I don’t think of myself in terms of straight or gay when I’m out in the world,” she says. “If people ask me, I’m honest, but I’m not political about it. I’m just a publicist. I’m not a gay publicist.”
Hair by Paul Edwards; Makeup by Joanne Fowler.