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For a town that usually gets all somber and serious in the fall, Hollywood sure is `gay' this year, as in dealing with gay characters and gay themes. Bob Mondello says there's at least one such movie for every week between now and Christmas.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

When the movie version of Broadway's "The Producers" opens next month, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick will be searching for a way to guarantee that their new musical "Springtime for Hitler" becomes a catastrophic flop. The script they've chosen is terrible, so they're pretty sure they have a loser, but just to be on the safe side, they hire a cross-dressing director and encourage him to keep it bright, keep it sassy, keep it gay.

(Soundbite of "The Producers")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I see a line of beautiful girls dressed as storm troopers, each one a gem. With leather boots and whips on their hips, it's risque, dare I say, S&M.

Backup Singers: Love it!

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I see German soldiers dancing through France, played by chorus boys in very tight pants.

MONDELLO: This is Mel Brooks' take on showbiz, a joke writ very large. But the notion that homosexuality is an audience turn-off is a basic truism in Hollywood, so much so that a film opening today in New York and Los Angeles uses it as a starting point. "The Dying Gaul" is about a gay writer who has turned the story of his lover's death into a haunting screenplay, only to be told by a producer that it will never get made unless he changes the gender of the main character.

(Soundbite of "The Dying Gaul")

Unidentified Man #2: Most Americans--Let's hold all my calls, please, Liz--hate gay people. They hear it's about gay people, they won't go.

Unidentified Man #3: What about "Philadelphia"?

Unidentified Man #2: "Philadelphia's" a movie about a man who hates gay people, and it's been done. To get people into the movie theaters, they have to think it's going to be fun or sensational or some kind of--make them feel fantastic about themselves. No one goes to the movies to have a bad time or to learn anything.

MONDELLO: That's a reasonable articulation of Hollywood sentiment, but this fall is filled with challenges to those assumptions. The film "Capote," for instance, about one of the most flamboyantly gay figures of the 20th century, has opened to critical raves, substantial box office and much Oscar talk about its star, Philip Seymour Hoffman. A former Batman, Val Kilmer, is playing a gay detective in the comic police thriller "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," which has also opened to strong box office in major cities.

In coming weeks, the director of "The Crying Game" will release "Breakfast on Pluto," which again places a gay transvestite at the center of the Irish troubles. "Transamerica" finds Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman playing a character seeking surgery to become a woman, a plan complicated by the fact that years earlier she fathered a son who is now a gay hustler. There are also major lesbian or gay characters in the World War II drama "Mrs. Henderson Presents," the family comedy "The Family Stone" and the musical "Rent," and all of this is mere prologue to a film with so much buzz since it won best picture at the Venice Film Festival that some observers think it could be the first film since "Philadelphia" to break out of the celluloid closet and become a mainstream hit: the contemporary Western "Brokeback Mountain."

(Soundbite of "Brokeback Mountain")

Unidentified Man #4: Well, since we're going to be working together, I reckon it's time we start drinking together.

MONDELLO: "Brokeback Mountain" boasts a celebrated director, Ang Lee, and a pair of bankable Hollywood hunks, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger.

(Soundbite of movie)

Unidentified Man #5: You know it could be like this--just like this always.

Unidentified Man #6: This thing grabs hold of us in the wrong place, and we're dead.

MONDELLO: It also has a screenplay crafted by not one but two Pulitzer Prize winners, and it's an enormously affecting movie, likely to be on short lists of Oscar contenders for best picture. Will all of that help it break through to mainstream audiences? Well, that's anyone's guess, but one thing "Brokeback Mountain" has going for it that "Philadelphia" did not, when it earned more than $200 million at the box office 12 years ago, is all the other films around it. Hollywood's treatment of gay and lesbian characters has been following a pattern as old as entertainment itself. Minority figures are almost always marginalized at first, stereotyped as threatening and alien. Then once audiences get more familiar with a minority, these stereotypes become comic and then, as a corrective to those earlier indignities, a minority's characters are allowed to suffer nobly and to argue for their own humanity.

Examples of all these approaches to gay characters will be in multiplexes this fall, and not just in pictures aimed at gay audiences. The makers of the animated film "Chicken Little," for instance, are certainly not dealing with sexual topics or sexualized characters. But they do have to deal with the stereotypes that are floating around. So to feminize their tomboyish, home-run-hitting baseball player, Foxy Loxy, in the final reel, they put her in a frilly dress and treat her as girlfriend material for a boy pig who has previously been established as a disco-loving Barbra Streisand fan. Presumably parents will get the subtext even as it sails over the heads of kids who've grown up with "Will & Grace" as background noise. I'm Bob Mondello.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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