AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This week, with the gay marriage arguments at the Supreme Court, there's been a lot of talk about the evolution of public opinion on the matter and about the changing representations of gays on TV and in the movies. Well, our film critic, Bob Mondello has been observing a long parallel evolution that's occurred in what he calls a Hollywood mini genre, films in which gay characters go to court for issues involving sexual orientation.
BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: What is arguably the most famous question ever asked in a courtroom about a line of poetry...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What is the love that dare not speak its name?
MONDELLO: ...was originally put by a British prosecutor to playwright Oscar Wilde in 1894. It was an attempt to trap Wilde into admitting to then-illegal homosexual conduct. His impromptu answer, while eloquent, reinforced his guilt in the eyes of the court. Here's actor Peter Finch delivering it as Wilde in a speech taken verbatim from the court transcripts in 1960's "The Trials Of Oscar Wilde."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE")
MONDELLO: Note how Finch is rattling off this speech, briskly businesslike, for a buttoned-down, post-war era. Three decades and many Oscar Wilde films later, here's what actor Stephen Fry did with part of that same speech in the movie "Wilde."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WILDE")
MONDELLO: Tremulous, lingering, almost sensually over phrases, this version is spoken in the full expectation that 1990s audiences will empathize with Wilde. Hollywood's long-term obsession with another real-life case required different strategies. Teen thrill-killers, Leopold and Loeb, inspired both the trial of the century and multiple movies. But early ones had to be heavily fictionalized.
Alfred Hitchcock made up a whole new case in "Rope," which subtexted gay themes in 1948. A decade later, the movie "Compulsion" allowed defense attorney Orson Welles to hint a bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "COMPULSION")
MONDELLO: But he talked about the trial's sensationalism stemming from his client's wealth, not their sexual orientation. Three decades later, the film "Swoon" showed no such reserve, and focused almost entirely on the killers' sexuality.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SWOON")
MONDELLO: For quite awhile, most real-life court cases did not turn out well for lesbian and gay defendants, which restricted what filmmakers could do. And if fiction offered them a little more latitude, it still had to appear plausible. In Lillian Hellman's midcentury drama "The Children's Hour," for instance, schoolteachers Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn were falsely accused of being lovers, but could find enough support to prove their innocence in court.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE CHILDREN'S HOUR")
MONDELLO: But even had a court heard their case fully, things likely wouldn't have gone well for them for reasons movie characters spent decades beating around the bush about before attorney Denzel Washington laid them out clearly in the AIDS-trial drama "Philadelphia."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PHILADELPHIA")
MONDELLO: Washington is playing a deeply homophobic man whose opinions evolve on gay issues during the course of the film, evolved way past where many audience members were at that point. "Philadelphia" was released in 1993, four years before Ellen DeGeneres came out on TV, five years before the first episode of "Will & Grace," 12 years before "Brokeback Mountain."
The judge's response in "Philadelphia" was almost startling to audiences in a time when homosexual activity was still outlawed in many states.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PHILADELPHIA")
MONDELLO: Today, in a limited but evolving sense, we do, at least judging from this week's cases before the Supreme Court. And the movie "Philadelphia," the product of an industry that, for business reasons, worries, much as the court does, about getting out in front of public opinion is starting to seem just as much a period piece as any film about Oscar Wilde. I'm Bob Mondello.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.