Hollywood embraces Dustin Lance Black’s Prop. 8 drama

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Celebrity and social justice joined hands Saturday night at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre for a star-studded benefit reading of “8,” Dustin Lance Black’s documentary play on the Federal District Court trial to overturn Proposition 8, the controversial ballot initiative that took away the right of same-sex couples in California to marry.

While this straightforward drama assembled from court testimony and interviews may not be one for the ages, the sheer wattage of Hollywood luminaries that turned out to support the evening made for a powerful and indeed often moving spectacle.


The glittery event, presented by the American Foundation for Equal Rights and Broadway Impact, featured A-listers Brad Pitt as Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker and George Clooney as David Boies, the attorney representing, with Theodore B. Olson (a fiery Martin Sheen), the two couples who brought the suit to overturn the ban.

No one would ever mistake Pitt and Clooney for their real-life characters (Hollywood glamour like theirs doesn’t come with a law degree). But it’s a sign of the changing times that leading men of the first rank no longer feel any hesitation about lending their names to an issue that is now at the forefront of the fight for gay and lesbian equality. Can you imagine agents and managers of yore allowing the pride of their stables not just to stand up for same-sex marriage but to frolic onstage (a stage, for crying out loud!) with cast members from “Glee”? Of course this isn’t just about gays and lesbians. When Henrik Ibsen was honored by a women’s group for defending their rights in “A Doll’s House,” he thanked the group but reminded them that for him it was always a matter of human rights. That the fight for marriage equality is beginning to be seen as a human rights concern is another indication of the enormous progress that has already been made.

Marriage equality is a natural subject for dramatization, uniting as it does the universal sentiment of love with the moralizing plea for justice for all. And the gay community has historically looked to the theater as a public forum for its struggles. From the Stonewall era that fired up the liberation movement to the dark days of the AIDS epidemic and on to the quest for a deeper assimilation today, the stage has been a safe zone, offering recognition, empathy and an affirmation of fabulousness.

No wonder the packed house at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre had about it the feeling of a homecoming. An unusually high-powered homecoming, let it be said, where an exceptionally well-groomed crowd (forgive the stereotype, but it’s true) took their seats alongside big-name celebrities (Barbra Streisand had my area — OK, me — agog) and lawsuit participants to watch Kevin Bacon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christine Lahti, John C. Reilly, Jane Lynch, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Matthew Morrison, among other notables, offer a distilled reenactment of the testimony that defendants of Proposition 8 have studiously fought to keep from public view.

Under the direction of Rob Reiner, the reading was a brisk 90-minute survey of the Perry vs. Schwarzenegger case and its human fallout. The actors, lugging around oddly cumbersome scripts, were divided in their approach. Pitt, a late addition to the cast (and an incredible boon to the event’s publicity), basically offered a neutral rendering of the judge’s remarks. Lahti, who took part in a reading of “8” in New York, infused her words with suitable emotional color. And Clooney, whose sharp stage presence should have Broadway producers drawing up wish lists of plays for him, was his smooth, charismatic self.

Black, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for “Milk,” tries his best to give a balanced account of the proceedings, but he has to be faithful to the record. And the side that lost, lost for a reason.
Bacon played Charles Cooper, lead attorney for the Proposition 8 defense team, not as a caricature but as a man who fervently believes that same-sex marriage is an assault on tradition. But the arguments that his character musters are so weak and the evidence so paltry that it often doesn’t seem a fair contest. If this were a fictional rather than fact-based drama, the advice would be to beef up the pathetic defense.


Lynch enlivened things with her usual wicked wit as Maggie Gallagher, a rabid opponent of same-sex marriage with a bullying style to rival a certain track-suit-wearing toughie on “Glee.” And Reilly humorously re-created the artless dodging of David Blankenhorn, one of the “experts” called by the defense whose contradictory testimony would be hard to credit were it not all taken from court documents. So at least the Proposition 8 crew provided some theatrical, if not intellectual, muscle.

The most moving moments for me were Chris Colfer’s portrayal of Ryan Kendall, a young man who underwent gay “reparative therapy” to satisfy his intolerant family, Lahti’s turn as Kris Perry, a plaintiff who imagines a future where same-sex marriage is no longer an unthinkable possibility, and Sheen’s impassioned delivery of Olson’s closing arguments in a case in which, as we’re told, fear and bigotry were placed on trial, where they withered under scrutiny.

At least for now. The federal district court’s ruling that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional was upheld in February by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the final chapter has yet to be written. The suspense of the offstage drama is only building. But after the stars aligned on Saturday, the arc of the moral universe seems glamorously bent toward justice.


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-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty