With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.

In a roundabout way, we have Tom Hanks to thank for one of our very few mainstream gay rom-coms. While accepting the Best Actor Oscar for his role as a gay AIDS patient in Philadelphia, Hanks thanked a former classmate and his high school drama teacher before noting, “I mention their names because they are two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with, to fall under their inspiration at such a young age.” Producer Scott Rudin got a spark of comedic inspiration while watching the speech; he imagined an alternate world where the teacher being thanked wouldn’t be out to his community—or even to himself. Rudin hired playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick to flesh out the story, and it was Rudnick who decided to anchor the whole thing around a wedding. When straight director Frank Oz came aboard, Rudin and Rudnick—who are both openly gay—gifted him with a “starter gay-man kit,” which included rainbow paraphernalia, a VHS copy of Beaches, and a cast recording of Gypsy. Thus In & Out was born.

The film made a respectable $64 million, making it the 25th highest grossing movie of 1997 and the seventh highest grossing LGBT-themed movie off all time, according to Box Office Mojo (sixth if you don’t consider Interview With A Vampire to be an overtly gay movie). You’d think, then, that it would’ve kicked off a wave of LGBT romances eager to recapture its success, the way Love Actually’s success inspired a subsequent flood of big ensemble rom-coms. Unfortunately, rather than permanently bringing rom-coms out of the closet, 1997’s In & Out was more of a blip than a catalyst. Taken in its own right, it’s a charming if fairly dated Kevin Kline vehicle. Taken within the larger rom-com landscape, however, it’s a discouraging reminder of how slow Hollywood can be when it comes to embracing diverse stories—even when there’s every financial incentive to do so.

At the height of his comedy career, Kline was cast as Howard Brackett, the beloved English teacher who serves as a pillar of his quaint Midwestern town of Greenleaf, Indiana. He’s just days away from marrying his long-time fiancé, Emily (Joan Cusack), when former student Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon) wins an Oscar for playing a gay soldier and decides to thank his English teacher for inspiring him. “And he’s gay,” Cameron dramatically notes after his tribute. Of all of In & Out’s comedic through-lines, its send-up of the self-congratulatory nature of Hollywood is its best. “Mr. Brackett, we won!” Cameron enthuses at the end of his speech. (Another delightful detail: Cameron is nominated against Paul Newman for Coot, Clint Eastwood for Codger, Michael Douglas for Primary Urges, and Steven Seagal for Snowball In Hell.)

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In & Out is well aware of Hollywood’s limitations when it comes to depicting gay characters. A montage of Cameron’s film To Serve And Protect broadly satirizes Oscar-bait message movies, right down to the way its central gay couple celebrates their love with a polite shoulder grab rather than a kiss. In & Out doesn’t make that same mistake. It features what was, at the time of its release, a much discussed 12-second kiss between Kline and Tom Selleck, who plays a gay Hollywood reporter who swoops into Greenleaf to get the scoop on Howard and then sticks around to gently help him out of the closet. But that smooch also speaks to the limitations of how far In & Out wants to push its progressiveness. The kiss is played as a comedic moment, rather than a romantic one. And as many critics noted—both at the time the film was released and in the years since—In & Out’s depiction of sexual orientation is entirely devoid of actual sexuality. The idea that Howard is attracted to men is never even really part of the equation. His gayness is defined solely by his penchant for dressing neatly, his love of Barbra Streisand, and his general lack of stereotypical machismo.

The film certainly wasn’t alone in that approach. After the early 1990s birthed New Queer Cinema—film scholar B. Ruby Rich’s name for the queer-themed independent filmmaking of the era—the latter half of the decade saw Hollywood capitalize on the growing acceptance of the LGBT community in more sanitized ways. Ellen DeGeneres came out—both in real life and on her sitcom Ellen—in 1997, just a few months before the release of In & Out. Meanwhile, movies like 1995’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar and 1996’s The Birdcage presented sympathetic gay protagonists in situations where romance wasn’t their primary focus. Will & Grace premiered a year after In & Out and set the template for funny but largely desexualized gay representation. Charitably, you can view all of these things as stepping-stones to bigger, better LBGT representation. But it also feels like Hollywood got stuck on that stepping stone for an awfully long time, particularly with big-screen comedies.

In fact, what’s most remarkable about rewatching In & Out is just how similar it feels to 2018’s Love, Simon, which is pretty much the first mainstream gay romantic comedy to be released since. (Thankfully, the indie world has offered a wider array of LGBT rom-coms, so there’s still plenty left for this column to cover.) To its credit, the teen-centric Love, Simon is more open about acknowledging the fact that its protagonist is sexually attracted to men and much more overtly romantic. By the end of In & Out, it’s not even entirely clear if Howard and Selleck’s Peter Malloy are actually dating. But like In & Out, Love, Simon features a gay romance that plays third fiddle to a coming-out story and a male/female relationship dynamic.

Though In & Out is on every level designed to offend as few people as possible, there are a few subtle ways in which it does push the envelope. For one thing, making Howard a teacher feels like a very pointed choice for such an otherwise innocuous movie. In & Out is generally pretty untethered from reality (Greenleaf sometimes feels like Pleasantville), but it strikes closest to home in a scene where Bob Newhart’s bigoted high school principal explains, “I mean, it’s all right to be this way or that way at home in your private arena, but Mr. Brackett is a teacher.” Even in 2018, many gay teachers are instructed not to come out to their students and there are still 28 states where it’s legal to suspend or fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Admittedly, In & Out spends far too much time with its fairly annoying teen characters and doesn’t refute their “comedic” homophobic misconceptions nearly as strongly as it should. And a Spartacus-inspired climax in which Howard’s students save his job by declaring that they’re also all gay adds a weird “I don’t see color” undercurrent to the whole thing. Still, In & Out’s heart is clearly in the right place, especially in its impassioned defense of gay teachers.

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As a comedy, In & Out is a firmly middle-of-the-road entry in Frank Oz’s non-Muppets directorial output. It’s not quite as strong as Little Shop Of Horrors or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, but better than The Stepford Wives and Death At A Funeral. The film is broad with its humor and shallow with its storytelling, but mostly gets away with it because it breezes by in a quick 92 minutes. A lot of the credit for how well it hangs together goes to Kline, who embraces the movie’s over-the-top campiness but still imbues Howard with real dignity and compassion, particularly when he’s interacting with his students. A big set piece in which Howard tries to butch it up but just can’t stop himself from dancing to “I Will Survive” could have been horribly embarrassing if Kline’s musical theater background and sheer physical exuberance didn’t totally sell the it. (I would gladly watch a film that’s just two hours of Kline dancing, which is a reminder that it’s probably time to rewatch The Pirates Of Penzance.) But Kline also plays several key dramatic scenes with lovely restraint, especially once Howard actually does come out late in the film.

The rest of the cast is uniformly great as well. Cusack was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her hilarious turn as Howard’s increasingly frazzled fiancé. Matt Dillon offers a funny riff on an earnest but dumb Brad Pitt-type, and Debbie Reynolds is hilarious as Howard’s wedding-obsessed mother. In & Out definitely takes a “more is more” approach to its comedy. It’s a film that inserts actual jokes into its parody of a self-serious Oscar movie, which doesn’t really make much sense. But its wide array of comedic tones at least means there’s something for everyone. I tend to prefer the film when it’s a bit more deadpan, like when Howard’s lunkheaded brother watches a montage of Cameron’s gay soldier movie and sympathetically notes, “They’re kicking him out. That’s not fair. I mean, he killed people.” Since In & Out is largely plotless, it has time for scenes like the one in which a bunch of incredible character actresses confess their deepest secrets—culminating in future Academy Award nominee June Squibb blurting out that her husband has three testicles.

As with a lot of mainstream gay comedies from the 1990s, there’s been a lot of subsequent debate about In & Out’s overall social impact. In a 2017 retrospective for Vanity Fair, Rudnick explained, “I was especially eager to do a coming-out story that was in no way tragic. I thought even while there are stories about people facing terrible rejections from their families and communities—and those are entirely valid—I wanted to try something that was more along the lines of using coming out as a romantic-comedy device.” Rudnick—whose hit 1993 play Jeffrey offered a much more overt exploration of the gay community—set out to write a film about acceptance that encourages the audience “to laugh with gay characters instead of at them.” In his 2014 reassessment of the film, however, Decider’s Tyler Coates offered a more mixed opinion. On the positive side, Coates writes, “[It’s] a delight to see what is, for the most part, a basic truth about coming out: The only person who really ever worries about it is the person who has to be doing the coming out. Once it’s all over, and once one can be honest with himself and with others, there’s a great absence of anxiety.” Yet Coates also notes that seeing the film at 14 was a hindrance to his own coming out journey because he felt it did present the gay experience as something to laugh at.

So is In & Out asking us to laugh with or at Howard? It’s a little bit of both. And that’s part of the problem of limited representation. If Howard were just one of a whole sea of LGBT rom-com protagonists, it would probably matter less that he’s such a broad character and that his personality tends toward the stereotypical. But as one of the few big-screen examples of an entire community, Howard has to carry a lot more weight than an average rom-com lead, and In & Out just isn’t sophisticated enough to stand up to that extra scrutiny. To its credit, I think the film is trying to present a different, somewhat less stereotypical version of a gay man in Selleck’s Peter. But Peter is too underdeveloped to really register as a character at all.

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Yet for a movie that so thoroughly defines Howard’s sexual orientation via his taste in pop culture, In & Out also makes the paradoxical argument that no one’s sexual orientation should be defined by their taste in pop culture. It may be a subtle and only semi-intended, but In & Out’s strongest thesis is that it’s silly to label pop culture as “masculine or feminine,” “gay or straight.” When Howard’s more macho friends throw him a Barbra Streisand-themed bachelor party, they aren’t embarrassed to do so or even embarrassed to admit that Howard has made them all big Streisand fans too, which is how a lesser movie might play that gag. The scene’s only point of contention is a fight over whether or not Streisand was too old to play Yentl. Howard’s “how to be a man” self-help tapes argue that truly manly men don’t dance, but the movie ends with the film’s whole cast joyfully dancing to “Macho Man.” At its best, In & Out argues that you should simply love what (or who) you love without worrying about limiting societal norms. For a movie that’s otherwise pretty dated, that’s not too bad of a takeaway.

Next time: Pretty In Pink and John Hughes’ era-defining teen rom-coms.