The World According to John Lithgow
There’s a beautiful moment in Ira Sachs’ indie hit Love Is Strange involving two older men – a New York couple, forced to live apart after one of them loses his job, tearfully embraces. Life-changing? No. But that’s the point: Its simplicity is a revelation.
That distinctly post-gay perspective is what attracted John Lithgow to the role of Uncle Ben, an elderly artist adjusting to life away from his husband, George (Alfred Molina), after financial woes drive them into separate residences.
During a recent chat with Lithgow, the actor discussed being touched by the gay community’s response to Love Is Strange, the underrepresentation of LGBT people in film, and his groundbreaking turn as a trans woman alongside Robin Williams in The World According to Garp.
“Love Is Strange” is resonating with the gay community on a very personal level, especially now that many of these longtime gay and lesbian couples are able to wed. For you, what does it mean to be part of a film that means so much to the gay community?
It’s extremely moving to me. Even if the whole same-sex marriage issue had not become such a major issue of our times, this would still be a very, very moving film just by virtue of the fact that it is a portrait of a 40-year-long relationship. And since it’s a 40-year-long relationship between two gay men, there is such a history there: They’ve been through 40 extraordinary years; they’ve seen the terrible scourge of AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s; between them they’ve lost scours, if not 100s, of friends; they’ve somehow survived, and they have seen the sort of awakenings of freedom – this slow emergence from second-class citizenship through these gay marriage initiatives. The great thing is, it puts a human face on it. You see real people. These are the people who are really directly affected by it, and I just find it terribly moving.
The narrative hones in on these vignettes of their life together, which says a lot about relationships – that, no matter who’s experiencing it, love is love…
… and it’s complicated and it’s messy, but they are the luckiest people in the film because their relationship has survived and they’re inseparable. They’re so essential to each other.
Is there a particular exchange between Ben and George that left an impression on you?
Oh, there are so many of them! I think the finest scene is right toward the end: the scene in Julius bar, followed by their walk through the streets of the West Village. It’s the moment when Ben apologizes to George for being less monogamous and less faithful, and yet reassures him and acknowledges the fact that they are essential to each other. I think that’s a wonderful scene, and I love the fact that that scene itself is shot with humor – there are two moments in that scene where they laugh uncontrollably. The way it swings back and forth between the serious and the silly just seems to define their relationship in so many ways. And, as they salute their old friend Frank – it’s quite clear what happened to Frank – that scene is also acknowledging the loss they feel because of AIDS.
You and Alfred have such a rapport – not just in the film, but in real life. You’ve been friends for years. But besides the obvious answer – that it’s called acting – how do you take that platonic affection for each other to the next level?
It’s impossible to be self-conscious with Alfred. Both of us have done a lot of acting, and so it takes an awful lot to throw us. But it’s very rare that you find an actor that you feel so completely free with, so unself-conscious with, and both of us share a certain quality as actors. We’re both very serious actors who are also very frivolous people. (Laughs) We love to laugh, and yet we take acting very seriously – that gives you a lot of reference points in playing a love relationship. You can’t have a relationship of 40 years without having both a sense of humor and a sense of compassion and forgiveness.
It’s refreshing to see an elderly gay couple portrayed on screen. In Hollywood, there aren’t many stories about older people being told, let alone older gay people.
Yes – they’re not very well served in this very youthful industry.
What’s your take on the representation of LGBT characters in film?
They’re underrepresented, and to the extent that they are represented – I mean, there have been important and fine films on gay themes. Many! Longtime Companion, Milk, Philadelphia and Prick Up Your Ears. But so many of them have been shot through with torment and crisis. Milk is about an assassination, Philadelphia is about death by AIDS, Prick Up Your Ears is about a crime of passion between two gay men. This one is exactly the opposite. It is so prosaic. What’s extraordinary and revolutionary about the film is how ordinary it is. It goes beyond acceptance of a gay lifestyle right on to taking it for granted.
You know, there are different gradations – there is prejudice, and then there’s tolerance, and then there’s acceptance, but the best of all is simply taking something for granted as if there’s nothing unusual about it. That’s what’s revolutionary about this film. That’s exactly how this relationship is viewed, and I think it’s a sign of the times that this is actually happening. I’m not saying the battle is won by any means, but it’s getting harder and harder to be bigoted about homosexuality, and that’s extremely good news.
And the film acknowledges that fact.
Yeah – that heartbreaking moment when Joey (Ben’s teenage great-nephew) uses the word “gay” in such a derogatory way is just heartbreaking, and yet you know that things are changing and changing for the better.
There’s still a battle to be fought, and that’s demonstrated in the film when George loses his job as a longtime Catholic school music teacher because he marries Ben.
And yet, even in that moment you can tell – because of a beautiful little performance by John Cullum as the priest – he doesn’t want to be doing this. He hates to do this. By that very fact you get the sense that this can’t stand 10 years from now. People are not gonna be fired by the Catholic Church for having a gay lifestyle. So, I think it’s a hopeful film.
I do hope that’s the case.
They simply can’t keep doing this. They just can’t. It’s unacceptable.
You received an Equality Award from the Human Rights Campaign and also participated in the star-studded reading of Dustin Lance Black’s 8, but when did gay issues become important to you?
Much, much earlier than that. I’ve grown up in a theater family and I’ve lived my life in the creative arts – half of the people in the creative arts are gay! The arts community is way, way beyond the rest of the society in some degree of acceptance, so I’ve grown up in an atmosphere of acceptance.
Though there were things about the gay community you apparently didn’t know that you learned while shooting Love Is Strange. I understand Cheyenne Jackson schooled you in gay culture.
Yes! Cheyenne was absolutely an essential consultant. (Laughs)
Having played two queer characters who inhabit very different time periods – Uncle Ben in Love Is Strange and, in 1982, transgender woman Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp – what does it say about the gay community when you look at these roles side by side?
I approached both characters the same way, and that is, loving the people and treating them with great dignity. Roberta is a slightly bizarre character, especially in the context of that film. When I talk about somebody being taken for granted, that is much more true of Love Is Strange than of Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp. To that degree, times have changed, but it feels very, very good to have been a part of changing that sensibility just a tiny part perhaps. I love that I have dignified these two characters almost in defiance of prejudice.
You co-starred with Robin Williams in that film…
Yes, rest his soul.
Such a friend to the gay community as well. Do you have a fond memory of Robin you’d like to share?
All my memories of Robin are very, very fond, and I’m still extremely sad about it. The world has lost a lot of laughter.
By Chris Azzopardi