REVIEW: How Hollywood Won the Marriage Equality Battle. And Made a Great Film About It.
I was privileged to attend a screening of The Case Against 8 at LACMA the other night, hosted by the New York Times, followed by a Q&A with the cast and filmmakers. If it isn’t the best documentary I’ve ever seen, it is certainly the most emotional and among the most effective: my head from my eyes to my throat stung and throbbed with the weep-ish feels for most of it.
This is saying a great deal; I’m a real hardass, especially if I feel I’m being in the least bit emotionally manipulated. Manipulation there is in this film, aplenty: the score by Blake Neely grabs and wrings you as much as the words and images on the screen. The superlative editing brings out performances from the cast reminiscent of 70s and early 80s political activist dramas like Silkwood.
Normally, one doesn’t refer to the people at the center of a documentary as “cast” but rather as “subjects,” except The Case Against 8 was cast, deliberately and methodically, with two highly articulate, preternaturally wholesome couples, one lesbian, one gay. It is the casting process that first shows us how Hollywood, under the leadership of veteran director Rob Reiner, willfully deployed the skills behind what it does best — creating superior filmed entertainment — to bring down California’s most pernicious, egregious piece of legislation in modern times, Proposition 8.
This couldn’t have happened in another state. After the referendum passed in 2008, Reiner and company plainly stated, “Not in my backyard,” and cleaned that shit up by creating a drama starring two ideal everyman LGBT couples in the ultimate battle of good versus evil.
The Case Against 8 is entirely meta in that sense. As Reiner pointed out in the Q&A after the screening, the decision to film the process with young directors Ben Cotner and Ryan White came almost immediately after the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), which Reiner heads along with other gay-rights activists like Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black, declared war on Prop. 8. and persuaded these two couples to be the plaintiffs that would ultimately overturn the amendment to the State’s laws that made same-sex marriage illegal and invalidated those that had already been allowed.
It’s very clear watching the film that Reiner is the real director, always was. He graciously takes a back seat to Cotner and White, but they are really glorified directors of photography. Even if events played into what Reiner calls a “home run” for AFER and the documentarians, he surfed the filmmaking process expertly, with all of the skill his decades as an A-list narrative director have given him.
The result is without doubt Reiner’s finest cinematic achievement on a few levels, not least of which is the purpose of why we pursue this insane, fickle vocation to begin with. In the way he and his team used real people and real situations, and built a film over a period of five years, it blows Boyhood out of the water. Again, that’s a lot coming from me: I loved Boyhood, and think it’s likewise Linklater’s greatest achievement. But it doesn’t pack the nearly the punch as The Case Against 8.
In the Q&A, Reiner said the film is, “As powerful as a real feature film,” a statement that made the putative directors visibly bristle, as I’m sure much else coming from Reiner has over the past five years; creative partnerships can be the most contentious of relationships.
What Reiner meant was it’s as powerful as a narrative feature, a distinction only documentarians make; they believe, quite rightly — and The Case Against 8 supports their belief — that documentaries are as valid as the narrative kind of feature. Those of us who primarily make narrative/’scripted’ filmed entertainment — using the word ‘scripted’ is also tricky because docs often have voiceover scripts, and are loosely plotted from the outset — are intrinsically prejudiced to think that ours is the only kind of feature film. Reiner’s statement, even after having made this film, bears that out.
To wit, there is only one Oscar category for documentaries. There are no technical subcategories like there are for narrative features. This is a shame for The Case Against 8 in particular; the first thing I muttered to myself when the credits rolled: This should be eligible for Best Editing. Sure enough, the editor, Kate Amend, joined the filmmakers and the male gay couple onstage for the Q&A. I haven’t attended that many screenings with Q&As afterwards, especially of documentaries, but I have never seen an editor given this sort of honor. That is how fantastic a job she did with this.
It’s not as if AFER’s intentions to use Hollywood’s powers of persuasion and manipulation are any sort of Machiavellian secret. Reiner and his cohorts at AFER couldn’t underscore the importance of their casting process enough both during the Q&A and in the film itself. This wasn’t just a case of changing a wrong-headed piece of legislation; it was a case of changing minds and attitudes towards the most oppressed ten percent of the population. And it appears nothing does that more effectively than well-cast real-life drama.
Both the lesbian and gay couple are so perfect, so heteronormative that I didn’t recognize them. They are so virtuous and heroically portrayed that by the end of the film I felt weird about my tattoos and pierced ears, my polyamorous inclinations, my attraction to alternative fashion and art, about the fact I date men half my age, and all of the other aspects that make me what is, in fact, a far more homonormative person than they are.
I know of only one couple that is remotely similar to the ones in The Case Against 8, and one of them is a film producer, so not exactly an everyman. However, even if they have children and maintain something of an exemplary household, the producer is bipolar and wouldn’t stand up to the sort of scrutiny Reiner’s team put their prospective leads through. Above all, Reiner said, it was imperative that they stay together for the entire five years, under the glare of the public spotlight, through the stress of threats and hatred from the bigots.
And Reiner was honest about it: The biggest worry was the gay couple. The lesbians, a Brady Bunch-like combined family with stronger vested interests in staying together, didn’t pose a threat to the purpose of the campaign and the film the way the childless Gheys did: if they didn’t get to the altar, if they were no longer demanding the right to get married because they weren’t together, everything would collapse. That’s a lot of risk to take on a pair of gays; we’re a subculture that tends to think with its collective dick.
At the risk of belaboring this point, the selection of the couples was a casting coup that only a filmmaker of Reiner’s stature and abilities could pull off. There is so much that is innate, instinctual about the filmmaking process; the selection of these bedrock, articulate, passionate personalities, who are so easily identifiable for any viewer, is a testament to that strange ability. Their tears and hugs are genuine, their anxieties and love for each other also genuine. We narrative writers of “real features” can only dream of penning such well-thought, clear dialogue as theirs.
The other piece of overtly Machiavellian casting is the selection of liberal arch-nemesis Ted Olson, the Republican lawyer who argued the case to have George Bush selected as president in front of the Supreme Court in 2000. Enlisting such a sympathetic anti-hero in the first act of the film is another stroke of genius, and it is again Reiner who pulls it off. These are the sort of happy accidents that filmmakers wait for like children for Santa, especially when you know the project is so right, so likely to turn out well. They are perfect ocean waves that are bound to come up because that’s today’s weather; you hop on your board and just surf the hell out of that motherfucker while you can. And Reiner and his team did.
I’m sure there are a number of liberal lawyers who could have successfully argued what is essentially a straightforward constitutional-rights case. It is the selection of the affable Olson that plays to the camera and boosts the drama. He has a sense of humor! He hugs and loves just like liberals! His principles and philosophy are sound, just like ours! Olson upends the liberal HBO viewer’s perception of Republicans and their role in the equal rights movement, and likewise vests the conservative viewer with considerable buy-in. (Watch for the taco/pizza scene, a brilliant insight into east coast versus west coast, liberal versus conservative dynamics. Says it all.)
I was pleased to see Olson in this role because he is the sort of Northeastern establishment Rockefeller Republican I was raised by, a dying breed that has been shouted off stage by Neocons and Tea Partiers. There is still plenty wrong — nay, terrible — in what his kind believe in, particularly how the ends justify whatever means they adopt to achieve it, no matter how dastardly, but they are now and always have been socially liberal. Overturning Prop. 8 was a fundamental question of human rights, pure and simple, of a minority being trampled and abused by the majority. By casting Olson, Reiner shows both the courts and the viewer that this is above partisan politics, which is the correct road to have taken. (As much as we vilify them, the Log Cabin Republicans have also done a tremendous amount in the service of rights equality, often more effectively than the fractious left; being Borg-like, they have unity of purpose and action as their strength.)
Like all narrative features — and we really should look at The Case Against 8 as being at least partly in that category, given the deliberateness of its casting and structure — the film follows three acts. The first is the assembling of the team, the casting of the plaintiffs against the State of California and Prop. 8, following them until the first federal judge, Vaughn Walker of the district court in San Francisco, declares the amendment unconstitutional. The second follows the various trials over another four years as Walker’s decision is fought by the state on appeal, all the way up to the Supreme Court. The passage of time is marked visually by the transformation of the twins belonging to the lesbian couple, who go from pubescent to high-school graduates — none of the other cast members change so drastically. It’s one of a number of deft, effective subplots that grow organically from this very giving story.
At the beginning of the second act, while we are recovering from our outrage that the bad guys tried to have Judge Walker’s decision vacated because he is homosexual and, according to them, therefore had a vested interest in seeing Prop. 8 overturned so he could marry his lifetime partner, one of the lesbians gives the most heartfelt monologue about her own “ah-ha moment” in the courtroom. It’s a moment shared by so many LGBT people over the course of the past few years, when we realized that it was no longer just about our right to get married, but about our right to be treated equally, period. And that transcends legal rights; it’s socio-cultural. We should no longer be seen as the Other, but as integral to the fabric of society, as normal as a pair of jeans.
She talks about how for straight Americans, the bar is set at the pursuit of happiness, but for LGBT people, particularly middle-aged and older, the bar has hitherto been set at coping. She talks about coming out on a daily basis, sometimes several times a day, with every new encounter. Again, I am one of the biggest hardasses around, but her words caused a righteous Black Panther outrage to surge through me. I wanted to stand in my seat and raise my fist. It had been touch and go with the big feels up until then, but after that speech a fur ball of emotion stuck at the top of my throat and didn’t dislodge for the rest of the film.
The greatest gift the filmmakers were handed by real events is the third act. The payoff for all that emotion and struggle is like few others in the history of documentaries. Now that Prop. 8 has toppled, the couples are able to get married, one set in San Francisco, the other in Los Angeles. The intercutting between them is a paean to the art of editing; it is for this sequence alone that Kate Amend should be given a special award.
During the Q&A, Reiner talked about the film being screened for Australian parliament as a tool to persuade conservative members — like their U.S. counterparts, they dominate the House but do not represent the will of the majority, much less the rights of the oppressed minority — to allow marriage equality. He mentioned that this was the first time that he has heard that a film is being used to change a country’s legislation.
Any doubts that The Case Against 8 was done on purpose, with great purpose, with all of the power of talented purpose behind it, should be put aside. The supporters of traditional marriage never stood a chance against the Hollywood machine, not when righteous victory was practically guaranteed as the denouement of the second act. If you still suspect me of an overly suspicious mind, here is the link to an article in The Hollywood Reporter from 2012, entitled, “How Rob Reiner, Bruce Cohen and Dustin Lance Black Helped Defeat Prop. 8.” Except they didn’t “help” at all. They defeated it, period.
I’ve never been one to think that all manipulation is bad. Religion manipulating the gullible and the frightened is bad; anyone who manipulates fear, even if he believes his intentions are good, is wrong. There will be those filmmakers, documentarians in particular, who will cry foul with The Case Against 8, no matter how right the intentions of the filmmakers and activists behind it; there aren’t many so-called reality-TV shows that are this planned and scripted. But we members of the oppressed ten percent don’t care: Watching Str8s and Republicans fighting our cause with more energy and passion than we have — because that energy and passion have been beaten out of us, often literally — must be what it was like for blacks to watch whites sacrifice their lives to abolish slavery in the Civil War. Reiner and his team should take several victory laps, wearing wreaths awarded by humanitarian organizations.
A filmmaker cannot hope for his work to have a greater impact than this. What we do is, rightly, often dismissed as escapism. The Hollywood liberal is the butt of jokes, Rush Limbaugh’s favorite whipping boy. But The Case Against 8 shows just how valuable and effective our skill sets can be. And for this filmmaker, it was more than enough affirmation to keep doing what I’m doing.
I hope The Case Against 8 wins Best Doc. I can’t imagine what else is out there to beat it.
“The Case Against 8” premieres on HBO October 31st.