Trailblazer

How Ryan Murphy became a Hollywood powerbroker by mainstreaming gay

Other than gay men, who wants to see a musical about colorful, queer-sensitive choir kids? Or a retread of the Versace murder? Or a show about two camp, aging Hollywood icons?

As it turned out, a huge chunk of American television viewers. Big time. Feud, American Crime Story (the new season, Versace, airs Jan 17) and Glee proved blockbuster series in terms of viewership in addition to critical acclaim, and all three brainchildren popped forth from one man’s head: Ryan Murphy. 

Due to the Disney acquisition of Fox and Murphy’s contract, Murph is now the ultimate Hollywood power broker, now more than ever able to get his ideas turned into glitter and his gay agenda into reality.

The silver-haired producer behind the three series along with perennial favorites The New Normal and American Horror Story, Murphy has helped revitalize the careers of fabulous Hollywood actresses like Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates, while making indie stars like Sarah Paulson and Jane Lynch (both out queer sisters, by the way) into household names.

Most remarkably, Murphy has managed to take esoteric, even campy, tastes reserved for a queer crowd right into the mainstream of American pop culture. No doubt that realization will spark conflicting emotions. Though it helps to legitimize our subculture, it also feels at times a bit like cultural appropriation. Murphy’s shows–the series he steps in to write, anyway–sometimes go off the rails (AHS: Roanoke, anyone?). Even so, actors rush to work with Murphy while audiences flock to his projects, even when Hollywood would have relegated the subject matter to niche cinema just years before.

Consider: A story about a camp of gay and questioning teenagers obsessed with music had landed in indie cinemas and film festivals in 2003–Camp–with zero impact. Murphy managed to take the same basic premise, substituting high school for summer camp, and just six years later had a major hit with Glee. The kind of psycho-biddy Hollywood story of Feud: Bette and Joan would have once become a punchline of a genre film. Much like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane itself, Feud featured once-bombshells (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Susan Sarandon, Lange, Judy Davis) in character parts, and explored Hollywood’s superficial standards of youth, beauty, not to mention disrespect for actual talent.

Feud plays its story straight though; Lange’s Crawford and Sarandon’s Davis seem less like drag queens than actual, wounded women, and the show preoccupies itself with humanizing its characters, rather than playing them for over-the-top laughs. Murphy, too, has helped to normalize male beauty with his never-ending string of post-twinks and hunks, many of whom have gone on to major stardom (deep breath): Nick Jonas, Grant Gustin, Chris Colfer, Darren Criss, Jonathan Groff, Blake Jenner, Evan Peters, Zachary Quinto

Ok, you get the picture.

In short, then, Murphy hasn’t proven himself ahead of his time so much a man of it. He’s realized that mainstream, American audiences love shirtless men, aging women, gay misfits, cults, camp, or choirs, so long as a compelling narrative and great filmmaking accompanies them. Good for him, and good for us. Though the mainstreaming of queer culture does, somehow, make it less fun and scandalous, it also helps normalize queer people in everyday life.

No doubt many a parent sat down to watch Glee with a queer-questioning child, only to have the show’s positive depictions help ease the talk about burgeoning sexuality. Don’t expect any of the middle aged women who’s careers Murphy has helped revitalize–Lange, Angela Bassett, Bates, Sarandon, Connie Britton, Jamie Lee Curtis–to complain, either. In a business that provides few great roles for incredible mature actresses and focuses pruriently on youth, Murphy has helped make middle-aged womanhood interesting and sexy again. It’s only too bad that some of yesteryear’s stars (and gay icons)–Davis, Crawford, Debbie Reynolds, Shelly Winters–who had to resort to exploitation and camp cinema to make a living aren’t around today to reap the benefits of Murphy’s dignified yet juicy roles.

Recently, Murphy expressed some anxiety over Disney’s buyout of Fox Studios, and what it could mean for his racy, often graphic series. But isn’t it just one more huge opportunity to mainstream his unique gay sensibility? Given that the House of Mouse long presided over Miramax (home of various violent, explicit and gay films) and Dimension (home of the Scream series), he probably shouldn’t worry too much. Disney will do just about anything to make a buck–and Murphy rakes in the cash, barrels upon barrels of it.

Besides, with his own new office on the same lot as all those Mouseketeer alumni meetings, Murphy should have no problem meeting plenty of clean-cut, handsome young men to cast for his future shows.

Call it a win-win.