Picture it. Denville, New Jersey. 1992. I was 12 going on 13 but really 42 going on 53. I don’t remember the FOX show I was watching on television when the face of a tortured young man flashed onto the screen. I heard the tortured young man yell, “…that I was GAY!”
He screamed the word “gay” as if I should know it but I had never really heard that word before. If I had, it didn’t make much of an impact. This time it did. Still, for someone going on 53, I had no real concept of what it was or what it meant. And I sure as hell had no idea that I was or that it would have a major impact on the rest of my life.
Also starring was James B. Sikking (then of Doogie Howser, MD), James Carrey (in a fantastic, but all-too-rare dramatic role while he was also appearing on In Living Color), Bibi Besch (who received an Emmy nomination as Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie), Jayne Brook (who has guest-starred in everything), David Byron and Lori Loughlin (then of Full House).
Doing Time on Maple Drive, which first aired twenty years and ten days ago on March 16, 1992, was the story of a seemingly perfect upper middle class family. Phil Carter (Sikking) owned a successful restaurant and was able to more than provide for his family. His wife Lisa (Besch) kept an immaculate home and raised their three children. She worked harder than anyone else to create the perfect family dynamic and worked even harder to maintain the illusion of it for friends, neighbors and extended family.
Simmering beneath Carter Mountain, however, were years of unresolved tension, resentment and hidden secrets waiting for an innocuous conversation, random event or flippant comment to set things off and boil over.
Firstborn son Tim (Carrey) was the first to buckle under the pressure of living up to his parent’s high expectations. A terribly smart young man and former ROTC, he was be-felled by alcohol and flunked out of school. Now living back at home, Tim continues to drink. Phil keeps this hidden from Lisa as he sees Tim more and more as an embarrassment to the family and perhaps a negative reflection on him as a father.
Middle child and only daughter Karen (Brook) married a man (Tom) her parents tolerate but don’t entirely approve of. Phil and Lisa are expecting grandchildren from them, but Tom’s occupation as a photographer won’t, in their eyes, provide the financial preparation needed to start a family.
Phil and Lisa’s last hope is their youngest son Matt (McNamara). Matt has always been a good kid and the apple of his parents’ eyes. Currently a student at Yale, he has recently gotten engaged to fellow Yale student Allison (Loughlin), a beautiful young woman from a rich, prominent family. When Matt brings Allison home, his own secret begins to unravel and they all realize that even he isn't as perfect as they want or thought him to be.
Though Lisa had known of Kyle and actually caught him and Matt together, she approached it in the same way many mothers do when faced with such a situation – by pretending it didn't happen and avoiding the subject anytime it came up.
Allison breaks off the engagement and leaves early in the morning so that Matt can explain the situation to his family in his own way and in his own time. But Matt continues on with the charade through breakfast that morning and the bachelor party thrown for him by his best friend Andy (Philip Linton) that night.
Matt leaves the bachelor party early and goes out for a drive. The pressure of being his parents’ golden child, making his father proud, marrying this young woman he loves but can’t really love and having the buttons pop off of his cloak of secrecy gets the best of him as he speeds head first into a telephone pole.Matt survives the accident and while he’s recuperating in the hospital, Kyle comes by with flowers. Matt initially rebuffs him but eventually explains that he just can't see him right now. Kyle leaves and narrowly avoids running into Lisa.
When Matt returns home, Tim confronts him about the accident. He didn't believe Matt’s story about avoiding a dog and checked out the scene himself. Not seeing any skid marks, as would typically be the case in such an accident, he deduces that Matt must have done it on purpose and asks for confirmation. Matt stares at Tim in silence and leaves the room, all but confirming to Tim what he’d suspected.
Matt meets up with Andy at a playground, where Matt confesses that he drove off the road on purpose. At first, Matt uses Allison's decision not to marry him as the excuse but Andy presses further as to why. Matt pauses and tells him that it’s because he’s gay.
“You can’t really blame her for not wanting to marry you,” Andy jokes. “I mean, there’s a lot of things you can overlook in a relationship, but I don’t think this is one of them.”
Sidebar: This is a screenshot from my TV of the moment that always kills me. McNamara gets up after the line where he tells Andy he’s gay and walks out of camera shot. After Andy’s line above, the camera then cuts to the back of McNamara’s head, who turns around with a look in his eyes that provides so much insight into Matt at that moment as it relates to his future as a gay man..
Outside of Kyle, Andy is probably the first person he’s told about being gay. It’s possible he and Kyle have never actually said they were gay, but just wound up in a relationship – for three years. If that’s the case, then Andy is probably the first to hear about this and you can see the relief on Matt’s face as effectively conveyed by McNamara. You can sense the weight of secrecy and dishonesty being lifted off of Matt’s shoulders.
It’s also 1992, when it wasn't as hip and cool to be gay as it is now, and Matt is still in college. In this moment, I always think about what Matt will be facing in life. Will he be out and proud or will he and Kyle go back to living their lives in secrecy? This moment always makes me think about what I would be facing if I was in college in 1992, came out of the closet and found myself in a relationship with another guy. What would I have done? I wasn't even out by the twilight of my own college years nine years later – although a lot of people knew. At the same time, I didn't have a long-term romantic relationship hastening my process.
Andy gets up and gives Matt an accepting hug – their friendship unchanged by the news.
Then comes the random event that precipitates the great falling out. The family comes home from a game of tennis to find Lisa on the living room couch crying. Allison had sent a note to the family thanking them (presumably for their hospitality) and tell them how sorry she was (presumably that she and Matt weren't going to be getting married).
Lisa attempts to run out of the room, but Matt grabs her and despite her protests, tells her and everyone else that he’s gay. As she walks out of the room in tears, she tells Matt to call Allison, tell her he was wrong and that he made a mistake. Matt tells her to go to hell and runs upstairs.
Phil goes up to Matt’s room to talk to him about the accident and lets him know that, gay or not, he’d rather have him alive – and wouldn't survive otherwise.
Matt then goes to talk to a despondent Lisa, who tells him that she doesn't understand it, that’s it not to be understood, that she doesn't know anything about it and that she doesn't want to know anything about it. Matt responds by saying that she therefore doesn't want to know about him and walks out.
Matt skips out on dinner and goes to a payphone to call Kyle. He apologizes and asks if they could meet for a cup of coffee to talk. Matt comes back home to find Phil in the living room waiting up for him. Phil asks him about being gay – what to say to people when they say God hates them, that it’s unnatural and that they’re going to hell. Matt doesn't have an answer except to say that he doesn't believe any of that. Phil lets Matt know that he’s not thrilled about his being gay but suggests they look into it so that he’ll know how to respond.
Several other dynamics and threads branch out from the main story line in James Duff’s deservedly Emmy-nominated script: Phil’s tense relationship with the disappointing Tim, Tim’s resentment at being eclipsed by golden boy Matt, Phil’s feeling “locked in” to Lisa – a sentiment she overheard, Lisa’s disregard for Karen not being the wife and mother she is, Karen’s feelings of inadequacy to always failing to please her mother and Karen’s shame for marrying a man her parents will never full accept.
However, it’s Matt’s story that has always struck a cord with me. Even though it was 11 years before I actually saw the movie*, I knew it existed and that it was something I knew I wanted to see.
I bought the movie on DVD in 2004 or 2005 and have watched it repeatedly ever since. For a movie written, produced and aired in 1992, it was quite progressive in its take on homosexuality.
This was the same season where Roseanne’s boss (Martin Mull) was seen going out with another man on the even-more-progressive Roseanne. This was the season before Roseanne’s friend Nancy (Sandra Bernhard) officially came out of the closet. And this was FIVE years before Ellen DeGeneres came out in public at the same time Ellen Morgan came out on Ellen.
Matt was shown as conflicted, but not duplicitous. He lied to a lot of people and we fully understood why. He wasn't a victim and he didn't shy away from ultimately facing his family when push came to shove.
His best friend Andy reacted as one would hope everyone would (and should) – with love, compassion and a couple of quips to break the tension.
In a reversal, it is father Phil who embraced his now-gay son while mother Lisa was the one to shun him. Phil even went as far in his support to want to find out how he AND Matt could combat the difficulties he will inevitably face.
When I watch the movie now, I think about Matt Carter’s life coming out as a gay man in the early 1990s – especially while still in college. How was he received when he got back to campus? What career did he go into after college? Assuming he and Kyle reconciled, what was their life like together? How has the family evolved? Did Lisa eventually come around? Has Andy adapted as suggested in his pivotal scene with Matt?
At this point, under certain assumptions, Matt and Kyle are hovering somewhere around 40. They will have been together a total of 23 years. I’d love to see a sequel.
Despite the progressive nature of this excellent, but underrated TV film (which owes some of itself to 1985’s groundbreaking An Early Frost), we've not seen all that many films like this in the intervening years.
I guess that’s what I’m here for.
* That 2003 viewing was a rerun on Lifetime and the timing couldn't have been any worse. I was living in Los Angeles, but visiting my parents at their home in Illinois. My maternal grandmother was there, so it had to have either been Christmas or my younger brother’s college graduation.
I wasn't out to anyone in my family – although they all knew and was just waiting anxiously for a confirmation that they really hoped would never actually come.
The movie came on. I knew right away what it was about and what was going to happen later in the movie. For two hours -- through every scene, every moment and every commercial, not one person said one word. A huge pink elephant had stomped into the room and the only person who could acknowledge it was me. But I wasn't ready. It would have been the perfect time, but the words would not come to me and my mouth would not open.
After the movie ended, the five of us – my mother, my father, my brother, my maternal grandmother and I went about our merry way. It was as if we all hadn't just sat in the most uncomfortable silence for two hours with the most taboo of topics right in front of our faces waiting for someone to say something about it but hoping against hope that no one would.
Eventually, I did come out to everyone – to my mother in 2005, my father in 2006 and my brother officially in 2007 – though they all knew much earlier. I made mention of it to Granny last year just to make sure she knew -- which of course she did.
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