When the teen movie Can't Hardly Wait came out in 1998, most of the reviews were not so good.
"Originality is not the strong suit of "Can't Hardly Wait,'" wrote the New York Times, one of the nicer reads on the John Hughes rip-off. Canada's Globe & Mail's take was more acerbic, calling the film "combination custom-made to annoy audiences of all ages." Variety boiled it down: "A failed attempt to recapture the exuberant magic of such high school movie classics as American Graffiti." They're all correct.
Yet, with all the nit-picking about acting and originality, none of these reviews touch on the movie's rampant homophobia; a silent crowd bursting into laughter after the jock, just rejected by the female lead, is called "fag"; the standard, requisite revulsion of two passed out guys being found in a supposedly compromising position. (We later learn that the shame even follows one of them, the jock, into the future.) These are just a two examples of the movie's anti-gay gags. But, again, it was 1998.
Ellen DeGeneres had only come out one year prior. It was only two years after the Supreme Court ruled that Colorado violated the Constitution by passing Amendment 2, a law that would have prevented the entire state from including LGBT people as a protected class against discrimination. And it was only in November of 1998, five months after Can't Hardly Wait came out, that Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay person elected to the House of Representatives.
But in June of that year, Ellen's sitcom aired its last episode. In 1996, the year of the aforementioned Supreme Court case, President Bill Clinton had signed the Defense of Marriage Act. And in October of that year, Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming, about 50 miles north of the Colorado border.
There were lots of steps forward but lots of steps back in 1998 and the years immediately preceding it. It was, as former Sen. Chuck Hagel alluded while apologizing for 1998 remarks about Ambassador James Hormel's sexuality making him unfit for his position, a different time.
"My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive," said Hagel, who has, as you know, been nominated by President Obama to fill Leon Panetta's post at the Defense Department. You also probably heard President Obama, trying to iron out liberal opposition to Hagel before the nomination was even official, say that Hagel's expedient apology was "a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people's attitudes about gays and lesbians serving our country."
I watched Can't Hardly Wait to unwind after covering the ever-changing Hagel story at a breakneck speed. I needed a break from all that, and the teen comedy romp, I recalled, was a favorite. There's plenty to love, especially all the emerging stars who are still around today, like Jennifer Love Hewitt, Seth Green, a lesser-known Jason Segel, Clueless stars Breckin Meyer and Donald Faison's reunion, and Lauren Ambrose and Eric Balfour in a very brief pre-Six Feet Under encounter, and the story, however derivatory, is charming and self-confident, but the homophobia smacked me in the face.
How had I forgotten? Had it really been so long since I've seen the movie? Or had I just been oblivious or even accepting of these anti-gay displays? There was no ignoring it now, though.
But I saw the movie through, partially because it had taken me long enough to sift through all the on demand movies -- "seen it and hated it; seen it, loved it, but not in the mood; you couldn't pay me to see that" -- and the prospect of seeking more mindless entertainment was too daunting for my tired mind. I also stuck to it because the movie became, as the predictable plot and pat yet charming characters lurched on, a view into another era.
Such slurs would never be accepted in a movie now; or at least they wouldn't go unnoticed. Need I remind you of Vince Vaughn's 2011 box office bomb The Dilemma? The protest over its casual use of "gay" -- far less egregious than the invective that peppers Can't Hardly Wait -- became national news and the movie, whose odds of success were always dim, completely flopped. Can't Hardly Wait's 1998 box office doubled its budget and it became a cult favorite for my and other generations.
1998 was a different time indeed. Our nation has come a long way since then. And so have the actors in Can't Hardly Wait: many have gone on to have long and successful careers, and some have even joined the movement for gay rights. Jennifer Love Hewitt and Eric Balfour, for example, have posed for the NOH8 campaign against homophobia. Hagel has done nothing of the sort, nor has he fully explained why he has had a sudden shift. Has he changed over the past 15 years? How?
Comparing fictional characters and a real life politician may seem a bit skewed, but even if Hagel believed what he said in 1998 -- and one has to assume he did -- he was still a Republican performing a role: the obstructionist screwing a Democratic president while simultaneously wooing Christian conservatives. The political world is a stage, and Hagel was getting theatrical, and now that the scene has changed, he's changed his tune. Whether he's more of a method politician, living the life, or just a character actor playing for his audience, will be revealed during Hagel's Senate hearings, where he will either confirm an evolution on LGBT equality or not -- the viewing public should be able to tell the different. He's not that good of an actor. Either way, should be quite the show.