Bringing a Gay Love Story to the Screen

November 21, 2017
Armie Hammer (foreground) and Timothée Chalamet in “Call Me By Your Name.” Photo courtesy of Mongrel Media

Veteran movie producer Howard Rosenman has long championed gay characters and gay themes in movies. His latest film, “Call Me by Your Name,” which made a splash at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 24, is a tender love story about a teenage boy’s summer romance with a young man.

It’s set in the summer of 1983 in the north of Italy and focuses on an Italian-American family living in a 17th-century villa. Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) is a precocious 17-year-old who spends his days swimming, reading, transcribing classical music and flirting with his friend Marzia (Esther Garrel).

Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a renowned antiquities professor who invites as a house guest Oliver (Armie Hammer), a charming but arrogant 24-year-old American doctoral student. Elio and Oliver don’t get along at first, but they bond over their shared Jewish identity. Over the course of six weeks, Elio realizes his desire for Oliver and seduces him.

The movie, directed by Italian director Luca Guadagnino, is based on a 2007 novel of the same name by André Aciman. Rosenman, who previously had enjoyed Aciman’s 1995 memoir, “Out of Egypt,” about his Jewish family in Egypt, said he was particularly moved by a scene in which Elio’s father sympathizes with his son and tells him to treasure the time he has with Oliver.

“When I read that in the novel, I said to myself, ‘I have to buy [the rights to] this book,’ because everyone wants a father like that — gay, straight, whatever,” Rosenman said. “I didn’t have a father like that. When I came out, he was very unhappy. We eventually reconciled but I knew that scene would resonate with everyone, which it’s doing.”

The 72-year-old producer, born Zvi Howard Rosenman, comes from a long line of Orthodox Jews.

Some critics have drawn attention to the age difference between Elio and Oliver, but Rosenman dismissed those concerns. “The movie is about the Elio character seducing Armie’s character, not the other way around, so it never felt uncomfortable to me,” he said.

The film also ran into some social media controversy when Sony Pictures UK tweeted an ad for the movie with a picture of Elio and Marzia looking passionately at each other. People were quick to ridicule the distributor’s seeming attempt to fool viewers into thinking it was a straight love story. But Rosenman said he has no doubt the movie will have mainstream appeal.

“It’s resonating with straight women and straight men. And millennials, they don’t give a s—. They look at love as love,” he said. “And this is a movie that’s not about victimization, it’s not about sickness, it’s not about feeling guilt. It’s about falling in love with someone and expressing sexuality. It’s not about judgment.”

The 72-year-old producer, born Zvi Howard Rosenman, comes from a long line of Orthodox Jews. His parents were seventh-generation Jerusalemites who were born in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. They became Modern Orthodox when they came to the United States and raised Rosenman in Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y.

“When I was growing up, to be gay and religious was awful. You couldn’t admit it and everybody was awful. The entire Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities were awful,” he said. “Now I go to a Shabbat dinner here in West Hollywood with 300 gay guys wearing yarmulkes and singing ‘Shalom Aleichem.’ ”

Rosenman originally planned to become a doctor. He interrupted his medical school training to serve as a medic for the Israel Defense Forces in the Six-Day War.

“I met [composer] Leonard Bernstein, who told me, ‘You should leave medical school and go into the arts.’ And I listened to him, and he introduced me to Katharine Hepburn and Stephen Sondheim, and I worked for Katharine Hepburn on Broadway,” he said.

Thus began his long career in entertainment. Some of the more popular films that Rosenman has produced include “Father of the Bride” (1991), starring Steve Martin and Diane Keaton, Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1992) and “The Family Man” (2000), starring Nicolas Cage.

In May, Rosenman received the Trailblazer Award from JQ International, a Jewish LGBTQ organization, for his work in drawing attention to gay characters and gay issues in film. These include the documentary “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt,” which won the Peabody Award and the 1990 Academy Award for best documentary feature. His film “The Celluloid Closet” also won the Peabody Award and was nominated for four Emmy Awards.

Rosenman has been in Hollywood long enough to know there is a dark side to the industry. Ask him if the recent spate of sexual harassment allegations come up a lot in conversation and he’ll interrupt and correct you: “It’s the only topic of conversation.”

“The whole thing is tragic, for the women who have been assaulted, the men who have been assaulted, and the horrible things that these predators have done,” he said.  “It’s hard to wrap your brain around it. And every minute someone else comes out with another accusation. These careers are being ruined in a nanosecond now. People have spent 30, 40 years building up careers and because they were so stupid … this is what’s happening.”

The accusations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Brett Ratner, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and a widening web of powerful men in entertainment will “totally change the industry,” Rosenman predicted:

“It’ll change a lot of industries. It’s a sea change. This is a critical moment in the history of the culture, because this kind of stuff will not be acceptable anymore.”

Meanwhile, Rosenman is exploring a relatively new career — acting. He was cast by Gus Van Sant to act alongside Sean Penn and James Franco in the 2008 biopic “Milk” about gay activist Harvey Milk. He has since acted in eight other films, including one that he’s producing called “Shepherd,” about a German shepherd that saves a Jewish boy from a concentration camp.

But his focus still is very much on producing films that explore marginalized characters and themes, like the gay love story at the center of “Call Me by Your Name.” It’s one of several gay-themed movies hitting cinemas this year — including “God’s Own Country,” “BPM (Beats Per Minute)” and “Beach Rats” — and comes on the heels of last year’s Oscar-winning drama “Moonlight.” Had he tried to make “Call Me by Your Name” a decade ago, Rosenman doubts he would have succeeded.

“I could’ve produced it but it would have had a very small release and a very small resonance. But because the times have changed so drastically … a 6-year-old, 7-year-old kid today, when you say you’re getting married, the first thing they ask is, ‘Are you marrying a man or a woman?’ Kids today don’t have those judgments. It’s a different world.”

“Call Me by Your Name” opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 24.

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