April 13, 2003
The Kings and Queens of the Gay High School Prom
By MICHAEL JOSEPH GROSS
WHEN Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato bought the landmark Hollywood Center Building as headquarters for their production company, World of Wonder, they became the landlords of a porn shop called A Touch of Romance. Many visitors, including Courteney Cox Arquette and Bette Midler, have accidentally been waylaid among edible undergarments and adult videos while trying to find the entrance to the production company’s offices. “It’s a test of fire,” Mr. Bailey explained, in his languid Oxonian accent. “I think if they get through that, and they make it up here, then they’re O.K.”
Mr. Bailey and Mr. Barbato, 42-year-old documentary filmmakers who have been partners in business and in life since they met in film school at New York University, often put their viewers through a similar introduction. Films like “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” about the televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, and “101 Rent Boys,” about hustlers on Santa Monica Boulevard, depict subjects that many would consider distasteful — but that the filmmakers make a point of treating with dignity and respect.
Their latest production is “School’s Out: The Life of a Gay High School in Texas,” which will be shown on Thursday as part of MTV’s “True Life” documentary series. The students at Walt Whitman High School in Dallas — the country’s only exclusively gay private high school outside Los Angeles and Manhattan — would have a hard time in a regular public school. There’s a boy who calls himself Angela, a pre-op male-to-female transsexual who brags about how big his breasts are becoming; Angel, a lesbian who’s got more piercings than St. Sebastian; and Chase, a 16-year-old boy who tests positive for H.I.V. and then has unprotected sex with a 13-year-old fellow student.
These teenagers live in a world that offers no conventional way to adapt the universal quests for identity and love to their particular desires. Many of the students at Walt Whitman have been rejected by parents and peers. Even their principal, who at crucial moments seems paralyzed by her own progressivism, fails to offer much help. She actually defends the H.I.V.-positive student who endangered a younger student’s life, saying, “Chase has a part of him that really is a good kid.”
Mr. Bailey, an Englishman whose buzzed haircut and heavy eyelids recall his days as a fixture on the Manhattan club scene in the early 1980’s, expects the show to upset liberal viewers: “I think we’re all kidding ourselves if we say, `There’s gay high schools and you can come out now when you’re young,’ so we think it’s all easy. It’s not. It’s really, really tough.”
Mr. Barbato, a banker’s son from New Jersey, added: “The new, post-`Will and Grace’ gay man is just like the guy next door. But it’s a myth. Gay people are not like straight people. We’re freaks. I mean, we are like straight people, but we’re not like the straight people that straight people like to pretend they are.”
With 85 employees in their Los Angeles and London offices, Mr. Bailey and Mr. Barbato produce television programs and films that reveal humankind at its messiest. Their productions have included VH1’s “RuPaul Show,” HBO’s “Shock Video” (a late-night global survey of sexual strangeness) and “Monica in Black and White” (about Monica Lewinsky) and MTV’s “Plushies and Furries” (about animal-suit fetishists).
Forthcoming films include “Dark Roots: The Anna Nicole Smith Story,” an exploration of Ms. Smith’s early life in Texas, for Showtime and “The Hidden Führer,” which again considers the perpetually whispered (and never proven) theory that Hitler was gay, for HBO. Their first narrative feature, “Party Monster,” about the club kid and convicted murderer Michael Alig, starring Macaulay Culkin, has played at festivals and is seeking distribution, and they will direct a documentary based on the life of Linda Lovelace, to be produced by Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment and HBO Films. They are also planning an awards show to recognize excellence in award shows for the Trio Network.
Most of their films, Mr. Barbato said, explore the two men’s interlocking fascination with sexuality and celebrity. “When you are gay, you spend a lot of your childhood being very aware of how you can present yourself in ways that are acceptable or unacceptable,” he said. “It’s a kind of sensitivity that connects you to the celebrity world in a way where it becomes something really fun to watch, it becomes something you understand, becomes something that you can relate to, because so much of what drives people to want celebrity is to be something other than what they are.”
Mr. Bailey added: “And celebrity is a kind of sexual state. It’s a fetishization of people.”
Mr. Bailey, whose favorite television show as a child was “Batman” (“I got so excited that my parents banned me from watching it”), and Mr. Barbato, who was partial to the “The Brady Bunch” and “The Partridge Family,” said that the current reality craze represented television’s discovery of its essence as a medium. “I think for a long time, people treated TV as, `Oh, it’s kind of like reading a book.’ I think people were confused about what TV is,” Mr. Barbato said. “It’s alive. People think it’s the opiate of the people when in fact I think it’s the complete opposite. It’s not a passive medium. It’s an active one. It’s the crystal meth of the people.”
The two men’s identification with their subjects may be the reason that the outlandish characters of “School’s Out” are so sympathetic. Most of them seem to be searching for an experience of love that most viewers, regardless of sexual orientation, will be able to relate to.
At the end of the show, the students from Walt Whitman go to a gay prom. But Angel, the girl whose face bristles with piercings, decides not to go; so her girlfriend fills her bedroom with candles and balloons and surprises her. Their homemade prom for two might look mawkish if it weren’t so genuinely sweet.
“I love you, because you love me for the loser that I am,” Angel whispers.
She could say the same to Mr. Bailey and Mr. Barbato.
Michael Joseph Gross is the author of “In Person,” about the relationships between stars and fans, to be published next year by Bloosbury USA.