A gay love story is an unlikely frontrunner in this year’s Oscar race. Inside the making of Ira Sachs’ ‘Love Is Strange’ with John Lithgow and Alfred Molina
When Love Is Strange first received Oscar buzz this past winter at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, Alfred Molina’s daughter asked what he’d say at the podium if he actually won an award for his performance as John Lithgow’s husband. “And I replied,” he says, “that John Lithgow is a really good kisser!”
Directed by Ira Sachs, who co-wrote it with Mauricio Zacharias, Love Is Strange stars Lithgow and Molina as New Yorkers Ben and George, a retired artist and Catholic school music teacher, who legally tie the knot after 39 years together. Their bliss is short lived: due to his employer’s conservative policies, George is fired, leaving them unable to afford their Manhattan apartment.
Consequently, Ben is forced to move into the small apartment of his Brooklyn nephew (Darren Burrows), his wife (Marisa Tomei) and teenage son (Charlie Tahan), while George couch-surfs with a pair of gay cops (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez). Frantically searching for new sources of income and housing options, the pair struggle with forced separation and too-close-for-comfort arrangements with family and friends.
Inspired by the works of Yasujiro Ozu and Husbands And Wives-era Woody Allen, this multi-generational rom-dram is rich with humor, family conflicts, and, yes, love.
“I liked the idea of making a romantic film about gay life,” says the Memphis-born, NYC-based Sachs. “It seemed to me there are not enough of those. George and Ben’s relationship is as imperfect as any of ours, yet it is a true bond John and Alfred created that is real and beautiful.”
Indeed, Love’s depiction of a loving albeit human and complex life-long relationship between two gay men is an antidote to the dysfunctional, doomed one depicted in Sachs’ previous, and semi-autobiographical feature, Keep The Lights On, which was based on his experience with a drug addict boyfriend, literary agent Bill Clegg.
“I couldn’t have made this film five years ago,” Sachs admits, “not just because of the [legalization of same-sex marriage in New York], but because of myself. I wouldn’t have known how to imagine a relationship between two men that grew so beautifully.”
Sachs was partly able to imagine such a healthy relationship thanks to his marriage to artist Boris Torres (they’ve been together seven years, and are raising two children), who provided the paintings created in the film by Lithgow’s Ben.
“Boris is a very dear man and I actually painted with him,” Lithgow offers. Sporting a substantive beard, grown for his role of King Lear in August at Shakespeare in the Park, Lithgow is a painter himself. “We came up with this hybrid art that accommodated my technique and his and he did the half-finished painting I work on. He’s very sweet. It became a family-inclusive experience.”
The character of Ben, Sachs notes, was partly inspired by real-life artist Ted Rust, the longtime partner of his great uncle.
“Ben is what you would call an artistic type: He’s got his head in the clouds, he’s impractical,” Lithgow opines. “All he really thinks about is his art and not even that too often. Sometimes you want to shake him, but he’s also impossible not to love. He reminds me of me!”
Conceived with repeat collaborator Zacharais as the second entry in a NYC-set trilogy (the third, Sachs says, will deal with a friendship between two boys), Love Is Strange was first announced in early 2013 with UK actor Michael Gambon attached to co-star opposite Molina. When Gambon left the production , Lithgow’s agent sent the script to the 6-foot-4 actor — Oscar-nominated for his turn as a transgender ex-football player in 1983’s The World According to Garp — who then and set up a meeting with Sachs. (Lithgow also snagged an Emmy playing a pair of gay twins, one dying from AIDS, in a 1995 TV movie, My Brother’s Keeper.)
“I said at one point during the meeting, ‘it would be such a relief to play a part where I don’t have to do any acting,’” Lithgow recalls. “Ira asked, ‘What do you mean by that?’ He may have thought I was admitting to him I was gay, but that wasn’t it! Curiously, from that point on, ‘no acting now’ was his favorite direction on set. That’s what I loved about the script. It was so effortless, real, and emotionally authentic you didn’t have to do anything strenuous, to renovate the writing. It was all there.”
A few things were tweaked, however, in the various drafts leading up to the shoot, including the ethnic backgrounds of several characters. George was at one point a Latino. “Ira thought maybe if we could make him closer to my own cultural and ethnic background there might be more mileage in that,” Molina reveals. “But Ira changed his mind — he put it to me that was adding another layer of possible contention, and unnecessary. But we gave George a Spanish name, like me, to suggest he had a Spanish dad.”
Molina, no shorty at 6-foot-2, garnered much attention for his turn in 1987’s Prick Up Your Ears opposite Gary Oldman as, respectively, murderous, frustrated writer Kenneth Halliwell and his lover/victim, iconic UK playwright Joe Orton (Molina says that his cracked-out Boogie Nights character, meanwhile, “is open to interpretation”). Discussing the film in Manhattan’s Regency Hotel, the pair of actors gush praise for one another and in-joke barbs whenever one mentions they’ve won an award for a performance.
“I knew Fred pretty well, and we were good friends without having worked together,” Lithgow shares. “By the end of Love Is Strange he was my favorite actor I ever worked with and one of my best friends. We poured it all into the work and it emerged from the work, that affection and respect.”
Molina describes their pairing as “a happy accident. It becomes effortless. You don’t have to try. John’s a fantastic partner and actor. He’s a giant in terms of he can take whatever you throw at him. And John’s a good kisser. We learned today that some ladies on The View think you’ve got really sexy lips.”
Lithgow laughs. “Thank god they said it when the sound was turned off.”
Shot over 27 days, the low-budget film (which Sachs says was financed largely by accomplished lesbian businesswomen, several of which have married since themselves, that recognized both its political and commercial potential) called upon favors from family and friends, sometimes through postings on the film’s Facebook page, which chronicled and illuminated the production process extensively. One of those favors involved everything from locations (one pivotal sequence takes place at Julius, the historic NYC gay bar) to drafting real-life Dungeons & Dragons experts to teach Jackson and Perez how to play the role-playing fantasy game during a scene.
It was a very different atmosphere, the actors say, from their Hollywood big-budget gigs. Lithgow just finished a role in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming blockbuster, Interstellar, while Molina played Ned Weeks’ brother in The Normal Heart. The film’s messages about relationships and how older gays’ lessons in love can inform future generations for the better also stood apart, and the illumination of an unhappy fact that same-sex marriage, despite its legal status in some states, can have unexpected, negative consequences. This past July, in fact, a Chicago Catholic choir director, Colin Collette, was fired when the archdiocese learned he had been proposed to by his boyfriend via a Facebook post.
“I do think that whoever does something on the cutting edge — even at this point getting married is the cutting edge — are going to suffer consequences,” Lithgow says. “I’ve only been to one gay marriage, and I’ve never seen such intensity. A ritual that was so important to the two people involved and everyone else there because it’s been withheld from an entire population of people.
But it can take its toll. It starts with that price being paid and the story plays out dealing with all of life’s other difficulties.”
Just imagine if Love Is Strange had dealt with a throuple, I comment. Both Lithgow and Molina raise their eyebrows and laugh, confessing they had never heard this term for a three-person relationship before.
“I have only known one person who was part of a throuple,” Lithgow says, amused. “It’s now a couple, which is what it was before!” •
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 5, 2014.