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February 23, 2007

Gray Area: When a Kiss is Not Just A Kiss

Gray Matters director Kramer on the liplock with a life of its own

Prelude to The Kiss: (L-R) Bridget Moynahan and Heather Graham in Gray Matters (Screen grab from YouTube)

As far as lesbian liplocks go, you could do a lot worse than the heavily publicized Heather Graham/Bridget Moynahan kiss at the center of the new film Gray Matters (opening today in New York). In fact, though she said it's unintentional, writer/director Sue Kramer is kind of banking on it.

"We didn't even put that kiss onto YouTube," she told The Reeler in an interview earlier this week. "Somebody did; we don't know who, but we just ran with it and decided to do the kiss contest (on the film's Web site) once it was leaked. But I think when you're an independent film with a very small amount of money for advertising, you have to take what you can get to try to get the buzz out there."

That said, Kramer wants you to know that her film is more than The Kiss -- more than even soufflé-light romantic comedy, maybe. The story of an advertising executive (Graham) who self-consciously wriggles her way out of the closet after kissing and falling in love (not necessarily in that order) with her brother's wife (Moynahan), Gray Matters was a seven-year climb for the New York filmmaker -- imperiled by not only typically long indie odds but also by a culture (and financiers) that made no secret of its aversion to gays and lesbians swimming in the mainstream.

"Ellen (DeGeneres) never would have been the host of the Oscars -- even with her talk show -- seven years ago," said Kramer, who is straight but based Graham's title character in part on her sister, who is gay. "Look at what happened to her (sitcom). It took a dive when she came out and they wrote it into her show. Rosie O'Donnell's ratings took a dive when she came out on TV. I'd say that only in the past probably two years has there been a turn. There's still so much longer to go."

Kramer called attention to DeGeneres' reinvention as a talk-show icon --as well as her very public relationship with actress Portia de Rossi -- and the success of both challenging (Brokeback Mountain) and more facile (The L Word) depictions of gay relationships as the cultural factors that helped clear a path for Gray Matters within the industry. "I tried to make a film that could entertain and that could appeal to the masses and not preach," Kramer said. "You could be entertained and walk away with something at the end of the movie. It was a fine balance and it took me a very long time with the script to make that work. You're trying to say something very important, and at times, as a writer, you can be a little preachy when you're really trying to say something that has these big undertones."

It worked for the money people in the end, though the momentum of association didn't hurt: A relationship with Sissy Spacek gave way to a "tailor-made" role and her eventual attachment; Alan Cumming took a small part based on Spacek's casting; long friendships with producer Jill Footlick and former film-school chum Alexander Payne inspired their support; and Kramer's agent at William Morris connected her to indie mogul Bob Yari.

But in the end -- or on Feb. 23, anyway, as high-minded gossips trumpet Moynahan's pregnancy and reviewers have their ways with Gray Matters as a whole -- the momentum that seems to matter is The Kiss. And to the extent it pushes potential filmgoers toward the multiplex, the ever-optimistic Kramer is withholding judgment.

"If, five months from now, the only thing people talk about is the kiss?" she says. "Then yeah -- I would be disappointed to think this was the only thing audiences got from this film. But in terms of before seeing the film? If that's what gets viewers into the theater -- hearing about this sexy steamy kiss? Then great, because I think that every movie has its little bait publicity-wise. With us, it's becoming a grassroots thing. And it is a very steamy kiss, I have to say. But I would be disappointed if that was the only thing people walked away with."



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