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Ron Howard on 'The Dilemma's' gay joke: It stays in the movie

Ron_howard Comics have been making gay jokes for years, but perhaps none of them has caused as much of a stir as the quip uttered by Vince Vaughn when he made fun of an electric car by saying, "It's gay," in the trailer for the upcoming Ron Howard comedy, "The Dilemma."  Coming just as the media was full of stories about taunts and attacks on gay teens that drove some to suicide, the joke hit a raw nerve. After CNN's Anderson Cooper publicly took issue with the trailer's joke, saying "we've got to do something to make those words unacceptable 'cause those words are hurting kids," a full-blown controversy erupted. Universal Pictures pulled the trailer, substituting a new one scrubbed of any gay humor.

But that was three weeks ago, and this is now. Universal has confirmed to me that the joke is staying in the movie, which is slated for release in January. The decision is ultimately Howard's call, since he is a final-cut director, although my sources tell me that Howard sought advice from a variety of sources, not only from talent involved with the film but also from people at Universal and in the larger comedy community.

I've already staked out my own opinion on the issue in a column I wrote several weeks ago. I concluded that "comedy is a lot like free speech--sometimes you have to hold your nose to support it." In other words, I'm not sure that I'm all that comfortable with most of the gay jokes I've heard, but once you start trying to make value judgments about one joke over another, you're on a slippery slope to the arid wasteland of political correctness.

Howard recently asked if he could respond to a series of questions I'd raised when the news first broke about the controversy. He's provided answers to everything I initially wondered about, and even asked a few provocative questions of his own. He makes one particularly important point about an issue that was lost in all the hubbub, but applies to a lot of art that is viewed as offensive or controversial: Just because a character in a film says or does something wildly inappropriate doesn't necessarily mean that the filmmaker agrees with it.

He explains why the joke stays in the film, as well as offers his take on the difference between sensitivity and censorship. Here's what Howard has to say:

Patrick,

I've been reading your posts about THE DILEMMA with a lot of interest.
In the couple of weeks since you started covering the debate over our
joke, it seems a larger conversation made up of many questions about all
sorts of freedoms of expression has broken out:  When's it okay to walk
off of a talk show if you disagree with the guest? Who is appropriate to
cast in a movie and who gets to decide that? Should news people be held
to a different standard in what they say? How risqué can a photo shoot
be for a men's magazine promoting an all-audience show?  What role does
comedy play in both pointing out differences and unifying us through
laughter? 

They're all good questions and I'm certainly not the person who has
definitive answers to all of them.  The debate about what is appropriate
in films and advertising has been going on since well before I started
in the business -- which is to say a very long time -- and will never
have a conclusion. But I do have some answers to the five questions you put
forth in your post.  I suppose you're right that since our
movie about two friends trying to do right for each other has been caught up
in this larger debate, I'll have to face these questions as we start to
promote THE DILEMMA.  I figured I'd address your questions here and maybe
answer them once and not from, as you said, "every reporter with a
functioning brain."  So here we go.

So why was the joke in the movie?  Our lead character of Ronny Valentine has
a mouth that sometimes gets him into trouble and he definitely flirts with
the line of what's okay to say.  He tries to do what's right but sometimes
falls short.  Who can't relate to that?   I am drawn to films that have a
variety of characters with different points of view who clash, conflict and
learn to live with each other. THE DILEMMA is a story full of flawed
characters whose lives are complicated by the things they say to and hide
from each other.  Ronny is far from perfect and he does and says some
outrageous things along the way.

Was it in the script or was it a Vince Vaughn ad lib?  Vince is a brilliant
improvisational actor, but in this case It was always in the script.  THE
DILEMMA is a comedy for grown-ups, not kids.  It's true that the moment took
on extra significance in light of some events that surrounded the release of
the trailer and the studio made the decision to remove it from advertising,
which I think was appropriate.  I believe in sensitivity but not censorship.
I feel that our film is taking additional heat as an emblem for many movies
and TV shows that preceded it that have even more provocative
characterizations and language. It is a slight moment in THE DILEMMA meant
to demonstrate an aspect of our lead character's personality, and we never
expected it to represent our intentions or the point of view of the movie or
those of us who made it.

Did you think it wasn't offensive?  I don't strip my films of everything
that I might personally find inappropriate. Comedy or drama, I'm always
trying to make choices that stir the audience in all kinds of ways. This
Ronny Valentine character can be offensive and inappropriate at times and
those traits are fundamental to his personality and the way our story works.

Will comedy be neutered if everyone gets to complain about every
potentially offensive joke in every comedy that's made?  Anybody can
complain about anything in our country.  It's what I love about this place.
I defend the right for some people to express offense at a joke as
strongly as I do the right for that joke to be in a film.  But if
storytellers, comedians, actors and artists are strong armed into making
creative changes, it will endanger comedy as both entertainment and a
provoker of thought.

And what do you have against electric cars anyway?  Nothing!  We have a
couple of them in our family including the one I primarily and happily
drive.  Guess what that makes me in the eyes of our lead character?  But
then again, I don't agree with everything Ronny Valentine says and does
in this comedy any more than Vince Vaughn, the screenwriter or any
member of the audience should for that matter.

Photo: Ron Howard at an Academy luncheon in 2009 honoring its Oscar nominees. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times  

 

 

 
Comments () | Archives (60)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Thanks for publishing this. Ron Howard is a pretty rare example of a bright, creative, likeable guy in this business, who appears to know he is and what each of his movies are truly about. As a celebrity in the spotlight, he seems to handle himself naturally and hostestly when talking about any topic...even when he's on Howard Stern he remains himself but manages to be funny and interesting. And he handled himself well here. Maybe I'm already biased by my opinion of him, but I gave this some thought. For me, this thoughtful wide-ranging response from him to the five question puts this conversation to rest for me. Sometimes "gay" is over-used by some comedians in lieu of a clever punchline. It's up to me if I want to watch those comedians. It's also up to me if I was to see Ron Howard's movie, and I will.

Would anyone else be offended if the the joke used singled out any other minority, like "It's Jew."? Of course. So why use it? Howard says because Vaughn's character is controversial and he enjoys such characters. Vaughn has been playing the same character in his last ten movies. There's nothing original here; if the character was as rich as Archie Bunker, Roseanne, George Carlin or any of the other comic greats, then maybe the joke would have merit as a skewed view on modern culture, but what it ultimately does here is pander to a young audience who will only replicate the offensive joke because the filmmaker doesn't want to make his audience think.
What does "It's gay" mean anyway? It used to be that the worst way to emasculate a straight male would be to call him a girl, e.g., "you hit like a girl." Now, being called gay does the job. Let the gay minority (the straight populace, too) reclaim the word by replying "thank you" any time any one says "It's gay." Because history has a sleuth of valiant gay icons. It'd be nice to be equated to them.

There are thoughtful comments here and for those who are supporting Howard, who I do believe is trying to do what he thinks is right, I ask to walk a mile in the shoes of a gay person. It is easy to stand behind the free speech argument and there is some validity to that argument especially if the gov't is trying to take something away.

What most straight people don't realize is the constant belittling, harassment, and the straight majority making you less than when you are gay.I ask would the joke be as funny is Vaughn had said the car was a "jew car" or "it's for blacks". Those are ugly sentiments and bigoted.

In a time when anti-gay rhetoric is pushing gay kids to kill themselves. In the Tyler Clemente case if you read his posting after his roommate videotaped him having sex. it wasn't the act of videotaping but the ugly and homophobic comments online after his room mate posted the video that drove him to despair.

Now I don't expect straight people to understand fully how gay bullying doesn't stop when you are a kid just look at talkbacks on Deadline Hollywood Daily on this topic. And these are primarily industry people who should be better educated. Just read those and it will open your eyes to homophobic bullying among adults.

So to Ron Howard I appreciate your thoughtful response but know being gay I have to disagree with you. The time has come where gay people are going to start standing up and calling out all those things that make the gay teen suicide rate be 800% higher than their straight counterparts. So please Mr. Howard rethink your stance on this and it would mean a lot if you made a statement by taking it out rather than leaving it in.

The choice is your and free speech is on solid ground. I have to say it makes me sad that people are not more compassionate toward the constant barrage of gay jokes and how damaging the cumulative effect is. Love or Hate the choice is yours.

The person retyping things about A BEAUTIFUL MIND please get over yourself. People's opinions change, that's why its called growth. That's if we even go with your notion that he censored the movie.
Now to the gay thing, Cooper Anderson is so full of crap, I cant even say. Hey Cooper, here is a piece of advice, since you think that's so gay is so detrimental to kids, then why dont you help them by coming out of the closet. I am sure this will be very helpful to them, since you are successful, handsome and work for the biggest bigots of all, CNN.

To Ron: This is why I adore your movies, they are made from the heart with pure integrity. I do not believe any writer or film maker should ever sacrifice the complexity of their characters because they want to be politically correct. If we go down that route, then we might as well eradicate all art that contains offensive words.
Havent been to the movies in a bit, But I sure will go see this to support it.
As for the gay bullying yes my heart goes out to them, but can we for once consider that maybe these kids killed themselves because they were bullied and had other psychological issues, not necessarily because they were gay?

Good piece. Howard knows his stuff -- his craft and his audience.

Well done!

Hooray for Ron Howard!

I wish once and for all people would realize that art in any form is there to REFLECT back to the viewer and to PROVOKE a thought and consideration - like a mirror.

The responsibility lies with every individual who makes a conscious choice about his or her own behavior, as well as the conscious choice you make as to how you raise your children to think and what you allow your children to say & do.

Kids learn to bully and use racial, homophobic, xenophobic and political pejoratives from their parents and AT HOME. While they can certainly mimic these things from films, TV & music lyrics, it is their parents who allow them to go to these films, watch these programs, hear this music and repeat and mimic this stuff around the house and with their friends.

As Ron Howard points out, this is not a film made for kids. You are apparently supposed to glean that the Vaughn character is the kind of guy who thinks this sort of comment is okay and you are supposed to make your own judgment as to how that makes you feel, and maybe recognize how crude & callow it looks.

As for the recent victims of suicide from bullying, I will never understand why we hold schools accountable (or the media) and never the actual perpetrators of the bullying (and their parents!)

Howard's an idiot. The fact is, it's not a "free speech" issue. It's not a "gay joke."
It's the usage of the word "gay" to connote a negative that must be stopped.
And THAT'S what his movie does. It uses gay as a synonym for "lame, bad."
Shame on Ron Howard, and shame on you, Patrick, that you can't see that.

Would you tell the joke if it was the word "Black", "Asian", "Handicapped", etc etc.. what do they all have in common.. all of that group, including gay, are born this way.. Shame on you ron howard... I helped take care of your family when you were filming "Backdraft" in Chicago.. and I am now just ashamed of you..

It's not just the word gay, it's also the words retarded and lame used to express the ideas of not being good enough and unwanted. If you are a person who is gay, or has retardation or physical disabilities and everywhere you go you hear this idea being expressed, it corrodes your self-worth. You may come to accept it or become defensive about it, but regardless, you still take it inside of yourself. If you substituted the words black or elderly or bald it becomes clearer. Imagine that you were bald and everywhere you went people expressed their displeasure or disappointment in products, in people, in their life by saying statements such as "That's so bald!! Damn that's bald. Does that have to be soooooo bald?" Now imagine the people who feel so comfortable about being blatantly rude to your face are your friends, your parents, your teachers, and your heroes. You pretty much know hair isn't in your future. You feel shame. Using these words in this way signals to people that they are unacceptable. One instance isn't an issue, but over a lifetime it is punishing. This isn't about Ron Howard or this film, it's about intolerance.

For everybody whose protests include a variation of the phrase, "Substitute the 'n" word for 'gay' or 'Jewish' for 'gay'," you seem to forget that neither of those words carries the connotation that Vaughn's character was imparting. The line would be robbed if ANY humor, and would be unfunny to 100% of the population, instead of unfunny to only an estimated 10% of the population. As for the person who feebly makes his argument about censorship with an analysis of "A Beautiful Mind," your "logic" fails miserably. In that film, a decision was made by the filmmakers to exclude that aspect of Nash's life, but there's no evidence that it was done at the insistence of a vocal minority of bloggers. Here, you people want Howard to cut or change a line. He's not beholden to anybody at this stage of his career to start taking directing cues from a bunch of thin-skinned people who get in a tizzy over a single word throwaway line in what will probably be a movie that will do poor- to - middling business at the box office, anyway.

 
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