Before Will and Grace, Sean Hayes starred in the indie film Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss. Billy’s a depressed photographer who falls for an enigmatic model (Brad Rowe). The guy says he’s straight but Billy spends the rest of the film harassing him. The story is a sour tragedy masquerading as a fluffy romcom. All bright colors and cheery pop songs. The contrast would work if the film had some self-awareness. Instead it mistakes Billy’s creepy arrested development for innocence and charm. He’s one of the worst gay romcom protagonists in a competitive field.
Am I overthinking this? Let’s take a closer look in my spoiler filled recap.
Act One: A New Muse
Scene One: A Party in Los Angeles
(Drag Queens dance and lip sync.)
BILLY (A photographer. Played by Sean Hayes): I’m gay, single and unemployed.
GALLERY OWNER: I’ll pay you to complete your Polaroid series on Hollywood screen kisses. Like From Here to Eternity and-
BILLY: (Rolls his eyes.) Stop trying to help! I don’t actually want to improve my life!
(Billy sees Brad Rowe, a handsome waiter.)
BILLY: You should model.
BRAD ROWE: I have a girlfriend.
BILLY: You’re rejecting me like my best friend in elementary school did when he learned I was gay!
BRAD ROWE: You’re 28. Shouldn’t you be over that?
Scene Two: Art Gallery
BILLY: He might be a Kinsey 2.
GALLERY OWNER: Date men who actually want you. Like m-
BILLY: You’re judging me like my best friend in high school did when he learned I was gay!
GALLERY OWNER: Shouldn’t you be over that?
(Billy dreams he’s dancing with Brad Rowe. Brad dances badly and ditches him for a woman.)
BILLY: He even dances like a straight guy.
Act Two: Uncomfortable
Scene Three: Beach
BRAD ROWE: I don’t feel comfortable in these tight swim trunks.
BILLY: (Rolls his eyes.) Oh Brad, I don’t care about your feelings.
(The photo shoot commences… off-screen.)
BILLY: It’s a shame they don’t show me doing something I’m good at. It might have made my character more interesting.
BRAD ROWE: I just got offered an underwear modeling gig in Catalina.
BILLY: What does your “girlfriend” think of that?
BRAD ROWE: We broke up. Why? Are you going to ask me out?
BILLY: No. I’m just going to stare at you awkwardly.
Scene Four: Billy’s Apartment
BRAD ROWE: Other guys want something from me. You treat me with respect.
BILLY: Since when?
BRAD ROWE: Mind if I spend the night?
(Brad Rowe crawls into bed and “pretends” to sleep. Billy “pretends” to molest him.)
BRAD ROWE: What, are we 14? (He leaves.)
BILLY: How dare you.
Act Three: Rebounds
Scene Five: Catalina Beach
(Billy stalks Brad Rowe.)
BRAD ROWE: Hi Billy. Meet my new boyfriend.
HOT MALE MODEL: Hi.
BILLY: So, I launched your career and helped you come out? You’re welcome.
(Billy throws his camera into the sea.)
BILLY: No one loves me!
GALLERY OWNER: I was in love with you for years. (Kisses him.) But I grew up and got over it. (Leaves.)
Epilogue: Art Gallery
RANDOM MAN: I liked your photo exhibition. Did you stage any kisses besides From Here to Eternity?
BILLY: I’ve no idea. We dropped that plot thread. Did I learn anything from all this?
RANDOM MAN: Dunno. But if we keep making small talk the audience will assume that we’re going to hook up.
BILLY: Aww. You’re my consolation prize.
“It’s fairly autobiographical. It’s sort of based on my straight crushes. I’ve had several… The idea is to take a story that’s pretty personal and blow it up on a grand cinematic scale.”Tommy O’Haver, Writer/Director
Billy’s future is unclear. A generous reading would say that he’s found some closure and self-respect. The Hollywood dreams and traumatic childhood stories suggest he’s never in the present. There’s no guarantee his new admirer will snap him out of his delusions. Roger Ebert called the ambiguous ending a “giant, soggy, wet-blanket.”
Sean Hayes’ star would launch with Will and Grace that year. At the same time he faced a lot of criticism from the gay community for playing the caricatured Jack McFarland on screen and demanding privacy off the set. I didn’t mind Jack’s femininity. I minded his lack of inner life. His co-stars were allowed a range of emotions that he was denied. But Jack’s more fun than the gloomy Billy. Writer/Director Tommy O’Haver said that Hayes made Billy “bright and cheery” enough to offset his self-loathing. I disagreed.
Brad Rowe was marketed as the next Brad Pitt. This was a blessing and a curse. He walks a fine line here as the sexually ambiguous model. He underplays and lets the audience fill in the gaps. Critics called the role a “shallow opportunist” (Variety), a “shrink-wrapped boy toy” (New York Times) and “a mystery” to the end. (AV Club). Rowe initially said he played the role “fairly straight.” Years later he described the character as “newly out of the closet.” He’d play the flip side of that in the 2007 romance Shelter. That role was a confident gay man mentoring a scared closeted case.
Writer and director Tommy O’Haver was hired to direct Archie for Universal Pictures. I’d love to know why it was cancelled, and if anyone involved stayed on for Riverdale.
Have you seen Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss? What did you think of it? Did you sympathize with Billy? Dislike him? Both? Who would you cast in these roles today?
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