Consenting Adult aired on ABC on February 4, 1985. Marlo Thomas and Martin Sheen reject their son (Top Gun’s Barry Tubb) when he comes out. Cue earnest monologues and screaming arguments. This TV-drama hasn’t aged as well as similar works like That Certain Summer (1972) and Doing Time on Maple Drive (1992). The parents think it’s an illness. The son and his sister do not. The film never quite picks a side.
Learn more in my spoiler filled recap.
Act One: Coming Out
I believe that thousands of young people who are still in agony over their discovery that they are homosexual will see this picture and realize they must stop being ashamed.Laura Hobson, Author
Scene One: Party
DAD (Martin Sheen): Thanks for coming to my post stroke recovery party.
MOM (Marlo Thomas): Our son’s on the phone.
SON (Barry Tubb): Glad you aren’t dead dad.
DAD: Glad that you’re a perfect son who will never disappoint me.
Scene Two: Campus Visit
MOM: How are you liking college?
SON: College is great and I’m gay.
SON: Good talk mom. (Leaves.)
MOM: We need to find a doctor. Our son thinks he’s gay.
DAD: MY SON IS A DEGENERATE? THIS IS THE END OF MY FAMILY NAME!
MOM: DON’T MAKE THIS ALL ABOUT YOU!
Act Two: Therapy
Scene Three: Conversion Therapy
PSYCHIATRIST: I’ve cured 25% of my gay patients.
SON: Sure Jan.
FEMALE FRIEND: Want to hook up?
GUY NEAR CAMPUS: Want to hook up?
(A thunder storm covers the sounds of homosexual intercourse.)
Scene Four: Family Christmas
MOM: We got through chicken pox. We’ll get through this.
LIBERAL SISTER: Mom, just chill.
SON: I’m not sick. I’m just super gay.
DAD: Then I’m cutting you off.
SON: I don’t need your money! (Dramatic door slam.)
Act Three: Truce
Scene Five: Diner
STRAIGHT FRIEND: Look at those queers!
SON: You got a problem with queers? Then you got a problem with me.
STRAIGHT EX-FRIEND: I’ve been living with a queer? (Throws a book at him.)
SON: Not for long. I’m moving in with my boyfriend.
Scene Six: Funeral
(Months later. Dad has died from another stroke.)
MOM: He wrote a letter saying he still loved you in spite of… you know.
SON: We never did make peace.
MOM: I won’t make that mistake. I’d like to meet your… f-f-f-friend.
SON: I’ll take it.
Free To Be You and Me
Dad runs to his room and sobs, mom trots the kid off to a psychiatrist and everyone runs around with a very long puss. ”Consenting Adult” is the big daring TV movie of the year, except the year is 1975.Tom Shales, Chicago Tribune
It’s tempting to quote the Chicago Tribune review in full. It’s full of zingers and brings up several of the film’s issues. It took Producer Ray Aghayan a decade to bring Laura Z. Hobson’s novel to the screen. The response was mixed. Aghayan praised the fact that the son accepts his sexuality and stands up for himself. Critics felt the son was a bland cipher and that the film was dated. Vito Russo called it a gay film for straight people. ABC tacitly agreed. They warned viewers that “one out of every four American families will have to face the same crisis.”
What do we learn about the son? He’s a med student and a swimming champ. The trophies on the mantle suggest he worked hard to play The Golden Boy. He’s tried “touching” women but he’s been lusting for guys since junior high. At the top of the film, he’s ashamed and self-loathing. His father’s rejection triggers pride and repressed rage. He stands up to his family and to campus bullies. His new boyfriend looks vaguely like him and can cook. We don’t learn what the “two jobs” are that pay his way through school. But he’s a happier person at the end of the film than he is at the start. In 1985 that was still rare.