It’s the late 1990’s. A straight man at the top of his profession looks to have a bright future ahead of him. Then, through a series of misunderstandings, the media labels him as gay. Now his love life, his job, and his livelihood are at stake. How will he resolve the situation?
This is the premise for both In & Out (1997) and Three to Tango (1999). Both are light Romantic comedies focused around the subject of how a gay outing affects a straight man’s life.
In & Out
In & Out focuses on Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline), a teacher in the small town of Greenleaf, Indiana. He’s about to get married to another teacher (Joan Cusack). When former student Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon) wins the Oscar for playing a gay man, he thanks his “gay teacher,” Howard Brackett. The whole town suddenly becomes uncomfortable with Howard. Howard at first denies that he’s gay, but as time goes on, he starts to have his own doubts about his own heterosexuality.
The Creative Team
The film is primarily the creative brainchild of director Frank Oz, writer Paul Rudnick, and producer Scott Rudin.
Producer Scott Rudin took inspiration from Tom Hanks thanking his gay Drama teacher Rawley Farnsworth in his speech for Philadelphia (1993). He hired Paul Rudnick to write the script. Rudin had previously produced Addams Family Values (1993), which Rudnick wrote. Although reluctant at first, he decided to write the script and build it around a man getting married. Rudnick wanted to tell a coming out story that was in no way tragic.
As a screenwriter, Rudnick had previously written Sister Act (1992) starring Whoopi Goldberg. Many actors from Sister Act show up in In & Out. Whoopi Goldberg appears as herself in the Oscar sequence. Joseph Maher returns playing a priest who indirectly tells Howard to consummate his relationship with his bride to prove his heterosexuality. Rudin had also produced Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993).
Director Frank Oz had directed seven movies before this dating back to 1982. Among these were the small-town comedies What About Bob? (1991) and Housesitter (1992). In an interview with IGN, Oz describes the challenge of this film (and many of his other films) as finding the right tone. Oz saw the film as a screwball comedy and knew it could come off as either mean-spirited or lame.
The World of the Film
While homosexual panic is the subject matter, In & Out is more about not fitting into the strict confines of society. All of the characters act less to fulfill a desire, and more to fit into a certain identity.
Take Howard’s bride to be Emily Montgomery (Joan Cusack). She wants to be the perfect bride. Before the plot has even begun, she has lost a whole bunch of weight to fit into her wedding dress. When her wedding night goes wrong, she looks for a man to have sex with. When she meets Peter Malloy (Tom Selleck), she tries to have sex with him, but he stops her by revealing he’s gay. It’s not until she meets former student Cameron Drake that she finally starts to feel like she can be comfortable as herself again.
Since this is a Screwball comedy, every action is a little bigger and faster than it would be realistically. The whole plot takes place in about a week and a half. Instead of calling off the wedding to figure himself out, Howard literally comes out as gay at his wedding.
With casting, every actor is either playing their quintessential role or playing against their persona. Kline plays his articulate leading man. Cusack plays a lovable but deeply neurotic woman. Wholesome Debbie Reynolds plays a mother who wants a strict wedding. Gruff Wilford Brimley plays Kline’s masculine father. Playing against type, Man’s man Tom Selleck plays the gay entertainment reporter who comes to town. Matt Dillon plays a parody of the type of serious dramatic actor he is.
In & Out received only moderate Box office success, but was well received by critics. For her role, Joan Cusack was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Oz and Rudnick would re-team for the remake of The Stepford Wives in 2004. Unlike In & Out, it would prove more expensive and less successful.
Three to Tango
In Three to Tango, Chicago architect Oscar Novak (Matthew Perry) has to pretend to be gay to spy on Amy Post (Neve Campbell), the mistress of high-powered client Charles Newman (Dylan McDermott). Things grow increasingly complicated when Oscar falls for Amy.
The Creative Team
Three to Tango existed for eight years before getting made. According to the DVD extras, original screenwriter Rodney Vaccaro based the film on the story of how he met and fell in love with his wife. Director Damon Santostefano had a successful career as a television director before this movie. The Producers liked him for the project because he had a light fun cinematic style.
Probably the most well-known person from the production today is the woman who rewrote the script, Aline Brosh McKenna. This is her first credited movie. She would go on to write The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and co-create the TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015).
The World of the Film
Three to Tango feels like a sitcom crossed with a standup act. From the production design to the acting, everything feels pronounced and emphasized. The jokes range from witty banter to straight up cartoonish bits, such as a character getting electrocuted and surviving. Characters walk into wacky situations rather than having their actions lead to them. This includes a scene where Oscar walks in on Amy in the bath and she allows it due to his homosexuality. Every character has a physical bit to perform, from swallowing droplets to clicking a pen. The colors pop off the screen. Blues, purples, reds, oranges, yellows, and other colors pop out brightly in production design.
Like many mainstream movies, Three to Tango is made up of popular elements from the time period. It stars Matthew Perry of Friends fame, Neve Campbell of the Scream franchise, and Dylan McDermott of The Practice (1997-2004). Actor Patrick Van Horn played one of the friends in the extremely popular independent movie Swingers (1996). He plays a similar role here. Unlike the casting in In & Out, the casting feels very faddish and of the moment.
On top of that, the plot and character have been done before by the lead actor. Perry’s character of Chandler on Friends had a tenuous connection to heteronormative masculinity. While clearly straight, Chandler often got connected with gay culture. Chandler father was a drag queen played by Kathleen Turner. Multiple plotlines (before and after this movie) have Chandler being mistaken for a homosexual or engaging in acts that would be considered feminine.
Three to Tango received both poor critical and Box Office reception. It made back only half its production budget. Many critics felt it had an unclear tone and style.
Differences in Characterization
Although both films focus on somewhat effeminate men who love sports, they have much different emphasis on their characters.
In & Out’s Howard Brackett is a lovable intellectual. He’s a warm and fun-loving guy. When he is labelled a homosexual, the humor comes from society’s narrow perspective of homosexuality and masculinity. This ranges from Howard trying to act like a masculine man to people treating him differently for acting more effeminate. The townspeople like Howard and are concerned about him, even if they act ignorantly about homosexuality. Often, the community is also trying to figure out how they feel about somebody they know and love being a homosexual.
Three to Tango focuses more on straight male insecurities. There is no question that Oscar Novak is straight. When this situation happens to Oscar, the jokes are much less character based. The character reactions to Oscar’s “homosexuality” feel more like comedy bits. Oscar’s father puts a bucket on his head and bangs it against a wall. Oscar also has gender roles more explicitly reversed on him more than once. This ranges from meeting a gay Football player to being hit on by a man on the bus. He even complains about this treatment to a Greek chorus of women. The final revelation is about Oscar coming out as straight because he does not deserve a gay award.
Differences in Plot
Three to Tango is half the movie that In & Out is. That is not a comment on quality. Three to Tango literally has half the story that In & Out does.
At the mid-point of In & Out, Howard comes out as gay. The rest of the movie focuses on how him admitting his true sexuality affects Howard and everybody around him. When Howard actually comes out at his wedding, he is forced to resign from his job as a teacher. When the town learns of this at graduation, the principal (Bob Newhart) scrambles to explain this situation. He says that they believe Howard’s homosexuality will rub off on the children. In response to this, each one of them stands up and says that they are gay. This act allows him to keep his job
While the big revelation about the lead’s sexuality comes in the middle of In & Out’s story, it comes at the end of Three to Tango. When Oscar comes out as straight, Three to Tango just wraps up quickly. There are a lot of quick lines and speeches to wrap up the movie instead of actions. By allowing the revelation to happen earlier, In & Out spends a lot of time developing how Howard and the town react to homosexuality.
In & Out comes from more experienced people than Three to Tango. The hero is faced with the same situation, but have much different outcomes.
In In & Out, the protagonist learns something about himself and grows. By realizing he is gay and admitting it, Howard not only becomes a better man, he also allows everybody else to have what they actually want. Howard’s fiancée gets to have a healthier view of eating and her body. Cameron Drake finds a new love with her. His wedding obsessed mother gets to renew her vows to her husband.
Three to Tango has the protagonist experiencing homosexuality as a reversal of masculinity. However, Matthew Perry is a nice guy without much of an arc. He starts out the movie as insecure and ends it that way. Perry’s Oscar already respects women (somewhat), so his predicament does not require him to change his chauvinist viewpoint of them. He does not have to grow or change to win over Amy. She just sort of comes back to him.
While the premise is almost identical, the choices the creative team makes decide how the movie works out.