Word is Out
- Activist Sally Gearhart in Word Is Out
How many films have actually saved lives? This 1977 documentary did. Subtitled Stories from Some of Our Lives, Word Is Out was the first feature-length documentary about gay men and lesbians filmed from their own perspective. This mosaic of 26 interviews was created by gay filmmakers, led by visionary director Peter Adair, to capture a picture of life before and immediately after the birth of the gay liberation movement in 1968. Within months of its debut, thousands of gay men and lesbians had written to the Mariposa Film Group to thank them for making the picture and, in some cases, credit the film with saving their lives simply by showing positive images in stark contrast to the stereotypes then prevalent in popular entertainment.
In all, Adair devoted five years of his life to the film, working with five co-producers to assemble 250 interviews. Eventually, they narrowed the focus to 26 people, ranging in age from 18 to 77, from housewives and drag queens to poets and political activists. Among the subjects are pioneering activist Harry Hay, the co-founder of both the Mattachine Society and the Radical Faeries, poet Elsa Gidlow, inventor John Burnside, avant-garde filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky, activist Sally Gearhart and Star Trek writer David Gillon ("The Trouble with Tribbles"). Getting the stories to come together was a major undertaking. Over the course of two years, the production team edited each interview into a mini-film of its own, then interwove them to create a tapestry of gay and lesbian life in America.
The idea originated with Adair, a documentary filmmaker grappling with his own coming out issues. He brought in his sister, Nancy, who had no previous film experience, to tape interviews with lesbians for use in a fundraising reel that eventually brought in $30,000. With that money in place, they approached sound editor Veronica Selver, who had just finished work on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). An ad for a production assistant -- "No experience necessary, just insane dedication and a cooperative spirit" -- brought in schoolteacher Andrew Brown and college dropout Rob Epstein. The fact that all of them were gay created a bond reinforced by Adair's openness to everyone's suggestions and contributions.
Once they had completed the first eight interviews, shot in the San Francisco area, the team assembled a three-hour cut and set up community screenings to raise more money and elicit feedback. These inspired the filmmakers to broaden their scope to create a true picture of gay life around the nation. They also brought a new member to the team, editor Lucy Massie Phenix, who joined up after seeing the three-hour cut. At that point, Nancy Adair, Selver, Brown and Epstein set out to find interview subjects around the U.S. while Peter Adair and Phenix stayed in San Francisco to raise money. After two months, they reassembled for a two-week retreat in Cape Cod, where they realized the production group had become more of a collective than the typical hierarchical filmmaking structure. At the retreat they also identified the remaining interview subjects and determined who would conduct each of the new interviews.
Word Is Out premiered at the Castro Theatre in the heart of San Francisco's gay district and was greeted with glowing reviews. The Los Angeles Times hailed it as a "landmark," while Judith Crist in TV Guide cited its humanity and compassion. Coming as Anita Bryant and other conservative figures were launching the backlash against the gay rights movement, the film was viewed as a major breakthrough. Vito Russo, author of the seminal study of gays and lesbians in the media, The Celluloid Closet, summed up the community response when he wrote in The Advocate "The silence of gay people on the screen has been broken."
Success followed for the film's creators. Adair continued working in film, most notably on the documentary Absolutely Positive (1991), a look at 11 men and women living with HIV. The disease claimed his life in 1996. His sister, Nancy, produced the book version of Word Is Out with their mother, Casey. Epstein continues to produce acclaimed documentaries, winning Oscars® for The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), while Phenix has worked on such popular documentaries as The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980) and Regret to Inform (1998).
Word Is Out also produced a breakout star. Most reviews said Pat Bond, a San Francisco actress, stole the film with her humorous and poignant stories of life in the military during and after World War II, when the Army set out to purge lesbians from its ranks (she avoided a dishonorable discharge by marrying a gay soldier). Her popularity in the film led to renewed interest in her acting, and she toured the nation in a series of one-woman shows, including Conversations with Pat Bond, an evening of reminiscences, and Gerty Gerty Gerty Stein Is Back Back Back, a tribute to Gertrude Stein that was eventually broadcast over PBS stations. Bond also appeared in a handful of movies and TV shows, including a memorable guest spot on Designing Women as Julia Sugarbaker's favorite schoolteacher. After her passing in 1990, her friends established The Pat Bond Memorial Old Dyke Award, given annually to honor notable Bay Area lesbians over 60.
In 2008, Word Is Out's legacy was renewed with the release of a 35mm restoration made from the original 16mm color negatives and audio recordings under the auspices of the UCLA Film & Television Archive and Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation. The new version premiered at the Castro as part of the Frameline Film Festival and has played around the country to renewed appreciation. When the restoration premiered in New York, Village Voice critic Melissa Anderson called it "a revelation 32 years ago and still enormously powerful today...."
Producer: Peter Adair, Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein, Lucy Massie Phenix, Veronica Selver
Director: Nancy Adair, Peter Adair, Rob Epstein, Andrew Brown, Veronica Selver, Lucy Massie Phenix
Cinematography: Peter Adair, Nancy Adair, Andrew Brown, Rob Epstein, Lucy Massie Phenix, Veronica Selver
Music: Trish Nugent
Cast: Harry Hay, Elsa Gidlow, Sally M. Gearhart, John Burnside, Nathanial Dorsky, Pat Bond, George Mendenhall, David Gillon.
by Frank Miller