Writer/director Mike Mills’ father did something bold at the age of 75: After his wife of 45 years passed away, he came out of the closet as gay. That autobiographical story is the basis of the new film “Beginners,” opening next week in Atlanta.
In the film, the bombshell revelation comes from the mouth of Hal (Christopher Plummer) to his surprised son Oliver (Ewan McGregor). Hal isn’t interested in being quietly gay either: He wants to go out and find a new partner, even as he battles illness. How he goes about leading his life eventually parallels the relationship of Oliver, who has romantic issues of his own, has with an actress (Melanie Laurent) with her own baggage.
Although Mills based the film on his own family circumstances, it isn’t a mirror image.
“My story and the film story isn’t exactly one to one,” says Mills during a recent visit to Atlanta. “When I was going to college my oldest sister explained to me that my father had been gay, but that seemed like something in the past, not something that was alive. When he came out, it was surprising … It wasn’t like a shocker, but what was surprising was that he wanted to have sex. He wanted a boyfriend; he wanted to go for it.
“In my mind, he was a recently widowed man. My mom passing away was this huge, crucial, catastrophic moment in our life, and the last thing I thought is that he would want to take this leap right now, this big risk.”
Yet the director realized that by coming out, his father became more honest.
“The shame and suppression took a part of him, muted a part of him, but when that shame was gone, he came alive in lots of different ways. I had more of my dad,” says Mills.
‘Wish list’ cast
After Mills wrote the script for “Beginners,” he made a wish list of who he saw as the characters. He did, however, have to be careful to envision actors who would appear convincing as father and son. McGregor and Plummer fit that bill, and when they accepted the roles, Mills never mandated that they mimic the real–life counterparts.
“A lot of this is autobiographical — I certainly known about the relationship issues — but it’s not all of me,” he says. “It’s Ewan’s body and soul and spirit. We talk differently; he gets out of a car more handsomely than I do. Christopher is different than my dad. He is doing things my dad did; it’s a portrait of my dad. The goal was never to mimic us, to be limited by us, but to take advantage of the real texture I could provide.
“I remember saying to Ewan, ‘if you want to take something from me, and it makes it better, fine, but I am not comfortable with that idea. It’s your job to make it real for yourself and invest yourself.’ My greatest fear is that this was going to be a narcissistic, self-pitying memoir.”
Internal and external obstacles
While many of the obstacles his father had to face were external, Mills thinks many of his own challenges are internal.
“He was born in 1924 and was gay, and his first sexual feelings were for his guy friends,” he says. “That was in the ‘30s, and if people found out he could be in deep shit. It was a dangerous time. There was a Depression, a draft when he was 18, a war, post-war America and its constrictions, and severe limitations on freedom. Those were pretty external obstacles. Oliver’s is more inside his mind. There is no real villain.”
Mills notes that his parents’ marriage presented a paradox for their children.
“It was okay to them; it was something they could endure coming from the time they did,” he says. “It was a viable solution, but to me and my sisters it wasn’t a viable solution. The toll it took on real love, one complete with real desire, was something we felt internally more than our parents did.”
Shortly after his father came out, he got involved in his local Prime Timers association in the Santa Barbara gay community and with Gay Pride.
“He got involved with it all, and was very political,” says Mills. “He had movie night, dinner club. For me, it was great to have my recently widowed father have this full life. He was not lonely, or I imagine he was somewhat lonely, but he did things not to be lonely.”
Mills sensed that the relationship between his mother and father lacked a certain spark, but he does feel they loved each other.
“He and my mom knew each other from junior high,” says Mills. “There was some love there, and not just a horrible negotiation. They were tight. But when he came out, he became like a 16 year old. There were the firecrackers, that giddy excitement that new love brings — the insecurity, the fear of being rejected. I saw the full dish first hand.”
The director has seen ”Beginners” with audiences comprised of mostly gay people and with more heterosexual audiences and feels both have responded equally.
“I haven’t had any weird experiences, anything that jumped out,” he admits. “I did have one man ask ‘so you were okay with your dad coming out?’ And I wanted to say, ‘Did you see the movie?’ That was one of the better things that happened to me. My gay dad taught me so much about my straight relationships, my own love life.”
Top photo: ‘Beginners’ stars Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor (Courtesy Focus Features)