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A screenwriter is the person (or group of persons) who writes the script upon which a film is based. A script can be an original creation or an adaptation of previously published material.

However, it is important to note that most films involve a complex weave of talents, properties, and personalities. Moreover, film is usually considered a director's rather than a writer's medium; consequently, it is often the director's rather than the writer's vision that shapes a film.

Therefore, the extent of a screenwriter's contribution to any given film can sometimes be difficult to ascertain. Nevertheless, gay and lesbian screenwriters have played significant roles in both mainstream and independent film.

The Hollywood-Studio Era

During the Hollywood-studio era, roughly from the 1920s through the 1960s, homosexuality was rarely portrayed on the screen. When it did appear, it was typically depicted as something to laugh at or to scorn. As a result, gay and lesbian screenwriters learned to express their personal sensibilities discreetly between the lines of a film.

Perhaps the most significant and prominent lesbian filmmaker to function in the studio era was Dorothy Arzner. Although working within the constraints on form and content imposed by the studio system, Arzner nevertheless brought a distinctive, personal point of view to her films about strong-willed, independent women, within the context of such controversial subjects as extramarital sex, prostitution, and cross-class relationships.

Arzner began her film career as a stenographer in the script department of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (later to become Paramount Studios) in 1919. She later advanced to writing scenarios for an assortment of silent features including the westerns The No-Gun Man (1924) and The Breed of the Border (1924); the drama The Red Kimona (1925), from a story on prostitution by Adela Rogers St. Johns; When Husbands Flirt (1925), a comedy; and the pirate adventure Old Ironsides (1926). In 1927, Arzner stopped writing scripts and turned her talents to directing; she completed nearly 20 films, spanning both the silent and sound eras, before retiring in 1943.

Notable gay male screenwriters of the studio era include Stewart Stern, Gavin Lambert, and Arthur Laurents.

A former stage actor, Stewart Stern turned to scriptwriting in the late 1940s, beginning with such television anthology shows as Philco Television Playhouse and Playhouse 90. He earned his first screenplay credit with the drama Teresa (1951), about a young war veteran struggling to adjust to civilian life. Stern went on to write scripts for such varied films as The Rack (1956), The Outsider (1962), Rachel, Rachel (1968), Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973), and the television movie Sybil (1976), an award-winning story of a young woman with multiple personalities.

Stern's principal contribution to gay cinema is his screenplay for the classic alienated-teen drama Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The film features a gay-implied character, Plato, who is befriended by fellow high school students Jim and Judy. Although Plato's sexuality is never made explicit in the film, the character's yearnings were clear enough in the script for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)--the governing board that determined what was and was not acceptable in films at the time--to send a memo to the filmmakers stating, "It is of course vital that there be no inference of a questionable or homosexual relationship between Plato and Jim."

Nonetheless, Plato's affectionate glances at Jim, and small details in the film, such as a photograph of the actor Alan Ladd taped to the inside of Plato's school locker, help to imply the character's feelings.

British-born writer Gavin Lambert began his screenwriting career with Another Sky (1954), which he also directed; the film concerns the sexual awakening of a prim English woman in North Africa. Subsequent Lambert scripts include Bitter Victory (1958), Sons and Lovers (1960), based on the novel by D. H. Lawrence, and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), an adaptation of the Tennessee Williams novella, about an aging actress who becomes involved with a young Italian gigolo. Some critics have detected a homosexual subtext in the latter film, based primarily on a scene where the actress overhears herself being referred to as a "chicken hawk"--gay slang for an adult homosexual who is attracted to much younger men.

In 1965, Lambert adapted his novel Inside Daisy Clover for the screen. Set in the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, the film tells the cautionary tale of a teenage movie star and her unhappy marriage to a closeted homosexual leading man. Lambert also wrote the scripts for made-for-television movies on tennis pro Renee Richards (Second Serve, 1986), and the gay, though closeted, performer Liberace (Liberace: Behind the Music, 1988).

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A portrait of screenwriter Gavin Lambert by Stathis Orphanos.
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