Yep, she’s too gay
That’s what ABC thinks. Ellen DeGeneres tells a very different story. An exclusive look inside TV’s most bitter battle.
May 8, 1998
By Jess Cagle, with reporting by Joe Flint
Picture Editor: Doris Brautigan
"What is normal?... Before The Beverly Hillbillies people used to think it was weird to eat dinner off a pool table. And now we know better."
-Ellen Morgan, Feb. 11, 1998
She had a sinking feeling that the show would be canceled. And so before she left the building on March 11, before she walked off Disney's soundstage No. 7 for what would almost certainly be the last time, Ellen DeGeneres wanted to say a few words. She had said so much in the last year, first by shouting "Yep, I'm gay", on the cover of Time magazine, then, more recently, by publicly pummeling ABC executives, whom she believed had abandoned her show and betrayed her by slapping a parental advisory on it. Last month, however, she spoke quietly. "Is everybody here?" she asked crowd. Ellen's Jeremy Piven and Joely Fisher were standing close by, as were the show's crew, her mother, and Ellen's creative team. "I can't thank you all enough," she said, her voice breaking. "You've all been part of this very controversial show, and I'm sure you get a lot of s‑‑‑ from a lot of people.... The fact that you've supported me through all of this means a whole lot to me. It's been a wonderful run."
It was a terribly sad moment ‑some of the crew began crying, as did her mother, and DeGeneres was in tears by the time she had finished speaking. But it was also a very Ellen moment. For through it all, she was dolled up like Lucy Ricardo, in a peasant dress with an oversize pregnancy pouch underneath. And she was standing in a giant vat full of coffee beans, having just taped a segment of this season's star-cameo‑packed, hour‑long Ellen finale airing May 13. At any other time, the sight of her climbing out of the vat might have provoked laughs. This time the crew simply applauded respectfully.
Shooting a documentary for Britain's Channel Four called The Real Ellen Story, codirectors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey followed her to the soundstage door. There they hung back and watched as Ellen DeGeneres disappeared into a shaft of afternoon light.
Thus Ellen ended as inauspiciously as it began five seasons ago, just one year after it made history and a few short months after DeGeneres was hailed as EW's 1997 Entertainer of the Year. On April 30 of last year, 36.2 million viewers watched its lead character, Ellen Morgan, not only come out of the closet but become the first leading gay prime‑time character ever, and a test case for the nation's tolerance. Denounced on the right (Jerry Falwell infamously dubbed her "Ellen DeGenerate"), embraced by the Left, and hyped to the heavens, Ellen also became the network's great lavender hope‑‑a show that could give it a dose of hip and possibly even help pull it out of third place.
Of course, that never happened. There were the diminishing ratings this season (the show averaged just 12.4 million viewers) and the ever‑widening rift between DeGeneres and ABC. Though ABC promised to bring Ellen back after replacing it mid‑season with Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place, it recently yanked the last two half‑hour episodes. (Two Guys, a critical dud with its own falling ratings, will stay on until Ellen's finale airs.) Finally, on April 23, ABC made it official: Ellen was no more.
Says Stuart Bloomberg, the chairman of ABC Entertainment, speaking for the first time about the Ellen problem: 'We put the show on and truly supported it in the midst of tremendous pressure, because it was funny. But as the show became more politicized and issue oriented, it became less funny and the audience noticed."
Says DeGeneres, "I was fired basically because I'm gay."
And that, in a nutshell, is both sides of the story. What follows, with apologies to Paul Harvey, is the rest of the story.
Ellen Degeneres, 40, and her lover of one year, actress Anne Heche, 28, hold hands even at home ‑a newly acquired Spanish Gothic house in L.A.'s Hancock Park, an expensively unassuming Leave It to Beaver‑esque enclave. With their respective packs of Marlboro Lights, they sit on the patio for an interview and face the inevitable question:
Anne, is there any truth to the rumor that you slept with Vince Vaughn (Swingers) and dumped Ellen for him?
"Actually, everybody got that wrong," Heche says. "It was Ellen who slept with Vince. I got upset and came back to kill her."
Ellen: "And now I'm dead."
Anne: "That's it. Being married to a dead person, it's cool, it's different. We've already done the gay thing."
Anne eventually retreats to their upstairs bedroom to read some scripts that have been sent her way ‑though not as many as one might expect. Heche's next film is this summer's Six Days, Seven Nights, in which she costars with Harrison Ford, and Hollywood is waiting to see if audiences will buy her as a heterosexual romantic lead.
“Over the summer I got more comfortable with who I was. I got a sense of pride for the first time in my life.”
Ellen stays on the patio, talks for a few minutes about spirituality, and acknowledges that a number of people would be surprised that a gay person would talk to God every morning, as she says she does. Has she been hurt by the attacks from the Right? Not really. "If that was my only opposition," she says, "then that would be okay." The other opposition? Some members of the gay community who've been critical of her. 'We know you're a lesbian," said Elton John in New York magazine last year. "Shut up. Just be funny!" Even Chastity Bono, the spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, was quoted as saying Ellen was "too gay."
"I called her as soon as I heard that," says DeGeneres. "I said, 'What's up? What're you doing?" She says Bono apologized and told her the comments were taken out of context. "I believe her," says DeGeneres, who's quick to add, "I think that you have to be really careful, though, if that's your job as a spokesperson, to word things in a way that someone can't misconstrue them."
Ellen's still miffed about the incident, because the allegation that the show became "too gay" irritates her on a deeply personal level. The criticism stems primarily from the Nielsens: In addition to fewer viewers this season, the show retained only 76 percent of the 18‑ to 49‑year‑olds watching its lead‑in, The Drew Carey Show. The rap is that many of Ellen's gay‑themed story lines ‑Ellen gets a steady girlfriend, Ellen finds a plumber through the gay business directory‑ were stuff that most Americans couldn't relate to. "After a while people get tired of being educated," says Jonathan Stark, a former coexec producer on the show. "I love watching Ellen as a comic, not a spokesperson."
"This year was magnificently written," says Tracy Newman, another ex-coexec producer, "but she got heavy-handed. The very thing that made her the right person to do the coming‑out episode was missing ‑the light touch." Indeed, the show fluctuated from merely poignant (Ellen visits her girlfriend in the hospital) to broadly comic (Ellen at a wake in a chicken suit). Another problem: Her supporting cast ‑Piven, Fishen, Clea Lewis, and David Anthony Higgins‑were often relegated to deep background. "I was upset at times," concedes Fisher, the only supporting player who agreed to speak for this article, but "it allowed me to do other things."
Yet none of this explains why Ellen ‑which could be "heavy‑handed" but was also damn funny‑ crashed and burned. And the label "too gay" is too easy. It implies that audiences are turned off by gay subject matter (not according to the box office grosses of In & Out and The Birdcage), and that successful sitcoms feature characters easier to relate to ‑as if we all hang out with monumentally selfish New Yorkers like the ones on Seinfeld.
DeGeneres blames the network and its lack of promotional support for this season's drop‑off. "They advertised Spin City, Dharma & Greg, Drew Carey, and I would get 'followed by Ellen,' like anybody's gonna watch that," she says, lighting a cigarette while Trevor, her pet Lab, chases birds by the pool. "I think [ABC] got pressure from all these groups of people, and they collapsed.... They basically sabotaged the show." (DeGeneres says that Disney, which owns both her show and ABC, stayed neutral during her fights with the network.) She also maintains that The Drew Carey Show, which aired before her, at 9 p.m., didn't fit well as a lead‑in. "I always compared it to having Mariah Carey and Sinéad O'Connor on the same bill," she says.
ABC counters that Drew Carey was the best lead‑in available (it's ABC's second‑highest‑rated sitcom after Home Improvement), that being an "adult" show meant it had to air at 9 p.m. or later (diminishing time‑slot possibilities), and that Ellen was treated like any other sitcom.
Then again, the show wasn't any other sitcom. Ellen may not have been "too gay," but its star was. According to sociologist Alan Wolfe's acclaimed book One Nation, After All, while Americans' general tolerance levels are high "they have not come to accept homosexuality as normal and they intensely dislike bilingualism," he writes.
Luckily for DeGeneres, she speaks English. But the point is, her personal coming out a year ago may well have decided her show's fate. It was a bolder statement than she imagined ‑and thoroughly at odds with her awkward, please‑like‑me TV persona, which ABC was counting on to carry the show. "It's hard to say what turned a lot of people off;" she says. "I assumed that people already had some idea that I was gay." Then there were her sweet (to some) but shocking (to many) public displays of affection with Heche, who landed them on front pages simply by putting her arm around Ellen at last year's White House Correspondents Dinner. "That was hard for everybody to digest," DeGeneres says candidly. "They watched me be very public in a relationship, and they'd never seen that before."
As she said in interviews surrounding the coming‑out episode, DeGeneres' own coming out was selfish. Created by Carol Black, Neal Marlens, and David Rosenthal as These Friends of Mine in 1994, her show went up and down in the ratings, changing names once, changing casts more than once, and changing writers and producers a lot more than once. Along the way, DeGeneres hasn't inspired much loyalty in employees: 'We all felt underappreciated," says one of last season's staffers, none of whom returned in the fall. 'We won her an Emmy [for the coming‑out episode], and this season she said, 'Now I have my dream writing staff."
"We had an amazing writing team last season," says DeGeneres, who explains that the above comment referred "to the show finally having a point of view because Ellen Morgan came out." And, in fact, DeGeneres had no intention of coming back last fall for a fifth season; by exiting the closet, she had hoped to end the series on a high note. "People made a bad deal for me when it started," says DeGeneres, who doesn't own the rights to her show and therefore won't reap big syndication bucks (Ellen reruns have been sold to the Lifetime cable network, which Disney partially owns). But Disney offered her a raise, to $175,000 per episode, and ABC Entertainment prez Jamie Tarses supported the unveiling of Ellen Morgan's sex life, albeit with "baby steps."
DeGeneres reluctantly agreed to return, but over the summer she changed radically. Toward the end of last season, she started getting letters, notably from gay teenagers thanking her for her courage; several wrote that they had considered suicide, and she made them feel less alone. "I got more comfortable with who I was," says DeGeneres. "I got a sense of pride for the first time in my life." By the time she returned for the 1997‑98 season, she was thinking less about "baby steps," more about fighting bigotry, in part by showing the world that monogamous gay relationships do exist.
Asked to describe the most significant change in DeGeneres over the last year, Heche says promptly, "She's become an activist." Which is one role ABC‑and, it seems, much of her audience‑never wanted Ellen to play.
Her war with ABC execs Bloomberg, Tarses, and especially their boss, president Bob Iger, began with a warning: "This program contains adult content. Parental discretion is advised."
DeGeneres was at home, watching the show, when she first heard the parental advisory. She immediately called for a face‑to‑face meeting with Iger. She said she was "personally insulted" by the disclaimer. She told him about the teens who had written her, about gay bashing, and how the advisory sent a message that "gay people don't deserve equal treatment." DeGeneres says that Iger (who wouldn't comment for this story) agreed to take her argument under consideration. In the meantime, he asked Ellen to stop airing her grievances in the press‑a habit that was irking her corporate bosses (she even made the impolitic move of criticizing Michael Eisner, chairman of Disney; DeGeneres complained to TV Guide that Eisner hadn't called to congratulate her on the Emmy).
The next battle began with a kiss. For a show that would air on Oct. 29, 1997, Lisa Darr was cast as Laurie, a single lesbian mother who would become Ellen's recurring love interest. There was some debate on the length of the first kiss between the two, which ultimately ran about two seconds, with the actresses in profile. Tim Doyle, Ellen's executive producer, got the go-ahead from Bloomberg to shoot it, but on the night of the show's taping, a representative from ABC's standards and practices department interrupted and insisted that the kiss be shot from another angle. "They just wanted to show the back of my head," recalls DeGeneres. Doyle and DeGeneres won that round, but the net insisted that Laurie's last line be changed: "Especially since you wanna take me like a wild animal" became "especially since I've never dated a wild animal."
"They're not gonna stop," an angry DeGeneres told Doyle. "We have to stand up to them. Any other show would've gotten away with that line. Anybody else."
The advisories kept airing, further infuriating DeGeneres. She kept on ABC suits about promotion until they stopped returning her calls. "Ellen is very thin‑skinned for someone so courageous," says a Disney exec. On the other hand, he notes, "there are people at ABC and Disney who have an inherent dislike of the show. That kept them from embracing, creatively, what was a solid show." And he agrees with DeGeneres on something else: "There was no promotion push."
By late last February –just before Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place replaced her‑ DeGeneres sensed that this season would be her last (Disney did shop the show to other networks, with no takers). She began writing her finale, a sweeping mockumentary about groundbreaking TV with appearances by (among others) Jennifer Aniston, Kathy Najimy, and Woody Harrelson. "It's really cool," says DeGeneres. "The word we got from ABC was We don't get it."' She adds, "I thought that was a compliment."
The final showdown occurred last month at Chasen's, when Bloomberg and Tarses arrived at the show's wrap party and came face‑to‑face with Heche and DeGeneres.
"It's really hard for me to throw my arms around you when you've really hurt me," DeGeneres told them. According to her, she then asked Bloomberg to discuss what had gone wrong with the show.
Bloomberg recalls that he was repeatedly called an "a‑‑hole." He says he finally threw up his hands. "Okay, I'm an a‑‑hole," he said. "I don't want to deal with this here."
Heche snapped back: "That's a copout…I haven't wanted to deal with my wife coming home every night crying."
DeGeneres will try to have the last word on ‑of all places‑ ABC. On May 6, she'll give her side of the story to PrimeTime Live's Diane Sawyer. ("It's a tricky situation," admits Sawyer, who plans to include counterpoint from an ABC exec, "but I like to think knowing both parties helps.") In the end, neither the network nor DeGeneres can claim victory, though both can say they've changed the course of television; NBC is expected to include Will & Grace, with a gay lead character, on its fall lineup. But where does Ellen go from here? Says Kevin Huvane, her CAA agent: "All this will cool down, and I think she'll eventually develop another TV show." One of her next stops will be NBC's Mad About You. She recently shot the May 19 season finale and was asked to appear as the Buchmans' nanny in a recurring role next season. (A Mad writer says DeGeneres' script notes were "annoying"; the star herself says she's not sure she wants to return.) She may not need the work, and for the moment is focusing on movies. Her next film, Goodbye Lover, opens at the Cannes film festival in May. In June she'll begin shooting Ed TV, a Ron Howard comedy, with Matthew McConaughey. She does not play a lesbian in either film.
"If I do it right," says DeGeneres, "I'm gonna have a career that will grow, and I'll look back on this as my infancy stage. I don't believe you have one moment. You have many moments."
Before we send Ellen on her way, let's return for a moment to the show's final taping. After bidding farewell to the crew, DeGeneres says she phoned Heche, who met her at the studio. Later, as they drove off the lot in separate cars, DeGeneres, still misty, turned on the radio in her Porsche. "I Melt With You," the 1983 song by Modern English, cheered her a bit. At a traffic light, she locked eyes with Heche and realized they were both singing along to the same song. So, DeGeneres says, they sang together all the way home.
"I'll stop the world and melt with you/You've seen the difference and it's getting better all the time…”