Donna Deitch (right) directs Thomas and Stoltz.

Director Donna Deitch says it took playwrights McNally, Fierstein, and Vogel to get Common Ground running.

As Common Ground director Donna Deitch tells it, when actor Brian Kerwin and his manager A.D. Oppenheim pitched Showtime the idea of a three-part gay-themed movie by three gay playwrights, the cable network told them they had a deal if they could pull together three acceptable writers. How’s this for acceptable: Kerwin recruited Harvey Fierstein, in whose Tony-winning Broadway play, Torch Song Trilogy, he had performed. Fellow Tony recipient Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!) and Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive) followed. Presented with that literary firepower, Showtime programming chief Jerry Offsay grabbed his green-lighting pen—the first time he had ever done so for a movie with no actors attached.

When the openly lesbian Deitch was offered the script, she too was a quick sell. “I was knocked out by it,” says the San Francisco–born filmmaker, whose 1986 love story Desert Hearts remains arguably the gold standard for lesbian films. “I saw Common Ground as a gay Our Town. There was no question in my mind that I wanted to do it.”

Set in the fictional small town of Homer, Conn.—an allusion to the residents’ emotional odyssey, we presume—Common Ground depicts attitudes toward homosexuality in various decades, the one human constant being lifelong Homerian Johnny Burroughs (Eric Stoltz), the equivalent of the Stage Manager in, yes, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Vogel wrote the first act, the ’50s-set “A Friend of Dorothy,” about an emerging lesbian (played by Brittany Murphy) who is discharged from the Navy after she’s caught in an “alternative” bar. Vogel handed things off to McNally, who penned “Mr. Roberts,” the ’70s story. Fierstein finished with 2000’s “Andy & Amos,” a sweet look at a gay wedding.

No script changes were permitted without consulting the playwrights. “I had no problem with it because I liked the script,” says Deitch. “That’s the way of doing things in the world of the theater, and they wanted to maintain that same approach.”

Next came casting. Although Deitch felt the film would attract “incredible actors,” she was overwhelmed by their numbers. Murphy (who played Alicia Silverstone’s pal Tai in Clueless) was the first actor signed. Then came Jason Priestley, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Steven Weber, Edward Asner, Beau Bridges, Margot Kidder, and Mimi Rogers. All agreed to work for the same salary.

“I was amazed because this was an ensemble piece without a single overall starring role,” says Deitch. “When we put out the word, it was as if they were flocking to the movie. I was impressed and inspired.” Most inspiring, she says, was that all the actors “committed to their [gay and lesbian] characters. They did a brilliant job. I can’t imagine anyone else playing those parts.” (Keeping it all in the family, Helen Shaver, the object of Patricia Charbonneau’s desire in Desert Hearts, counsels Murphy’s sexually questioning character in the first segment.)

Unlike most of the characters’ experiences in Common Ground, Deitch, 48, says her own coming-out—in Los Angeles during the ’70s—was without trauma. “My father was dead. My mother was almost dead. I didn’t have to deal with parents or the workplace.” She and writer Terri Jentz have been lovers for eight years now.

An upcoming project for Deitch is a big-screen version of the late author Peter Wyden’s book Stella. It’s the true story of Stella Goldschlag, a Jewish “catcher” who turned in Jews from the Berlin underground to the gestapo during World War II. The film, which will be shot in Germany, “addresses one of the big questions of the 20th century,” Deitch says. “What would you have done at the time? Been a traitor, a freedom fighter, a catcher? It’s about people who lived in the gray zone.” In a way, it covers much of the ground of Common Ground.

Shister is television columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.


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