Anyone who has seen Gus van Sant's 2008 feature Milk may well recall Howard Rosenman, even if they don't remember the name. The film starred Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in US history. Bearded and carrying about 136 kilograms at the time, Rosenman, a non-actor, was cast as David Goodstein, the late publisher of the famed US 'gay paper' The Advocate who went head-to-head with Milk over political strategy.
“I got the part because they were looking for a 'Howard Rosenman type',” he told SBS with a wink in his voice. “And I didn't want to do it; I'd rather stick Chinese needles in my eyes than get in front of a camera. I'm a producer, not an actor. I was terrified.”
He got to play a few heated scenes with Penn. Rosenman was utterly believable as a pushy and wearied player. He had known Milk and Goodstein in life. What convinced him to do it, he says, was that he believed in the project.
In Australia as a guest of the Israeli Film Festival, Rosenman is fast on his feet, funny and full of talk that free ranges over a raft of subjects: gays, gays in Hollywood and gay cinema, the crisis in Israel, the practical necessity of mega budget movies and the future of the business itself.
Interviewed by SBS in a Sydney hotel lobby, Rosenman, who had arrived barely 24 hours earlier, shows no sign of travel fatigue. Pushing 70 years of age, he appears more than a decade younger. Clean-shaven, tallish, slim, robust and lively, he has shed 45 kilograms since Milk (a consequence of a surgery that corrected a long-term problem and a regular workout regime, he says).
Rosenman is a showbiz veteran, who started his career on Broadway at 21 as a protégé of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Over the decades since, he's developed a strong track record. His hit movies, mostly cosy comedies, include The Main Event (1979) with Barbra Streisand, the 1991 remake of Father of the Bride, and The Family Man (2000). Still, Rosenman will tell you, without a hint of earnestness, he is a man of ideals. Openly gay since 1967 and a dedicated Zionist, his convictions are a keynote in his career. Rosenman shepherded, as producer, such important and timely non-fiction as The Celluloid Closet (1995), based on Vito Russo's book about Hollywood's history of gay images and themes; Paragraph 175 (2000), about homosexuals persecuted under the Nazis; and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, about the famous AIDS project, which won an Oscar for best documentary for 1989. Amongst Rosenman's prestige projects is the excellent, but ill-fated HBO series John from Cincinnati (2007).
His ties to Israel are strong. His parents came from Jerusalem (both seventh generation Israelis) but Rosenman was born in New York, and raised to be “an American with a strong Zionist ethos”.
In 1966, when the Six Day War erupted, he volunteered. He never saw combat. “I was in a medical field hospital, serving as an intern without a degree and they didn't give me a gun; we got a bayonet to defend ourselves,” he says, laughing.
In 2001, Rosenman began a master class under the auspices of the LA Jewish Federation and the Tel Aviv LA Cultural partnership in conjunction with the Tel Aviv Cinematheque and the Tel Aviv University. “I'm like the godfather of that thing,” he says without a hint of false modesty. But later he almost bashfully admits to an aspiration for assuming a mentorship role when and wherever possible. “I'm no genius,” he says, laughing, “but I sat at the knees of supernova genius' of all time… and I feel I have to give back.”
His mission in Israel, he says, was two-fold. “I wanted to teach Israeli filmmakers how to sell their intellectual property to US buyers. Secondly, I wanted to teach Israeli's how to write screenplays like Star Wars and Basic Instinct, instead of these little parochial films they make.” He pauses for effect: “Well, I failed miserably in the latter and was extremely successful in the former.” Rosenman says that Israel has sold over 40 TV series formats to US buyers over the last decade including Prisoner of War / Homeland and BeTipul / In Treatment. Some of his graduates include directors Joseph Cedar (Footnote, 2011) and Eytan Fox (Yossi & Jagger, 2002). Right now he's developing several Israeli features as US remakes.
This is the first time in 10 years that the organisers of the IFF, the Australian Israeli Cultural Exchange, have elected an American Jew as their honoree. “In Hollywood I'm considered a very vocal supporter of Israel when it wasn't so popular,” Rosenman says. “Most liberals were very anti-Israel and anti-Zionist up until 9/11.” Asked to declaim his position on Israeli question, he doesn't hesitate. “I believe in a two-state solution.”
Rosenman is the kind of Hollywood movie producer one knows from the movies but never seems to meet in life. His language is profane and his style is a beguiling mix of hard sell salesman and fatherly stewardship. When he talks, the words spill forth with the rapid-fire look-you-in-the eye candour of the seasoned raconteur. Each answer evolves into a long anecdote that lands with a punch line both hilarious and wise. He's known for his chutzpah. At 14, he snuck into the red carpet New York premiere of Cleopatra via a men's room window, motivated by an obsession with Elizabeth Taylor. (Decades later, he immortalised the moment in a very funny piece written for the LA Times.)
“I've always been naughty, always,” he says. He tells how he was enrolled in a very proper Yiddish school founded by a rich uncle. This was 1949. His class had to make clay pots. When the teacher saw what the five-year-old had done, they ended up sending him off to a psychologist. By way of an explanation, Rosenman the younger announced that what he had crafted was a “pot-handle”: “I had actually made a big dick with a head on it.” After that incident, Rosenman was home schooled.
“I developed the chutzpah because I was always standing up to my father who was a very tough Israeli, and the tougher he got, the tougher I was. I thought 'fuck school, fuck authority' – that became my stance essentially.” Rosenman made peace with his dad before he died. But his passion never faltered.
Still, he's a pragmatist, working in a place that covets above all else the bottom line. “Hollywood is a very conservative town,” he explains. “It's run by people with families; it's run by people, many of them gay, many of them Jewish; but it's very 'left' in terms of its social politics.” Though, he says, the 'rightists' have their own powerful cliques, but they are very much 'closeted' to protect themselves from getting too much stick from the left.
As to sex and sexuality, aside from a moment in the 1980s when AIDS and the Reagan White House combined to create a toxic anti-gay mood, these days, he says, no one cares. “You could fuck donkeys, it's about making money.” (Meanwhile, Rosenman says Hollywood heavy hitters like David Geffen, Barry Diller and Sid Sheinberg threw their support behind gay causes in response to the AIDS crisis.)
When many Hollywood players of his generation are dooming the blockbuster, Rosenman coolly concludes that the numbers, astronomical as they are, ultimately make sense. “The studios will always make these big tent pole films but they are going to have to take bigger risks and no longer rely so much on branded entertainment. The movies aren't dead; it's the oldest rule in the book: content dictates form. You have a story and you have to sell that story to the right place [i.e. TV, cable, cinema, etc.].”
True, smaller features have been marginalised because mega-budget pics hold sway in Hollywood, he says, but, Rosenman continues, never before has there been more opportunity in terms of outlets. “When I came to Hollywood, 70 percent of income derived from the continental USA; 30 came from overseas. Now that's reversed. I mean in Zambia they're wanna gonna see The Lone Ranger, right?”
Rosenman has reason to be optimistic. He's just sold an adaptation of Michael Oren's book on the Six Day War to David Ellison (Skydance) to produce as a six-part mini-series. “For me, it's closing the circle and the crowning achievement of my career I hope.”