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Universal, GLAAD hurt by 'Dilemma' dispute

Vince Vaughn film entangled in debate over gay teen suicide

However it fares when it hits theaters Jan. 14, "The Dilemma" has already lived up to its title for distributor Universal and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the group that has targeted the film and its trailer for using "gay" as a pejorative word.

Although Universal has cut the controversial scene from a new trailer that went online Friday but hasn't yet reached theaters, GLAAD upped the ante Monday, issuing a "call to action" urging its supporters to contact the studio and demand that the original trailer be yanked from theaters immediately and that "offensive anti-gay language" be removed from the movie. [Check out the trailer -- with the offending line removed -- at the end of this article.]

In the showdown between the studio and the special interest group, both sides have taken hits.

Instead of setting the stage for a lighthearted buddy comedy, Universal finds itself in the middle of a larger national discussion of how anti-gay slurs contribute to teen suicides.

CNN's Anderson Cooper first raised alarms about the movie last week on his "Anderson Cooper 360" and then on a subsequent visit to the "Ellen" show where he said he was "shocked that not only they put [the offending line] in the movie but that they put that in the preview. They thought that it was OK to put that in a preview for the movie to get people to go and see it."

Meanwhile, GLAAD, which hadn't gone public with its concerns at that point, looked as if it was playing catch-up. On Friday, following Cooper's lead, it denounced the trailer for sending "a message of intolerance" even as Universal was putting out its own announcement that the trailer would be pulled.

For its part, GLAAD said that it had been in discussions with Universal even before Cooper's remarks but hadn't gone public at the time because it thought a solution was imminent.

"Before we issue a call to action, we always give the entertainment outlets the chance to rectify what they are doing," said Richard Ferraro, GLAAD's director of public relations.

Even though GLAAD has now started tightening the screws on Universal, the group's critics have accused the group in the past of working too closely with the media companies it monitors, and to some this seemed like one more case where GLAAD wasn't out in front of the issue.

Late last year, for example, GLAAD took flak from some gay activists when ABC canceled two appearances by Adam Lambert in the wake of his unscripted kissing of a member of his band at the American Music Awards. In its initial statement, GLAAD almost appeared to be making excuses for ABC, and it was quickly forced to issue a succession of follow-up statements in which it said the network shouldn't hold gay performers to a double standard.

"It just seems they are always giving the benefit of the doubt to the studios and the networks," gay author and radio host Michelangelo Signorile said. "Because they think they can get more done working on the inside and because they also give awards to the same entities and have benefits at which they all have to buy tables. There's an appearance of conflict of interest, which is troubling."

One thing is certain: "Dilemma" is an unlikely movie to be at the center of such a controversy.

After serious fare such as "Frost/Nixon" and "The Da Vinci Code" and its sequel "Angels & Demons," director Ron Howard had intended the comedy as a light-hearted change of pace. (Calls to Howard and his production company Imagine Entertainment were referred to Universal.)

In the movie, Vince Vaughn and Kevin James star as best friends. The title refers to the quandary that Vaughn's character finds himself in when he suspects that James' wife (Winona Ryder) is having an affair and he must decide whether to inform his best friend.

The opening scene of the original trailer is set in a board room where Vaughn, who is delivering a presentation about electric cars, delivers what appears to be a throwaway line: "Electric cars are gay. I mean, not homosexual gay, but my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay."

Although the line might not appear particularly provocative to many -- it pales in comparison to jokes like "Paging Dr. Faggot" that appeared in 2008's "The Hangover" -- it came amid growing media coverage of teen suicides and discussions of how casual, anti-gay bigotry fuels schoolyard bullying.

Universal said it first reached out to GLAAD for its input before the trailer went online in advance of its appearance in theaters Sept. 24. GLAAD suggests that meant the studio knew the line was problematic.

From there, the discussion involves a bit of a he-said/she-said. The studio said GLAAD didn't immediately register objections; GLAAD responded that the trailer already was online when it was first notified and that it immediately voiced concerns.

In any event, Universal received a number of complaints about the online trailer and began a more serious discussion with GLAAD about readying a new trailer.

Before that could happen, though, Cooper -- whose CNN show focused on bullying last week -- was the first to publicly criticize the trailer. His remarks were picked up by several bloggers, and by week's end, Universal and GLAAD were moving quickly to respond.

Both tripped up in the process.

Saying that the trailer "was not intended to cause anyone discomfort" and acknowledging that "it was insensitive," the studio said Friday that it would be replaced immediately -- both online and in theaters. But though a new trailer, with the offending scene cut, appeared online late Friday, for logistical reasons, the new trailer won't reach theaters until sometime this week.

GLAAD said Monday that "after promising to remove the anti-gay trailer, Universal has reportedly still not removed the trailer from theaters."

In its call to action, GLAAD also said that the studio "has refused to agree to remove the scene in the movie." But a Universal spokeswoman said Friday that the studio had made no decision about whether the scene would appear in the final film; it was waiting for the filmmakers to complete their work. Later Monday, GLAAD acknowledged that the studio had not categorically refused to remove the scene.

The "Dilemma" dust-up was not the first time GLAAD and Universal have found themselves at cross purposes.

Last year, GLAAD reps were invited to an early screening of "Bruno," Sacha Baron Cohen's envelope-pushing satire about a gay fashionista. Although GLAAD objected to several scenes, which it said reinforced "damaging, hurtful stereotypes," Universal stood by the film, defending its use of "provocative comedy to powerfully shed light on the absurdity of many kinds of intolerance and ignorance, including homophobia."

Meanwhile, a lot of other movies with passing "that's so gay" cracks didn't elicit as much criticism from GLAAD.

There was no call to action when "Hangover" was released, though GLAAD did post a blog item pointing out the movie's gay slurs.

"It is disappointing that 'The Hangover's' writers could think of nothing better than to use anti-gay slurs for a few cheap laughs," the post read. "Words and images matter, and this unfunny shot at gay people sends a problematic message that using these kind of vulgar slurs is acceptable."

But in the wake of a spate of teen suicides in recent weeks -- a number of whom were young men who were either gay or perceived as gay -- there appears to be a heightened awareness, at least in media circles, that casual anti-gay bigotry, even tossed off as a joke, can be deadly.

"There's a growing awareness of the damage this language causes, among youth in particular," said Herndon Graddick, GLAAD's deputy director of media programs, who has been handling the behind-the-scenes negotiations with Universal. "There's a growing responsibility on our part to point out the harm that it causes."