‘Of course, one wants orgasmic life’: Bruce Joel Rubin on Ghost, gay identity and goldfish

Estimated read time 8 min read

When Bruce Joel Rubin was writing Ghost, he didn’t think about the Oscars it might win (two, including one for him) or the money it would make (more than $500m). Instead, he drew on an intimate moment from his past. When Molly, played by Demi Moore, tells her boyfriend Sam (Patrick Swayze) that she loves him, all he can say in return is: “Ditto.” Back in his college days, Rubin was the ditto guy, unable to echo his then-girlfriend’s heartfelt sentiment. But for an unusual reason: he was gay.

“I’ve never not been gay,” says the genial 81-year-old from his home in a leafy part of Brooklyn, New York, where the trees are crowding at the window behind him. “I am fully gay, and I always knew it.” This will not come as a shock to his wife, Blanche, who has known about his sexuality for more than 50 years, nor to their children and grandchildren, to whom Rubin came out more recently. Now he is making it public in his memoir, It’s Only a Movie. “I don’t like that I was closeted for so long,” he says. “But it would just have confused people.” Why spill the beans at all? “I didn’t want to leave this world with any secrets.’”

It’s Only a Movie covers everything from his New York University days with Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma to his lifelong spiritual quest and his eventual success as a screenwriter and script doctor. His enlightenment began in the late-1960s when he accidentally imbibed an entire syringe of LSD instead of the intended single drop. “It was shattering,” he says, still sounding awestruck. “It left nothing behind, but the nothing itself was unassailable. I thought I had died. But I did come back, and when I asked why, a voice said loud and clear: ‘To tell people what you saw.’ OK. What did I see? The rest of my life has been a search for an answer.”

Bruce Joel Rubin with his wife, Blanche.View image in fullscreen

Some of it he expressed in the movies he wrote, such as Ghost’s nightmarish companion piece, Jacob’s Ladder, starring Tim Robbins as a disturbed Vietnam veteran. There was also his trippy first feature, Brainstorm; in the book, he recalls visiting the set where he was aghast to find Christopher Walken improvising his own dialogue. He was equally horrified when Miloš Forman, an early candidate to direct Ghost, suggested killing off Molly at the end. Along the way, Rubin turned down the chance to write The Lion King, and hobnobbed with Michael Jackson, Madonna and Steven Spielberg. Robert De Niro asked him to pen a script for Whitney Houston (“De Niro seemed to have romantic designs on her”) while Marvel boss Kevin Feige rejected his treatment for Doctor Strange. Rubin also met the Dalai Lama, and told him: “Forgive me, but I don’t think you’re my teacher.”

His actual guru, Rudi, the Jewish owner of a Brooklyn antiques shop, routinely slept with his students, including Rubin. “It’s a dark spot,” he admits now. “But I love him, and he provided me with a level of awareness that has served me beyond belief.” He still has the three-dollar Buddha figurine that Rudi sold him. When Rubin pointed out that it was chipped, Rudi replied: “Search for perfection in yourself, not in external objects.” Bear that in mind next time you’re trying to return an item.

Despite Rubin’s sexuality, marriage has been harmonious. He and his wife met under mystical circumstances. He had just heard Jefferson Airplane singing “You better find somebody to love”, and thought he should act on that advice. Not long after, he was introduced to Blanche. He blurted out everything: that he was gay but had enjoyed what little sex he’d had with women, and that he had petitioned God to find him a partner. They married two years later.

What had prevented Rubin from pursuing a gay life was not his sexuality but its sadomasochistic dimension, which he felt certain could never be satisfied. He had his first inkling of those desires when he was five. Another boy of the same age told him to remove his shirt, then bound him to a chair. Rubin writes: “Something about the experience took hold – a strange, sexual kind of identity.”

He was convinced this would make him a pariah. “There were no clubs I knew about, no way to announce that part of my sexuality,” he tells me. “I had no idea there were so many people who were invested in the same ride.”

Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in Ghost.View image in fullscreen

Rubin links his sexual identity to his talent. “Being ‘other’ is what led me to be a writer. I had to step out of the mainstream of life and look at it from a different angle. Finding yourself on the fringe of human experience is a gift rather than a torment. A movie like Ghost reached hundreds of millions of people, and it’s my little hidden lifestyle that gave me a voice to speak to them.”

He is especially proud of Sam’s revelation at the end of Ghost: “The love inside – you take it with you.” He smiles beatifically as he repeats it. “That’s a nice thing to leave people with.” His memories connected to the movie are largely positive. With one exception: Whoopi Goldberg, who won an Oscar for her uproarious turn as the bogus medium Oda Mae Brown, is no longer speaking to him, having found out that Rubin’s initial reaction when her name came up was: “Anybody but Whoopi.”

“I mistakenly thought she’d be too broad,” he says. “But nobody in the movie is more perfect than her. We became friends, I stayed at her house. Then somehow she heard about what I’d said. I don’t know if a reconciliation will occur. I love Whoopi but I don’t think my life depends on it.”

She was part of the other secretly gay moment in Ghost. When Sam’s spirit enters Oda Mae’s body so that Molly can feel his touch again, we watch the reunited lovers caressing one another, whereas the unseen reality is that the physical contact is taking place between two women. “It occurred to me but it didn’t matter,” says Rubin. “What I tried to emphasise was that even though it was Oda Mae’s hands, it felt like Sam. I didn’t think of it as lesbianism but I knew there would be people who would go: ‘Hmm.’”

Rubin has no regrets about putting his gay self to one side. “Clearly, I held back my sexuality. My sexual life was always very internalised. Of course, one wants orgasmic life, but I had orgasms with Blanche. She and I had a good sex life.” Was polyamory an option? “We had a conjoined relationship with a guy I liked in our ashram. She had a private moment with him, and so did I. Also, I had a few other things along the way, which I didn’t write about because they might embarrass people. It’s not like I’ve been dead to that world. But I’m happily gay. And I’ll tell you something you’ll find out: when you hit your 80s and you think your libido is gone, it comes flying back. So big! Male beauty for me is overwhelmingly powerful. Just seeing someone in the supermarket, I feel this explosive joy.”

Tim Robbins in fatigues holding a rifle reading a script, next to Rubin who is in open neck shirt and baseball cap.View image in fullscreen

If supermarkets are in, cinemas are out. Rubin withdrew from screenwriting over a decade ago, and expresses disillusionment with movies today. “The Zone of Interest really got my attention but most of them prove not to be worth my time.” What’s changed? “They aren’t enlightening. They don’t nourish you. And I see through the construction. I can tell when they’re laying the bricks early on that the building’s not going to hold up. I can see it’s going to crash, and it does.”

Luckily, he has found alternative entertainment. “I’ll tell you the biggest joy of my life right now. We filled our pond with koi and goldfish and one carp. And my wife and I go out every night at sunset to feed the fish. We’ve named them all, and there’s the little drama of ‘who’s getting the food first?’ Sometimes the carp comes in and vacuums everything up. He’s such a bad guy! We call him Big Mouth. Ah, it’s the best movie.”

Fish are all very well but he reserves his profoundest feelings for people. “I love being around them, and I love the human journey,” he says, his earlier note of awe returning. “It’s exquisite. And after this dialogue we’ve had together today, I have to say that I think you’re really wonderful, and I’m so happy to have met you. I love you.” I’m speechless, which is not a good look for an interviewer. But I’m also extremely touched. And it seems only fitting to say: ditto.

Source: theguardian.com

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