The golden age of Laura Dern, better known to insiders (aka gays) as the Dernaissance, has crept up on us slowly. Some will say it began with Enlightened, some will point to Big Little Lies, others will scream “Baby Yoda!” But we all can agree that Laura Dern’s triumphant cultural domination crystallized this weekend with her Best Supporting Actress win for Marriage Story at the Academy Awards.
While queers across the globe were ecstatic to see Dern finally recognized as the queen she is, the real gay tribute actually went down at another awards ceremony. On Saturday, the Film Independent Spirit Awards honored Dern as part of a musical tribute to the gayest moments you didn’t realize were gay in this year’s top films. The brainchild of Search Party writer Jordan Firstman (who wrote the lyrics alongside Jess Dweck and composer Greg O’Conner) the song — performed by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and Broadway sensation Alex Newell — also paid homage to Idina Menzel’s Uncut Gems moment, J.Lo pole-dancing to Fiona Apple, FKA Twigs talking about snakes in Honey Boy and Awkwafina being rejected by the Guggenheim in The Farewell.
Hours after Dern’s Oscar win (and during her birthday week, blessed be) PAPER caught up with Firstman about his love for Laura Dern, why she’s such an intergral part of the gay canon, and where he falls on the Marriage Story/Little Women binary.
What was the reaction when you pitched the song?
I said, “Guys I have an idea I’m really passionate about, but you’re going to say no.” And then I pitched a version of it and Aubrey said, “Let’s do it.” And then the next day after that I was composing it with a composer and then it was happening.
You’ve worked in writer’s rooms on TV shows, so what is the difference between that and working in a room for an awards show?
This is a unique award show because it’s so low budget and anything goes. John Waters has hosted it, they’ve always done weird shit. So I got there and they were like, “We can do anything. We are allowed to do anything we want.” And it made us be able to think in the way that the Oscars or the Golden Globes could never think because… in terms of award season shows, it’s the one that can go a little bit off the rails and people like it for that reason.
This is an awards show that has never really had a viral moment like the one it’s having right now. How does it feel to be responsible for that?
I mean to be honest, it feels fucking good and validating, especially after having so many queer ideas rejected because people are scared there’s no audience for it. And every time I say, “You guys don’t understand: I am in touch and you are out of touch.” And so I know that this will work but they can’t see it because they’re not in it.
Everyone was very supportive of the song the whole time. But even some straight older white men wouldn’t get parts of it. I don’t think you understand how many times I had to explain “and that’s on periodt” to people. Every five minutes they’re asking, “But what does that mean?”
I kept telling them to trust me. I know some people will not understand every reference but it doesn’t matter because people out in the world will, and I was lucky that they trusted me, but it made me think about all of the shit that is ingrained in the industry, just thinking that there’s no broad appeal for queer shit when we know because we’re on the internet that there is.
You created this hilarious viral moment that is also deeply rooted in something honest about queer life, which is that so often our stories are left out of mainstream and even indie film narratives. And so we have to then find pieces of those films that we can reclaim for ourselves. That’s why I loved that setup that Aubrey gave before your song about how LGBTQ+ storylines are more important than ever. Was it important for you to take that serious idea and make it accessible by making it funny?
It’s a metaphor for queer people in general. We are given scraps and we find the best way to deal with it by finding small beautiful moments in things that aren’t ours. That is our way to find joy in a world that doesn’t let us really have our own. I think Uncut Gems is queer period, and people didn’t agree with me but I think any form of pop culture or cultural awareness is inherently queer because queer people are the ones looking at the world through a lens and straight people are just living in it. And so anything that has an awareness about culture to me feels queer.
And I think that’s why people responded to the specificity of the video. I don’t think people would necessarily watch The Farewell and see Awkwafina getting rejected from the Guggenheim and think that’s a gay moment. But when you isolate it, there’s an awareness of getting rejected for a bougie award, like just a cultural awareness that makes it gay.
That of course brings us back to the Laura Dern of it all. Working in queer media, there’s an ongoing argument about what is considered queer canon or queer interest. Laura Dern, to me and to so many LGBTQ+ people, is gay canon. Why do you think that is?
There’s so many actors and actresses who, by the nature of show business, have success and then go away then have a comeback. But Laura Dern has always been here and she’s always been doing fucking incredible work and she’s always been so amazing about choosing projects. And I think maybe what makes her a gay icon is just her taste level.
She chooses interesting, amazing characters and stories and it has made her staple and she just fucking commits, she’s never not committed, which is fun for queer people to watch. But for me Enlightened changed my life in such a huge way. I first saw it when I was 20 or 21 and I think I watched both seasons eight times that year. And then I’ll watch it once a year still and her performance and that character changed my perception about what writing should be and what stories could be like. So from then on it’s been like, you’re my person.
We are firmly in the Dernaissance, between Big Little Lies, Marriage Story and Little Women. And now Laura Dern is an Oscar winner! So what was it like to have this moment celebrating her and then the next day see her win an Oscar?
It was amazing. I know that people were coming up to her at the Oscars and singing the song to her and that was surreal to me. Aubrey actually texted me this morning and said that Laura came up to her at the Oscars after party and said that the song was the best moment of her weekend. I think she was so blown away by the joy of it.
And that’s what also makes the song work, is that it’s just gay joy. It’s the most profound gay joy and she felt that. I met her and her daughter after, and I think her daughter being there affirmed that she is in culture in a big way and she is a fixture and culture for young and old people.
So you did get to have some time with her?
Yeah. I was standing in the back of the tent for the number and it went really well so I had to go say hi. I went up to her table and I said, “Laura, I wrote the song.” She was so nice and she was freaking out and her daughter was freaking out and even Scarlett Johansen was on the other side of me trying to compliment me. I was like, “No, not now Scarlett, this is about me and Laura.” And I completely ignored her to soak in the Laura moment, and Laura was amazing. She felt present and not too famous. She felt real and she thanked me and said, “You’re crazy and I love you.”
A big part of the Dernaissance is this feeling that she’s finally getting the recognition she’s deserved for so long. She’s spoken about how she didn’t work for years after being on the episode of Ellen where Ellen came out, which also contributes to her being a gay icon. Do you think that’s part of why queer people love her, is not only her having been part of that cultural shift and having suffered for it, but to have had this triumphant comeback?
Gay people like reinvention. It’s why we like Madonna and Gaga. We like people that keep reinventing themselves and I think that comes from — maybe this is too queer studies and I’m wrong but — we had to hide so much of ourselves and keep reinventing ourselves as kids and then you’re in high school and you don’t have a self, and then you come out. Then you move to the city and you have to reinvent yourself there. Then years into that you reinvent myself again.
People are constantly trying to find themselves and that’s what we relate to in these famous people that are also on the journey of self-discovery or self preservation. Because it’s a thing that famous people do. “If I don’t keep with the times or if I don’t constantly change, I will lose my audience or I will not be relevant anymore.” And I think that’s a thing gay people deal with a lot, relevance and just always having to be the next step ahead.
Now that we’re wrapping up award season, where do you fall on this binary: Marriage Story or Little Women?
I am a huge Noah Baumbach stan. When I walked out of Marriage Story I thought, if we’re going to tell these straight white stories they have to be this good… even if we think we’ve seen it, if you do it the best way then I’m in. I loved Marriage Story. I think his perception, his nuances are so sharp and I was really moved by it. I love Little Women too and Greta Gerwing is great. What Greta Gerwig is doing with comedy, it’s like she is bringing back positive comedy in a way I haven’t seen done before. Her jokes are genuinely so funny and none of them are negative. Whereas Baumbach skewers a little more negative, which is maybe more of my style and why I like it. But I do have to commend Greta for doing comedy without being mean at all.
I think I might already know the answer to this, but what is your all time ultimate Laura Dern role?
It’s Enlightened, it’s got to be Enlightened. For anyone out there that hasn’t seen it, go watch it. There’s this voiceover, she has the first episode of season two that’s she’s talking, it’s shots of the Los Angeles skyline and she’s talking so earnestly about how every empire falls and this one will fall too. And then we’ll all be free and we’ll be with nature. And it’s the most beautiful moment in television ever. Amy Jellicoe is such a fascinating, nuanced, incredible character.
A conversation around your song was that something like that could never happen at the Oscars. Do you hope that going forward there is either space for bits like the one that you wrote at more mainstream award shows or that people will invest more of their attention in smaller awards shows where things like that can happen?
I think what would be better for queer stories is probably the former. Having these moments at the big award show, the scope is so much broader at those that we can put eyes on smart queer ideas. If we get more nuanced gay things happening, it’ll make people understand gay people more and like them more because we gay people are fucking great.
What else are you working on right now and what’s next for you?
Well, I mean I’m still holding out hope that my show gets made. I’ve been developing this show for three years and I call it a queer intergenerational West Side Story. It’s about a white 50’s lived-through-AIDS group versus a 20’s queer diverse group and two of them fall in love. And so they have to live with each other and you see shit go down. So that’s been my passion project for the last three years. It’s been revived and killed so many times. But if it gets made it will be a great show.
And then I am writing a gay teen sex comedy for another network that I don’t think I’m allowed to say, but I’m underway into that. That’s something that I’ve never thought I would be interested in, because I don’t care about teenagers at all, but I care about sex and I care about gay people. So I’m hoping I can say important things about sex. And there’s so much to mine with gay people and sexuality and to put that in a teen movie, that could be a cool opportunity. I hope I do it well, TBD.
And maybe one day you’ll write something for Laura Dern.
I hope to. I want to let it happen and I’m not sure why I’m not going to push it, but I do think karmically and spiritually, she is going to be around in my life hopefully forever.
Photo via Getty