HBO eyes biopic about anti-gay activist Bryant

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - HBO is developing a biopic of former beauty queen, singer and celebrity pitchwoman Anita Bryant, who is known mostly for her work as an anti-gay activist.

“Sex and the City” creator Darren Star is on board to direct the film, which is being written by “Runaway” creator Chad Hodge. Star also is executive producing with Dennis Erdman.

“She is a fascinating person on every single level,” said Hodge, who has a connection to Bryant -- they both attended Northwestern University. “The twists and turns of her life are incredible.”

By age 18, Bryant, who was born to a religious Oklahoma family in 1940, had won Arthur Godfrey’s talent show and a Miss Oklahoma pageant and finished as second runner-up for Miss America.

In 1959 and ‘60, she was a major pop star with three million-selling records. After marrying and settling in Florida, she reverted to Christian music and, projecting a wholesome image, began plugging such blue-chip companies as Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods and Holiday Inn.

Her most famous celebrity endorsement gig was for the Florida Citrus Commission, for which she sang in a series of TV commercials, closing each ad with the tag line, “A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine.”

By the mid-‘70s, Bryant was a Christian celebrity. She published several best-selling books and won Good Housekeeping’s “Most Admired Woman in America” poll for three consecutive years.

In 1977, she switched to political activism, launching a crusade to repeal a new Miami-Dade County ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

“As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children,” she said. Her Save Our Children coalition got the new law overturned within a year, and it took 20 years for it to be reinstated.

Celebrating her victory, Bryant promised she would “seek help and change for homosexuals, whose sick and sad values belie the word ‘gay,’ which they pathetically use to cover their unhappy lives.”

She stayed on the anti-gay-rights cause with speaking tours and went to California to support the Briggs Initiative in 1978, a failed attempt to ban gay teachers from the state’s public schools. Archival footage of Bryant was featured in the 2008 film “Milk,” which chronicled Harvey Milk’s campaign against the initiative.

Bryant’s outspoken activism led to a nationwide boycott of orange juice by the gay rights movement. She eventually lost her Citrus Commission contract, and her record and book sales fell sharply. Bryant remarried, tried unsuccessfully to revive her singing career and eventually filed for bankruptcy.

Hodge, who hopes to talk with Bryant about the project, said he is aiming for a nuanced portrayal of her and “what drove her to do the things that she did.”