Zack Elliot (Ontkean) is a successful young doctor (an oncologist) in the Los Angeles area married to Claire (Jackson), an equally successful television network executive during the early 1980s. They first met when they were both in college and have been married for eight years and are generally happy in their relationship, sharing in common a love for Gilbert and Sullivan and the poetry of Rupert Brooke, to whom they were introduced by their elderly former neighbor, Winnie Bates (Wendy Hiller). Intending to start a family, the couple buys a big house.
Unknown to Claire, Zack has been struggling with feelings of attraction to other men. He picks up men in his car and starts frequenting gay bars in West Hollywood on his lunch hour, although he does not follow through sexually. This changes when he meets Bart McGuire (Hamlin), a gay novelist who comes to see him for a medical check-up. Bart leads a fairly hedonistic single lifestyle, picking up multiple sexual partners, frequenting gay bars and clubs, occasionally taking recreational drugs. Zack and Bart are mutually but unspokenly attracted to each other and go out for lunch.
A few days later, Zack asks him on a dinner date. He lies to Claire, saying he has to work late. At Bart's house, it becomes clear Zack is not yet able to identify as gay, instead labeling himself "curious." Zack and Bart go to bed, which is the first time Zack has had sex with another man. Zack wants to stay the night, but Bart, following his usual pattern, brushes him off. Angered, Zack leaves, but later challenges Bart's fear of intimacy which stems from his own troubled childhood with his domineering and emotionally abusive father growing up. Bart makes plans for them to get together during the weekend.
Claire, concerned about the growing distance in her marriage, goes to her boss seeking a year-long leave of absence. Instead, he promotes her and sends her to New York City on a weekend business trip. Zack takes advantage of the opportunity to spend more time with Bart, but they end up arguing. Zack calls the outline for Bart's new novel less than honest, and Bart confronts Zack about his own lack of honesty about his sexuality. That night in bed, Zack tells Bart that he loves him. The next morning, fearful of his own growing feelings for Zack, Bart pushes him away again.
Eventually, Bart realizes that he does have feelings for Zack but that he is not ready for the level of commitment that Zack needs. He is last seen in the film out in the bars, cruising.
With Claire home from her trip, Zack tells Claire of his feelings for other men. Although she said she could handle anything he could tell her, she reacts very badly and Zack leaves the house. A few days later, an emotional Claire trashes some of Zack's clothes and finds a matchbook with a man's name and number written in it. She locates someone Zack had picked up, and they talk. She learns that he lives a relatively normal and happy life. Claire attempts to get Zack to remain in the marriage, even claiming that she would be okay with him having affairs with other men, but Zack advises her that she must let go and that he can no longer continue to live a lie and needs to be true to himself once and for all. Zack then tells Claire that he has a job prospect in New York City, working with cancer patients. In the end, the two agree to a divorce.
The film ends a few years in the future, with the death of Winnie Bates, Zack and Claire's former neighbor. Zack is living in New York and in a committed relationship with another man (an investment banker named Ken) by this time, but he returns to Los Angeles for the funeral. Claire has since gotten remarried to an architect and has a young son named Rupert. It is loosely implied that she is now a stay at home mom. After the funeral, Zack and Claire discuss their lives and express their own happiness and their gratitude that the other is happy.
Throughout the film, Bart and Claire deliver several mini-monologues, speaking directly to the camera about aspects of their lives and their feelings about the scenes that had just played out on-screen.Michael Ontkean as Zach
Harry Hamlin as Bart
Kate Jackson as Claire
Wendy Hiller as Winnie
Arthur Hill as Henry
Nancy Olson as Christine
Director Arthur Hiller approached Tom Berenger, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, William Hurt and Peter Strauss to play Zack before giving the part to Michael Ontkean. According to Hiller, the reaction of most actors he approached was to tell him not to even consider them for the role. The film reunited Jackson and Ontkean, who had previously costarred in the 1970s crime drama The Rookies.
The film's theme song, also titled "Making Love", was performed by Roberta Flack and written by Burt Bacharach, Bruce Roberts, and Carole Bayer Sager. It was Flack's final Top 40 hit as a solo performer. When asked by Hotspots Magazine if Flack was nervous about recording the song knowing the movie's content, Flack responded, "Afraid of singing a song about love? Never. I was so glad when that song charted. People who did not know that the song was about love between two men loved that song. I would talk about it in my shows, and about how love is love. Between a man and a woman, between two men, between two women. Love is universal, like music."
Making Love was the first mainstream Hollywood drama to address the subjects of homosexuality, coming out and the effect that being closeted and coming out has on a marriage. The film contrasts two visions of the so-called "gay lifestyle". Zack wants to settle into a long-term relationship similar to a heterosexual marriage, while Bart represents the somewhat stereotypical view of gay men as being promiscuous and uninterested in forming commitments.
Issues of the tension many women felt over pursuing careers are also touched on in Claire's fears that she is being forced to choose between her career and having a baby. By the film's end, she does have a child, but it is unstated whether she is still working, so that issue ultimately remains unresolved (although it's implied she now is a housewife).
Making Love was one of several mainstream Hollywood films to be released in 1982 dealing with themes of homosexuality in a more tolerant and sympathetic light. Others included Personal Best, Victor Victoria, and Partners.
Gay film historian Vito Russo wrote in The Celluloid Closet that straight critics found the film boring while gay critics, glad for any attention paid to the subject, praised it. Making Love opened strong at the box office its first week, but poor word of mouth led to a large drop-off in box office receipts the following week.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote: “Claire and Zack of Arthur Hiller’s Making Love are a lot like Jenny and Oliver of Mr. Hiller’s Love Story."
Cultural critic Camille Paglia callsed Making Love "intelligent" and stated that "it remains my favorite film to date about gay men."
Making Love was released by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment on Region 1 DVD on February 7, 2006. It was widely believed that this was done by Fox to cash in on the mainstream success of the gay themed film Brokeback Mountain which was released just a few months earlier.Golden Globe Award nomination, Best Original Song - Motion Picture; Burt Bacharach (lyrics), Bruce Roberts (lyrics/music), Carole Bayer Sager (lyrics)