Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Gay Actors, Straight Roles...A Newsweek Powderkeg, a Tuesday Journal

I begin my series on current trends in the movies, seen from the perspective of one film-lover and student, who still views motion pictures (as well as theater) as an art form.

*   *    *   *  *

The article published by NEWSWEEK on April 26 by Ramin Satoodeh asked why it seemed more acceptable for heterosexual actors to portray gay characters,  than for openly gay actors to play straight romatic leads.  His primary example was out Sean Hayes, a gay actor who, before coming out, played a comically flamboyant gay character on the TV series "Will and Grace", and who is now competing for a Best Actor Tony Award in the Broadway revival of  "Promises, Promises."

Since then, there has been a firestorm of reaction, from accusations of homophobia aimed at Satoodeh, to a public rebuttal from Hayes' costar in the musical, to calls for a boycott of Newsweek from members of the cast of Glee (which was also singled out for criticism in the article).

On the one hand, I fully agree with those who find the article misguided.  Perhaps it caused offense because it was a fairly shallow piece of writing which covered tired ground . I agree with the critics of several of the points made in the article.  Yet I think the issue is worth a closer, more honest examination, and requires more than a knee-jerk response to a failed essay.

First, I am angry that actors who are honest about their sexuality cannot find work. It's like "don't ask don't tell":  if actors don't reveal their homosexuality, then casting directors seem more likely to hire them to play straight characters.  There are scores of talented actors who deserve a chance to develop their craft, and their sexuality has nothing to do with talent, the same as with most jobs.

Second, for the most part I would argue that skilled performers artfully use their craft to inhabit characters unlike themselves, and are successful in making audiences believe that they are the characters they portray. One need not be a teacher, baseball player, serial killer, etc., to successfully play one (as Maggie Smith, Gary Cooper, or Anthony Hopkins would all readily agree).

It is also treading on the shifting sands of offense to hold up one standard of masculinity and insist that an actor conform to that narrow image in order to be believable.  Sean Hayes may not be cut from the cloth of the superhero or other macho archetype, but that should not be used to judge his effectiveness in a light romantic comedy about a more cultured male character.

And now I must offer my own heartfelt feelings on the other side of the coin, complicated and illogical though they may be.

Somehow, when an assumed "straight" actor sensitively portrays a gay character (without stereotype,) it feels sort of welcoming....I can't quite put my finger on it, but it seems safe ....Also, it appeals to a fantasy I carry with me into a darkened theater that perhaps the actor I am watching might be gay. 

Obviously, I would rather know that a gay actor is inhabiting a gay role; it would definitely enhance my identification with the character, and make for a more powerful viewing experience, one that is rarely offered to gay audiences.

(The anomaly of "Brokeback Mountain", and why it felt acceptable that the characters were successfully played by straight actors, is that Jake and Ennis really believed they were straight....they portrayed men for whom homosexual feelings were so threatening , so beyond their ability to understand them, that they continued to live conventional lives, even as their sexual yearnings gnawed at them in secret. )

On the other hand, if I am to be completely honest with myself, when I see a self-identified gay actor play a romantic straight lead, it DOES often make a difference in my acceptance of the character....I am thrown out of my suspension of disbelief, even for a few seconds.  In an odd way, it is like watching a friend living life back in the closet, a painful and ungenuine way to live;  or as though that "out" friend said he would marry the girl anyway....

And so, I seem to be responding emotionally to the very attitudes that, intellectually, make me angry.

In my defense, I personally do not respond with revulsion, catcalls, nervous laughter.  I don't reject the actor outright; instead, I give the performance its due. 

Where the real problem lies is in the lingering and unshakeable attitudes of real homophobes among ticketbuyers who can effect the end of an actor's career.  If these fans are threatened by their identification with an actor whose personal life suddenly does not conform to his carefully shaped public persona, or to the types of roles the actor has become associated with, they stop buying tickets.  (Some blame can be placed at the door of the actors who perpetuate the lie....)

There's no denying that there are some personal attributes that make it impossible for actors to portray roles under certain circumstances.  For example, audiences would not accept a love story between two characters portrayed by real-life brother and sister (or between any real-life family members);  our culture has evolved to frown upon actors portraying ethnic characters with the help of makeup effects (like blackface); and we would find it illogical for only men to be allowed to act on stage in both male and female roles (as in Shakespeare's day).

(Of course, there is on occasion a rare portrayal that succeeds beyond expectations of gender.  Linda Hunt astonished as a small Indonesian male journalist in "Year of Living Dangerously"; John Lithgow was winning as Roberta Muldoon in "The World According to Garp".)

It should not make any difference that an actor, whose stock in trade is getting us to believe a character in a story, is gay or straight or anywhere on that continuum.  And it serves no purpose to publish articles by writers who have not searched themselves and written from their own hearts instead of making offensive generalizations.

But some attitudes prevail, and it does no good, either, to ignore them.  Better it is to confront them head-on and do a better job of PR on behalf of talented performers who deserve a chance to play the roles their talents are suited for.


  1. The other shame of it: if a gay actor plays a gay role, audiences and critics will claim it isn't a stretch. As though all gay people must be the exact same. When is the double standard going to end? Irksome!

    I will say this: the best production I've ever seen of Sweet Charity had a brother and sister as the romantic leads. Scarily lovely. But that's the exception.

  2. I agree with your points about seperating the public persona of the performer from the characterisation. In the same way that you can't see a Picasso without contemplating his misogyny it's equally impossible to see Sir Ian McKellen cast in a project without considering his sexuality.

    Of course we can't test your theory about cinemagoers with the power to end careers, not without one of the bigger stars coming out. And that only if you believe that star power still sells tickets. I suspect that there would be very little impact on sales (just look at Welsh Rugby player Gareth Thomas who came out last year to collective shrugs and no change in ticket sales) and the positive bonuses of being able to change the perception of gay actors being able to 'play straight' would outweigh it in the long run.

    However it is the quality of the performance (or art if you will) that takes you away from your prior knowledge and prejudices. If the acting is bad it fully deserves censure, if you can't as an actor paint over your public persona then any critism is fully deserved (regardless of the sexuality of the performer).

    What upset me about the article was Satoodeh's assertion, based on a couple of examples, that no gay man or lesbian could convincingly play a straight romantic lead, and that is somehing that should deeply offend all of us.

  3. Walter, the Sweet Charity production must have been quite interesting! And Ben, I fully understand your point of view, and know how close to home this issue is. I agree with both of you that the article was written without much thought, and its flippant tone was offensive. It is a volatile subject....