Monday, May 10, 2010

Who Can Play It Straight?

I ran across the Newsweek article entitled, “Straight Jacket” and what I learned is that though straight men can play gay, apparently the same is not true for gay men.

When the play opened on Broadway in 1968, Jerry Orbach, an actor with enough macho swagger to later fuel years and years of Law and Order, was the star. The revival hands the lead over to Sean Hayes, best known as the queeny Jack on Will & Grace. Hayes is among Hollywood's best verbal slapstickers, but his sexual orientation is part of who he is, and also part of his charm. (The fact that he only came out of the closet just before Promises was another one of those Ricky Martin-duh moments.) But frankly, it's weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, like he's trying to hide something, which of course he is. Even the play's most hilarious scene, when Chuck tries to pick up a drunk woman at a bar, devolves into unintentional camp. Is it funny because of all the '60s-era one-liners, or because the woman is so drunk (and clueless) that she agrees to go home with a guy we all know is gay?

The problem with this analysis is that actors have to make us believe that they are the role that they are playing.   When Heath Ledger played the joker in “The Dark Knight,” he became that role in much the same way that he became Ennis Del Mar in “Brokeback Mountain”. The point I think that needs to be emphasised, is not that he was a straight man playing gay, it was that he was a great actor doing his job.  If Hayes is having issues with the role in the play, it is not his sexuality that is the problem; it is his ability to act.  Good actors take on various roles that challenge them thereby forcing them to grow.  Before Tom Hanks was a two time Oscar winning actor for “Philadelphia” and “Forest Gump”, he was Joe Banks in “Joe Versus the Volcano.”  Looking at Hanks career, it is fair to say that his early roles gave no indication of the great actor that he would become.

This is admittedly a complicated issue for the gay community, though it is not, in fact, a uniquely gay problem. In the 1950s, the idea of "color-blind casting" became a reality, and the result is that today there's nothing to stop Denzel Washington from playing the Walter Matthau role in the remake of The Taking of the Pelham 1-2-3. Jack Nicholson, by the force of his charm, makes you forget how he's entirely too old to win Helen Hunt's heart in As Good As It Gets. For gay actors, why should sexual orientation limit a gay actor's choice of roles? The fact is, an actor's background does affect how we see his or her performance—which is why the Tom Hankses and Denzels of the world guard their privacy carefully.

It's not just a problem for someone like Hayes, who even tips off your grandmother's gaydar. For all the beefy bravado that Rock Hudson projects on-screen, Pillow Talk dissolves into a farce when you know the likes of his true bedmates. (Just rewatch the scene where he's wading around in a bubble bath by himself.)

First of all, Jack Nicholson did not make me forget for one moment that in the real world he had no chance with a woman as hot as Helen Hunt.  In fact, it just irritated me once again to see an older guy get the young hot girl, ‘cause we know the reverse is never really explored in film.   Hanks and Denzel are both private family men outside of their work and they guard their privacy much like many other Hollywood stars.  But this idea, that some how an actors sexuality is too much too over come or that ze is setting of your gaydar, is based solidly in homophobia.  How can the reading of one scene change because an assumption of heterosexuality is no longer valid, unless one has an open bias against gay men?

Then of course you have Rupert Everett’s take:

'The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business.

'It just doesn't work and you're going to hit a brick wall at some point. You're going to manage to make it roll for a certain amount of time, but at the first sign of failure, they'll cut you right off.

'And I'm sick of saying: "Yes, it's probably my own fault." Because I've always tried to make it work and when it stops working somewhere, I try to make it work somewhere else.

'But the fact of the matter is, and I don't care who disagrees, it doesn't work if you're gay.' [source]

There are probably closeted gay or bi sexual men that are playing leading roles today that are very successful, but homophobia is what causes them to hide their sexuality.  If these men are successful, it is because they are good actors and have that certain star quality that just makes us believe them no matter what role they choose to play.

Sometimes a gay actor will fail simply because they are not believable in the role that they have chosen to take on, just as straight actors fail for that very same reason.  For instance, Canadian or not, why does Hayden Christensen have a career when he cannot act his way out of square box? I would rather watch a mime perform than him.  But as Everett rightfully points out, homophobia is a road block for many hopeful actors, just as racism continues to be an issue for many would be Black actors.

Today most of the movies are still largely aimed at a hetero audience, despite Hollywood supposedly being liberal.  It is not “cool to be gay” when profitability is the most important factor.  The media affirms stereotypes and biases far more than it ever challenges it -- and for the GLBT community, that means making them invisible or ridiculous.  Even when Hollywood does decide to tell a gay cowboy love story (Brokeback Mountain), it must still follow a predictable script with at least one person being punished for daring to be gay and live.  As much as I loved Annie Proulx’s short story, why is there always tragedy associated with a gay identity? If it is not the gay man pining over unrequited love, it is the asexual best friend -- and this is hardly the stuff that leading men are made of.

Unfortunately for Ramin Setoodeh of “Newsweek”, the reality of how damaging homophobia really is did not really become apparent in his article, and instead it reads of more heterosexist blather to support the way that the media stereotypes and the “others” gay actors. The idea that gay men cannot play straight. when they have been doing it forever is ridiculous.  For many men it has meant the difference between life and death.  Liberace may not have been able to pull it off, but many can and do. If we are reading something different into their performances, it because we are determined to see them as less.  Sometimes it is the quality of the acting but more often than not it is our homophobic society that acts as the real barrier.