Can Openly Gay Actors Play Straight?

14 06 2010

Did any of you see the controversial Newsweek article that criticized Sean Hayes’ performance in Promises, Promises, because he’s too gay to play a straight romantic lead?  Hayes, who plays the flamboyantly gay Jack on Will & Grace, now plays a character on Broadway who is supposed to be madly in love with his co-worker, played by Kristin Chenoweth.  But Newsweek wrote of his performance,

“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 came out of the closet only 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, as if he’s trying to hide something, which of course he is.”

At this year’s Tony awards, Hayes took a shot back at Newsweek by passionately making out with his costar on stage:

While I think his response is pretty awesome and I feel bad that openly gay actors with extraordinary talent always get pigeonholed into gay or supporting roles, I have to admit: I understand where Newsweek is coming from.  It’s not a particularly PC position to take, but it’s honestly difficult for me to believe a gay man in a straight romantic role, and it can really affect my experience of a film.

Part of the allure of watching a really hot actor and a really hot actress fall in love onscreen is the feeling you get that that the two actors might actually mean it, Brangelina or LiznDick Burton-style.  Even if we know that Ben Affleck is married to Jennifer Garner, it is still easy to believe that he had genuine chemistry with Jennifer Aniston on the set of He’s Just Not That Into You, which is why I cried in that scene where he does her dishes.

The other part of the allure of a rom-com is the remote fantasy of that actor being into you. If Ben Affleck suddenly divorced Jennifer Garner and came out of the closet, I don’t think I could watch any of his movies again in the same way.  Every time I saw him kiss a girl in a movie, I’d be thinking, He’s not even enjoying this.  He probably wishes he was making out with Matt Damon.  And that would ruin the movie for me.

I think there’s a good reason why, magically, NONE of the major players in Hollywood are openly gay.  Cruise, Clooney, Pitt, Hanks, Travolta, Jackman, Damon, Affleck, Denzel– is it possible that all major movie actors are straight? No, it’s not.  Some of these guys make a life choice to stay in the closet, probably pay women to marry them (ahemKatieHolmescoughcough) and pop out some kids to complete the effect, because otherwise they would not be billionaires.  I’m sure some of them have boyfriends on the side to help them cope with a secretive, oppressive life in the closet, and I hate that it has to be that way.  But it’s true– Clooney would not be Clooney if he went out partying every weekend in a pink tutu and angel wings.

Celebrities don’t get to have normal private lives, gay or straight or otherwise.  That’s the price they pay for getting paid billions of dollars to have their makeup done and prance around on camera and act like someone else.  I think that’s pretty fair, don’t you?

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9 responses

14 06 2010
bros

Its weird that the only time suspension of disbelief is ruined for you is the sexuality part.

It’s not a problem that the entire exercise of acting is to pretend? when you see toby maguire jumping from building to building as spiderman, you know he isnt really spiderman right? he is really a nebbishy non descript thing who you probably wouldnt notice walking down the street. Or when angelina jolie plays a crazy in girl, interrupted, you know she isnt really crazy, but she inhabits that role really well.

I dont think the newsweek article was good or fair and I think it was stupid that of all professions, acting is now supposed to call for some a priori authenticity before an actor can successfully take a role? if that is the case, say goodbye to the industry in general.

I recently heard Terri Gross interviewing him on Fresh Air about this same ‘controversy.’ Excerpt:

Terry Gross: “Right before Promises, Promises, opened, you did an interview with The Advocate in which you acknowledged you are gay. Previously, you’d declined to talk about that, saying the less people knew about your personal life, the more open-minded they could be about each role that you played. I was wondering like, why now?”

Sean Hayes: “Um, so we wouldn’t have to talk about it.”

Terry Gross: “And here I am talking about it. Is that your point?”

Sean Hayes: “Yeah. Because there’s nothing relevant about someone’s sexuality to what they do for a living.”

Terry Gross: “But what’s relevant to me is that your first big roles, both in Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss and in Will and Grace, were as gay characters. And I think probably for a lot of young gay people in particular, it’s great to have young gay characters on-screen, because not until recently were there any.”

Sean Hayes: “Yeah, well Billy Crystal in the ’70s, and … there are tons. There are tons of examples, but — yes, no, I think any positive that has come out of me playing gay characters on TV or film is amazing, and a wonderful byproduct of what I’ve done. And if it’s helped anybody, then my life is complete, because that’s a wonderful thing.”

14 06 2010
geof

hahaha, good points!

14 06 2010
Wing - it

LB – you and Newsweek have aimed at only gay men who should only play gay parts or they will come off insincere. What about gay women playing straight parts ?? An actor is an actor and if they are good, then they can do the job well. I think you have these people fixed in a one way only avenue. That is so sad. I go way back but I can think of straight actors who I could not relate to because they were always the same no matter what part they were playing. Example, Katherine Hepburn – to me she was always katherine Hepburn not the person she was portraying. Doris Day, another one. She was always Doris Day – etc. etc. It’s a mind fix by the watcher.

14 06 2010
districtramblings

I agree that a person’s sexuality should be irrelevant in any career, and I’m fully aware that that my reaction to openly gay men playing straight romantic leads is the unacceptable non-PC one, and I know I’m supposed to disagree with that Newsweek article, but I’m giving you my honest reaction. It doesn’t work the same way for a gay woman playing straight (although if a really gay woman like Melissa Etheridge was cast opposite Brad Pitt in a rom-com I would not believe her), and it’s not the case for a gay man playing an action role or any other kind of role. I’m only talking about gay men in straight, romantic leads. I don’t know why my reaction is this way, it just is.

14 06 2010
Wing-it

It’s too bad that coming out of the closet is the popular way to go – it seems to spoil everything. I would rather not know who is gay and who is not and then enjoy the movie or the play and not have to worry about this gay guy making love to a woman. Is it really necessary to make ones sexual preference public ???

15 06 2010
cb

I agree with DR, that it’s hard to buy the romance when you know one of the actors is gay and wouldn’t have those feelings for the opposite sex in real life, but Bros makes a good point about acting in general with her Spiderman example. Spiderman isn’t a believable character either, but once you’re immersed in the fantasy of the story, if the acting is good your imagination lets you believe it. A good actor can take you there. I was really sceptical about Heath and Jake playing gay cowboys, both being married with kids in real life, but about a third of the way into Brokeback, I was feeling their forbidden lust for each other and totally mesmorized by their powerlessness over it. I forgot it was Heath and Jake playing roles.

15 06 2010
districtramblings

Yea, oddly enough, I can believe a straight actor playing gay. Just not the other way around.

17 06 2010
Sasha Farmer

LB- you forgot Will Smith. That is all.

19 06 2010
Katie

I love that you use total nerdface, Ben Affleck, as your hunky example. I have to take the PC stance here. I agree with your points about escapism in movies and pretending that the you’re the lead girl. I mean most movies thrive on that quasi-realism. Not so much the same in theater. But if the actor can act well, then I could conceivably still be attracted to the onscreen persona and physique of a gay man… at least as much as I can be attracted to Vince Vaughn. Woof. Plus, the theater, where Sean is portraying these characters, is the land of gay men so if he isn’t allowed to try there then something is messed up.

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