by: Nico Lang
I thought we were past this, America.
After Cate Blanchett outacted a bunch of biological males as Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, I figured it was universally understood that anyone can play anyone. Tyler Perry can play an old, sassy black matriarch. Charlize Theron can be a lesbian prostitute/serial killer, a sociopathic children’s book author and an Evil Queen. Brad Pitt can age backwards. Kate Winslet can be a sexy Nazi cougar. Eddie Murphy can be a talking donkey. Meryl Streep can portray a British royal, a nun from the Bronx, an animated fox, an aging hippie on a Greek island, a Machiavellian political mom, a lesbian New Yorker and a chef nearly a foot taller than she is. I could even suspend my disbelief enough to buy Mark Ruffalo turning into a giant green man and smashing tall buildings and Chris Hemsworth being a Viking God from outer space in The Avengers, so surely America can buy the relatively simple transformation of a queer actor playing straight, right?
Because of this, when I first heard that Bret Easton Ellis had taken to Twitter to personally embargo openly gay actor Matt Bomer from being cast as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey, the film adaptation of EL James’ BDSM-mommy-porn phenomenon, I was rather taken aback by it. After the uproar from two years ago, when Newsweek writer Ramin Setoodeh (himself a gay man) claimed that Sean Hayes was too “queeny” to play a straight man in Promises, Promises, I didn’t think someone would so publicly “go there” again. We couldn’t make that mistake twice. Wrong.
To an extent, I at least understood what Setoodeh was getting at—even if he was unpacking his point in completely the wrong way. Setoodeh later clarified his real argument that a star’s off-screen persona can be distracting, which often works against out actors, in the same way it works against other actors whose personal lives are made very public by the tabloids. This is why audiences can’t take Tom Cruise seriously in any of his roles these days and why each of his films outside the Mission: Impossible series has flopped. When we look at Tom Cruise, all we see is his personal life in big bold letters.
But this isn’t in the way you’d expect, and the real explanation actually disproves Setoodeh’s (and Ellis’) homophobic view on the subject: Despite wide speculation that Tom Cruise, like Setoodeh’s comment on Sean Hayes, is “hiding something,” audiences don’t seem to care much whether or not Cruise is a gay man. They care that he’s crazy, as the fervor over his religion and marriage have dominated his late career. When Cruise played an eye-patch-wearing Nazi in Valkyrie, some theatres reportedly hooped and hollered at the screen, because the meta-commentary was simply too good not to catcall. The fact that he’s become box-office poison has nothing to do with who he sleeps with or whether all those rumors are true. It’s because the public just doesn’t like him anymore, gay or straight.
However, in cases where the actor isn’t Tom Cruise, that ironic commentary can actually work in the actor’s favor. In the case of Neil Patrick Harris, he’s made a second career out of being a gay actor playing straight. Although Setoodeh dismissed Harris’ portrayal of straight men because of the “caricature” aspect of the performance, Harris’ over-the-top zeal wasn’t any less enjoyable back when he was still in the closet, when the original Harold and Kumar film debuted in 2004. Harris didn’t come out as a gay man until 2006, two years later, and his revelation only served to make the joke even cleverer, allowing Harold and Kumar writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossenberg to go even farther in the next installments. By the third film, they had Harris pretend to be gay in order to sleep with a woman he’s attracted to, but the joke works not just because the joke itself funny, which it is. It works because Harris is a great comic actor with killer timing, which is why the Tonys won’t get rid of him. He’s a joy to behold on screen, in any role he’s in.
But despite portraying such exaggerated masculinity in Harold and Kumar and HIMYM, that doesn’t mean that Harris can’t go to honest and real places with his work, and Ellis simply referring to the joke as “lame” discredits the strength of Harris’ performance. For instance, the Barney-Robin pregnancy storyline on HIMYM (despite receiving mixed reviews from fans) stands as the finest work that Harris has ever done. This arc allows him to balance his flair for bawdy comedy with a dramatic tone rare for a broad CBS sitcom.
Similarly, Setoodeh dismissed Portia De Rossi’s role in the criminally underrated and (now cancelled) Better Off Ted for the same reason as he did Harris’, despite the fact that many of her straight co-stars were also playing caricatures and none of them were criticized for it. De Rossi played a similar character to BOT’s Veronica on Arrested Development, a show populated entirely by caricatures, and none of her straight co-stars got lambasted for that, either. In fact, many of them have made careers off of playing versions of those same characters in other roles—especially Will Arnett and Jason Bateman.
What this does is hold queer actors in Hollywood to an unfair and homophobic double standard, whether holding them to unrealistic expectations or asking (as Ellis has done) that they be “genuinely into” the opposite gender, when we don’t expect the same thing of straight actors going gay. This doesn’t leave queer actors a lot of options, other than to play one of the handful of queer characters that pop up in movies every year—roles they’ll have to fight straight actors for.
This was the exact reason that Rupert Everett (who gained mainstream recognition for playing Julia Roberts’ gay BFF in My Best Friend’s Wedding) told The Guardian in 2009 that coming out killed his career. Because of that, Everett advised young queer actors thinking about public with their sexuality to keep their mouths shut. According to Everett, “a gay man can only do drag.”
However, even that claim is wishful thinking. If you look back at films like To Wong Foo and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, all of those actors were straight, just like almost every actor who has been rewarded for playing a queer person on screen. When Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Leonardo DiCaprio, James Franco or Javier Bardem play queer, they are lauded for their “bravery” and get nominated for awards—but for an openly queer actor to do the opposite is anathemic to the status quo. In his article on the subject, Jeff Labrecque of Entertainment Weekly writes of such industry “realpolitik,”
Perhaps the reason they were accepted in prominent gay roles and generously honored for doing so is because, deep down, there’s homophobic residue that exists in even the most enlightened dude’s psyche that is reassured by the reality that those actors are ‘just pretending’ to be gay. It gives these males the opportunity to have it both ways — no pun intended. They can admire the ‘courageous’ performance but sleep easy knowing that the actor is, really, just like them.
Although Labrecque is right that part of the problem has to do with the straight male moviegoer, whose tastes tend to dominate what entertainments grace the multiplexes, but the gay buck doesn’t stop here. Sure, audiences have bottom-up voting power in deciding what they see onscreen, but viewers can only decide between the options they are given, and the folks in power have to be willing to take chances and allow actors like Matt Bomer (or Rupert Everett) to take parts traditionally reserved for straight actors, whether those parts be in the hottest projects in Hollywood, like 50 Shades, or any part that comes their way. The system has to be as blind to queer actors playing straight as we are to their counterparts—or the glass closet will never be broken. Otherwise, A-Listers like John Travolta (who Rashida Jones recently urged to come out) will never really have the chance. I don’t know or care if Travolta is gay, and as Jones later said, it’s none of my business, but I think he should at least realistically have the option to come out if he is.
Luckily, this status quo is slowly changing, with the help of actors like Harris and Portia De Rossi and the recently out Jim Parsons, a two-time Emmy-winner for his role as the nerdy Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. In previous years, out actors like Jane Lynch have won Emmys for playing straight, at the same time that Chris Colfer and Jesse Tyler Ferguson were both nominated for playing gay men. (This fall, out actor Andrew Rannelis will likewise portray one half of a gay couple on Ryan Murphy’s sitcom, The New Normal, which recently previewed on NBC to big numbers.) In the same year that Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean have all come out to shrugs or applause, we can see that the industry is taking baby steps in encouraging a culture of honesty and inclusiveness.
In a slight mea culpa on the issue, Ellis stated that the reason for this step forward is “that we’ve moved beyond stereotypes and gay is hot,” but that’s hardly the case. I think the reason is that Ellis, Setoodeh and other critics on the issue have underestimated audiences for far too long and their ability to see past an actor’s sexuality to just appreciate the quality of their work. We have a long way to go before stereotypes are a thing of the past—or Ellis’ and Setoodeh’s statements would cease to exist—but the only way to do challenge the status quo is to push the boundaries in any way we can, including allowing queer actors to play anyone they want. Audiences need to show queer actors that it’s okay to come out by supporting their work, or we make it easier for folks like Ellis to look right. And by calling Ellis out and reaffirming the wide fan support for Bomer as Christian Grey, audiences showing him how wrong he is already.
And maybe the next time an actor comes out, we won’t even have to have this discussion.
Nico Lang is the Co-Creator and Co-Editor of In Our Words and a graduate student in DePaul University’s Media & Cinema Studies program. Lang is a Change Coordinator for LGBT Change, the Co-Founder of Chicago’s Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and a columnist for HEAVEMedia. At HEAVE, Nico writes a column on film called Found Footage and talks about nerd stuff on a weekly podcast called Pod People. Elsewhere in podcasting, Lang hosts Broad Shoulders, a monthly podcast for Chicago’s Live Lit community. Nico is also a contributor at Thought Catalog and the Huffington Post and has been featured in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, LA Times, The New Gay, The Guardian and on their mother’s refrigerator. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on the Facebook.