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Switching teams: straight actors playing it gay
by Tonsofun
 

"You know what? It's 1997, and across the board every great actor whom I love, admire, and respect, from Al Pacino to William Hurt to Tom Hanks, (in Dog Day Afternoon, Kiss Of The Spider Woman and Philadelphia respectively) has played a gay character. Playing Simon really didn't feel like a groundbreaking tour de force to me. I'm not leading the entire movie industry into some uncharted waters here. I mean, in this day and age, it's almost like, "What? He's playing a white heterosexual? Man, that guy's crazy."

 

There's a long, long history of straight actors camping it up in films, almost always for a cheap laugh. But the phenomena of a straight actor playing a homosexual part has only really become popular fairly recently, in the nineties.

The above quote is from an interview Greg Kinnear gave to Gay and Lesbian journal The Advocate about his portrayal of openly gay character 'Simon' in the 1997 movie As Good As It Gets.

When asked whether he was at all apprehensive about taking the role, Kinnear (who I believe accepted the part in the film before the critical success of its contemporaries My Best Friend's Wedding and In and Out) cited his primary reason as the quality of the script. You have to wonder though, whether any gay actors were screen-tested for the part and why not. It may be interesting to know if Kinnear would feel that a gay actor could have made the part even more believable. Unfortunately this is probably a question that any interviewer will probably be too busy kissing arse, to ask.

[By the way, I say 'contemporaries' not because I believe the performances or themes of As Good As It Gets to be similar to these films but rather because this is surely how it was seen in the planning stages - a gay theme with mass appeal. They were also all released late in 1997]
Though the character of Simon is an artist, and is described in the script as being 'flamboyant' Kinnear plays him as modest and understated. There is only one camp or shall we say 'Bird-cage-ish' moment - when Simon flicks his head round as he minces primly away from Jack Nicholson's homophobic character Melvin. However, possibly anticipating criticism for resorting to stereotypical behaviour to build character, (gay) executive producer Laurence Mark says on this subject...

"...let's face it, gay characters do sometimes do gay things." (Taken from the DVD commentary; 00.03.38)

With one head-toss constituting Simon's 'camp' for practically the whole film, it could possibly be argued that his character is gay simply because we are told he is. We do not see him or hear of him having any kind of sexual relations with men in the movie, not even an unambiguous kiss. We learn again from the commentary that in the original script there was more made of the relationship between Simon and the young street hustler (Skeet Ulrich) who is found for him to paint. This would have made the attack on Simon and his subsequent deep depression much more poignant, ultimately though, these scenes were never filmed. James L Brooks, the director, says that this was because the running time was too long as it is and that these scenes were not as important as others. This is very probably true - but it wouldn't be the first time that a film was 'straightened out' in some way, for an actor: The Man Without a Face 1993 was considered by many (who believe that Mel Gibson gets by mainly on his looks - "surely not" I hear you cry) to be a brave choice of subject matter for him. However, the original book by Isabelle Holland sees the hideously disfigured ex-teacher indulging in a sexual relationship with the lonely boy that he takes under his wing - now that would have been brave. On second thought, it probably would have ended Gibson's unstoppable career right there, and the world would have been tragically deprived of What Women Want.

When news broke that Tom Cruise was to play Anne Rice's homosexual vampire 'Lestat' in the film Interview With The Vampire, hordes of worried nerds and even the author herself expressed concerns that the character would be straightened out considerably for Cruise. The resulting film contains many instances of Lestat's penchant for young men and his deep love for Louis (Brad Pitt), but the book makes much much more of it and even likens vampires to homosexuals at a much more fundamental level - an age old connection that has been oft-discussed, tying in with AIDS, and the way the vampires are outsiders, who can always spot another of their kind, but that is a subject for another article entirely.

When asked what he thought of the story's homoeroticism, Cruise had this to say:

"You see, I think that really limits what the book is about and what the characters stand for. They are vampires. It's very important to understand that. There is an eroticism. But I think if someone is a homosexual, to them it will be homoerotic. And if they're not homosexual, it will be heteroerotic"

Yes.... not sure I agree with this statement. The eroticism in the film is almost always coded as homo-erotic - between Cruise and Pitt - Pitt and Antonio Banderas - and even, I would venture, between Cruise and Kirsten Dunst. I would agree however that eroticism is at a basic level, purely that, and if a straight man is enjoying that eroticism, then he is enjoying it on a heterosexual level , no matter what the sexual orientation of the material. I don't think this is what Cruise is saying though, he seems to be implying that the film is a blank canvas onto which any gender or sexuality can transplant their own gay or straight, or bisexual sensibility. Interview With The Vampire is - if not a queer film - a film that deals with gay characters - even though it does not fully engage with them on this level.

This 'non-engagement' is an accusation that looks on the surface to be one that you could level at most films in which straight actors play gay. Is it considered to be asking too much of the hetero audience to see their star as anything but 'theirs' on more than a superficial level? Would this really leave a bad taste in the mouth? Unfortunately, when the film's narrative avoids engaging with the straight performer's gay character on even a remotely sexual level, it often renders the whole performance paralysed and impotent.

Strangely, the director of Interview With The Vampire, Neil Jordan, has pulled off exactly this type of film - a guy we can all identify with, falls in love with an attractive gay character - before with great success. I refer of course to The Crying Game 1992, which dealt with gay characters (some of which were played by straight actors) on a much deeper level than Interview With The Vampire. Maybe they got away with it because they were not dealing with an enormous star persona like Tom Cruise, and all the audience expectations that go with this. Greg Kinnear is a relative newcomer to movies, and while he is thoroughly likeable and obviously a good-looking and talented actor, he is not weighed down with a star persona. So why does his performance tread so lightly.

Part of the problem may be political correctness. James L Brooks and Greg Kinnear didn't want to lapse into stereotypical behaviour to ground the character, in fact, elsewhere in the 'Advocate' interview, Kinnear says that he doesn't have any gay friends that act in a camp flamboyant way, so it would have felt artificial to him to play it that way.

But if you take away the camp and you take away the sexual element, what are you left with that is gay? The tiny dog? The purple shirt unbuttoned to the navel?

What we are left with is at best a very likeable and well acted performance, but an asexual one. Okay, maybe we should praise Kinnear's restraint at not just lapsing into stock gay stereotypes to play the part. But would it have been so bad if he had. At least then we would have a one dimensional gay character. Of course this seems like an awful thing to imply - that a stereotype is harmless and fun and is better than a patronising overly 'PC' character. But if Kinnear had played the role a little more camp, he would not necessarily have lost all his likability and sympathy. Of course he almost certainly wouldn't have been nominated for the Oscar.

One might ask why, with all these pitfalls, Straight actors are continually cast in gay Hollywood parts while gay actors are entirely confined to the independents for their leading romantic parts. Part of it may be the common misconception that it takes little or no talent for a gay actor to play a gay role. I was embarrassed to realise that when I thought hard about this, I discovered that I have been subconsciously guilty of this in the past. For example: the movie Independence Day (1996); a terrible movie, but if there is one thing I enjoy in it, it's Harvey Fierstein's performance. As soon as he appears on screen I cheer up; 'Hey it's Harvey Fierstein, I like him, he's funny'. If I am honest with myself I admit that this is because I am assuming that I am looking at 'Harvey Fierstein' rather than looking at a camp character being played by Harvey Fierstein. Also being interviewed for 'The Advocate' Nathan Lane expressed his fear of this when making The Birdcage (1996):

"...I was given this great opportunity in The Birdcage. And I honestly felt it was not the time to suddenly also come out to America because I felt like I was playing this flamboyant gay character and to loudly come out would somehow overshadow that. Like they would say, "Oh, he's not an actor. He's just letting his hair down. He's just playing himself. He brought his own clothes!" I wanted the work to speak for itself, and I thought at some later point there would be a time to do it."

So maybe this is a very simple matter after all; mainstream Hollywood audiences simply are not interested in seeing gay actors in major gay parts - because they want to see the actors work for their money. It could be argued that one exception to this is My Best Friend's Wedding, which features gay British actor Rupert Everett playing a prominent gay role and was an enormous hit in the U.S - with word of mouth on Everett's performance being the main reason why most people went to see the film. But of course Rupert Everett was still an almost total 'unknown' in America back then so the matter of how many of the audience knew that they were watching a gay actor play a gay role could be a matter of some contention.

I believe it could be strongly argued that the primary reason for gay parts being given to straight actors is because while Hollywood as a centre of creativity likes to keep up a thin veil of a 'pseudo' gay sensibility - Hollywood as an industry is still rife with an institutionalised homophobic philosophy. It fears that gay characters who are played - without irony - by gay actors, will be too unapologetic for mainstream (read: heterosexual) audiences, so they undermine the character at the most basic level by having a straight actor fill the role.

The second problem is of course that straight actors continue to take these parts. Perhaps they are the only people who can change the situation - by (without wanting to sound 'heterophobic') sticking to their own team.

Switching teams: straight actors playing it gay
article posted
30 December 2003