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."
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
asked what he thought of the story's homoeroticism, Cruise
had this to say:
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
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.
'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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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):
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
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.
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.