Heterosexual actors play gay all the time. Why doesn't it ever work in reverse?
By Ramin Setoodeh |
The reviews for the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises were negative enough, even though
most of the critics ignored the real problem—the big pink elephant in the room. The leading man
of this musical-romantic comedy is supposed to be a single advertising peon named Chuck who is
madly in love with a co-worker (Kristin Chenoweth). 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?
This is no laughing matter, however. For decades, Hollywood has kept gay actors—Tab Hunter,
Van Johnson, Anthony Perkins, Rock Hudson, etc.—in the closet, to their own personal
detriment. The fear was, if people knew your sexual orientation, you could never work again.
Thankfully, this seems ridiculous in the era of Portia de Rossi and Neil Patrick Harris. But the
truth is, openly gay actors still have reason to be scared. While it's OK for straight actors to play
gay (as Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger did in Brokeback Mountain), it's rare for someone to
pull off the trick in reverse. De Rossi and Harris do that on TV, but they also inhabit broad
caricatures, not realistic characters likes the ones in Up in the Air or even The Proposal. Last
year, Rupert Everett caused a ruckus when he told the Guardian that gay actors should stay in the
closet. "The fact is," he said, "that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual
trying to make it in the ... film business." Is he just bitter or honest? Maybe both.
Most actors would tell you that the biographical details of their lives are beside the point. Except
when they're not. As viewers, we are molded by a society obsessed with dissecting sexuality,
starting with the locker-room torture in junior high school. Which is why it's a little hard to know
what to make of the latest fabulous player to join Glee: Jonathan Groff, the openly gay Broadway
star. In Spring Awakening, he showed us that he was a knockout singer and a heartthrob. But on
TV, as the shifty glee captain from another school who steals Rachel's heart, there's something
about his performance that feels off. In half his scenes, he scowls—is that a substitute for being
straight? When he smiles or giggles, he seems more like your average theater queen, a better
romantic match for Kurt than Rachel. It doesn't help that he tried to bed his girlfriend while
singing (and writhing to) Madonna's Like a Virgin. He is so distracting, I'm starting to wonder if
Groff's character on the show is supposed to be secretly gay.
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.) Lesbian actresses might have it easier—since straight men think it's
OK for them to kiss a girl and like it—but how many of them can you name? Cynthia Nixon was
married to a man when she originated Miranda on Sex and the City. Kelly McGillis was straight
when she steamed up Top Gun's sheets, and Anne Heche went back to dating men (including her
Men in Trees costar). If an actor of the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet
tomorrow, would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man? It's hard to say. Or maybe
not. Doesn't it mean something that no openly gay actor like that exists?