Hooray for Kristin Chenoweth.
In the opinion piece that’s infuriated Chenoweth, Newsweek’s Ramin Setoodeh seems to be arguing two separate points but treating them as if they’re one and the same.
The first is that gay actors just aren’t talented enough to play characters who like girls.
The second is that no actor, gay or straight, can make an audience forget who and what he really is, which is an argument that all actors should always play themselves because that’s all they can play, an argument against the entire career of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
It’s true, though. Some gay actors cannot play straight characters convincingly…because they can’t play any characters convincingly. The trouble isn’t that they’re gay actors. The trouble is that they’re bad actors.
Sean Hayes isn’t a bad actor. If he’s not doing a good job in Promises, Promises, my bet is that it’s because he hasn’t figured out how to play that character not that he can’t play straight.
I’d think the problem any actor would have would that part is not how to play him straight but how not to play him as Jack Lemmon.
It’s also true that some gay very talented gay actors will never be able to play romantic leads, for the same reason a lot of straight actors will never play romantic leads. They don’t fit the parts.
Another true thing is that actors who’ve had some degree of fame or notoriety carry that with them onstage and on onscreen but their challenge is to make audiences forget who they are in real life and accept them as this character. The better the actor and the better the character the quicker this can happen. But audiences can’t help seeing both the actor and the character they’re playing and sometimes circumstances are such that no matter how good a job the actor’s doing the audience can’t forget what they just read in People Magazine or saw on TV last night. If Sean Hayes had starred in a production of Promises, Promises while Will & Grace was at its peak, he might have had no hope of making the audience accept him as a leading man, straight or gay. They’d have seen him as Just Jack! no matter what.
Audiences like to be fooled too. Being aware of the differences between the character and what they know about the actor can be part of the fun. Watching an actor know for being a saint in real life or for usually playing heroes take on the role of a villain is pleasure for audiences that has often worked to the actor’s benefit, excusing an actually weak performance or saving or expanding a career.
You can probably come up with a dozen examples. The reason I can’t come up with an example of a out and proud gay actor wowing audiences with a performance as a romantic leading man that made Clark Gable look like a stammering schoolboy is Hollywood’s longstanding prejudice against casting gay men as romantic leads. I can think of examples of possibly gay men who had to pretend to be straight offscreen in order to pretend to be straight on screen and getting away with it for their whole careers.
Rumors abound about the likes of Cary Grant, Tyrone Power, and lately even Spencer Tracey. But forget the gossip. There’s one leading man we know for sure was gay and you would think a quick consideration of his career would have caused Setoodeh to spike his article before he got past his first graph.
But Setoodeh’s ahead of me.
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.
I suppose it is farcical, if you ignore why we know Hudson was gay and how the man died. But I think most fans got over the irony by 1987 and those movies he made with Doris Day, not to mention McMillan and Wife, still work as comedies about a romantic and sexual attraction between a man and a woman and in the two decades since Hudson died I don’t think there’s evidence that they’re only remembered as gay camp cult films.
Actually, the other irony, that it was Hudson who was gay not Tony Randall, adds a nice fillip to the enjoyment, but again along the same lines as knowing that the actor playing the villain spends his off time working at hospitals in Bolivia.
You would think the corollary to Setoodeh’s argument would be that straight actors can’t play gay characters, which would be news to Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, Colin Firth, and Sean Hayes’ co-star on Will & Grace, Eric McCormack, not to mention Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, as well as the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who nominated Hoffman, Penn, Firth, and Ledger for Oscars for their portrayals of gay men.
Setoodeh does mention Ledger and Gyllenhaal but only to state that it’s ok for straight actors to play gay without saying why it’s ok for them.
The implication is that it’s ok because audiences know the truth. What Setoodeh’s actually trying to say---I think---is not that gay actors can’t play straight characters because they can’t really act straight, although he does seem to think that it is the case that they can’t. The slightest trace of queerness will show up on everybody’s gaydar the way the minutest radioactive isotope will set off alarms all over the spaceship in a bad sci-fi movie and the performance will ring false. It’s that audiences are still too unaccepting of gayness.
So his argument becomes that gay actors should closet themselves and closet themselves deeply if they want to play romantic leading men.
And it follows from that that directors should never attempt to cast gay actors as romantic leading men if they want their productions to be successful.
What would NPH say?
Probably, “Have you watched my show, dude?”
Photo above from Vanity Fair. Goes with this short article by Burt Bachrach.
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