question of the day: Is it homophobic to suggest that gay actors shouldn’t play straight roles?

I noted recently in connection with the Jim Carrey/Ewan McGregor movie I Love You Phillip Morris, a gay love story starring two straight men, that the writers of the film pointed out that they couldn’t hire gay stars because no one is gay in Hollywood… or at least not out about their sexuality, anyway. It’s long been “assumed” — in the same way that Hollywood makes lots of assumptions about its audiences on no basis in fact whatsoever — that if we all knew, for instance, that Russell Crowe was gay, we wouldn’t believe him as a straight Robin Hood (or any other character) in love with a woman. It sounds preposterous — we have no trouble believing that a temperamental actor is actually a reporter or a cop or a scientist — but there is, at a minimum, a hurdle for a gay actor to overcome in the preconceptions of those doing the hiring for movie roles: Rupert Everett recently advised gay actors to stay in the closet if they want to work in America or Britain, and it does seem as if he could have been a far bigger star than he is if he hadn’t come out.

So: Gay actors hide who they are because they’re afraid they won’t get work. It’s just the way Hollywood works.

And then along comes Newsweek writer Ramin Setoodeh — an out gay man — who suggests, in an essay called “Straight Jacket,” that gay actors simply cannot play straight:

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?

Setoodeh goes on to imply that Hollywood’s aversion to casting gay actors in straight roles isn’t a matter of Hollywood’s prejudices getting in the way, but just plain reality:

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.

That sounds to me like Setoodeh is saying that bigotry is not only justified, it isn’t even bigotry! And he keeps digging the hole:

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.

It seems odd to focus on an actor’s personal life when, obviously, the issue — if there is an issue at all — should be with the performance and with the direction.

In response to Setoodeh’s essay, Glee creator Ryan Murphy has called for a boycott of Newsweek:

This article is as misguided as it is shocking and hurtful. It shocks me because Mr. Setoodeh is himself gay. But what is the most shocking of all is that Newsweek went ahead and published such a blatantly homophobic article in the first place…and has remained silent in the face of ongoing (and justified) criticism. Would the magazine have published an article where the author makes a thesis statement that minority actors should only be allowed and encouraged to play domestics? I think not.

Kristen Chenoweth, Sean Hayes’ costar in Promises, Promises, has also responded:

This article offends me because I am a human being, a woman and a Christian. For example, there was a time when Jewish actors had to change their names because anti-Semites thought no Jew could convincingly play Gentile. Setoodeh even goes so far as to justify his knee-jerk homophobic reaction to gay actors by accepting and endorsing that “as viewers, we are molded by a society obsessed with dissecting sexuality, starting with the locker room torture in junior high school.” Really? We want to maintain and proliferate the same kind of bullying that makes children cry and in some recent cases have even taken their own lives? That’s so sad, Newsweek! The examples he provides (what scientists call “selection bias”) to prove his “gays can’t play straight” hypothesis are sloppy in my opinion. Come on now!

No one needs to see a bigoted, factually inaccurate article that tells people who deviate from heterosexual norms that they can’t be open about who they are and still achieve their dreams. I am told on good authority that Mr. Setoodeh is a gay man himself and I would hope, as the author of this article, he would at least understand that. I encourage Newsweek to embrace stories which promote acceptance, love, unity and singing and dancing for all!

And finally, Setoodeh responds to the criticism:

But what all this scrutiny seemed to miss was my essay’s point: if an actor of the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet today, would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man? It’s hard to say, because no actor like that exists. I meant to open a debate—why is that? And what does it say about our notions about sexuality? For all the talk about progress in the gay community in Hollywood, has enough really changed? The answer seems obvious to me: no, it has not.

So the question is: Is it homophobic to suggest that gay actors shouldn’t play straight roles?

(Interestingly, as some evidence to the contrary of Setoodeh’s comments, Glee has gone from being a cult favorite to a ratings smash, while I Love You Phillip Morris still can’t get a North American release date, though it did play theatrically in the U.K. earlier this year. I’ve decided not to wait: I’ve preordered the Region 2 DVD, which was be released in July.)

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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