Sunday, November 20, 2005

“I’m Not Gay, But I Play One in the Movies…”

Only in Hollywood, which the tightie-rightie Christianists claim is crawling with queers, would they have to find straight actors to play gay parts.

Groups that hand out awards can be suckers for acting stunts, from Nicole Kidman’s fake nose in “The Hours” to Adrien Brody’s near-starvation for “The Pianist.” The tradition is so entrenched that Kate Winslet, playing an outrageous comic version of herself in the HBO series “Extras,” listed a surefire way to get that elusive Academy Award. “Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘My Left Foot?’ Oscar. Dustin Hoffman, ‘Rain Man?’ Oscar,” she says. “Seriously, you are guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental.” Irreverent, imprecise (the Day-Lewis character was not mentally troubled) yet essentially true.

This season she might have added: playing gay. There has been an explosion of Oscar-baiting performances in which straight actors play gay, transvestite or transgender characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman melts into the role of the gay title character in “Capote,” while Cillian Murphy plays a transvestite in 1970’s Ireland in Neil Jordan’s witty, endearing “Breakfast on Pluto.” Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger play lovers in “Brokeback Mountain” (set to open Dec. 9), already better known as “the gay cowboy movie” and already a Letterman joke.

But big-name actors are leaping into such roles in smaller films, too. Felicity Huffman stretches way beyond “Desperate Housewives” as a man about to become a woman in “Transamerica” (Dec. 2) and Peter Sarsgaard plays a gay Hollywood screenwriter who has an affair with a closeted, married studio executive (Campbell Scott) in the current “Dying Gaul.”


The actors are straight as far as we know (give or take the occasional rumor on the Internet, where you can find rumors about anything), an issue that matters only because it becomes part of the filmmakers’ shrewd if unspoken calculation. Especially in today’s celebrity culture, the line between the actor’s life and the movies never entirely vanishes. Mr. Hoffman chats about his son’s Halloween costume on the Letterman show, Mr. Sarsgaard’s name appears in gossip columns linked with Maggie Gyllenhaal and no one thinks Ms. Huffman was ever a man. Our awareness of these nonfiction roles makes it easier and maybe more acceptable for middle-class heterosexual viewers – a group that does, after all, include most of us in the audience – to embrace characters whose sexual preferences we don’t share.

Having seen none of these films yet, I can’t comment on the individual films, and as a student of theatre, I have no problem with straight actors playing gay roles; after all, for centuries, gay actors have played straight parts. I also think it’s a sign of progress that “name” actors are now taking on roles that in the past they would have avoided for fear of being tagged as gay. But I think there’s also something to be said for casting a gay actor in a gay role; after all, Hollywood no longer casts white guys in heavy make-up as Puerto Ricans or Chicanos. Whether or not it makes the mythical “middle American” movie-going audience more comfortable to know that Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger really aren’t getting it on off-screen as well is problematic; most of the people who would go see Brokeback Mountain aren’t expecting Shane. Since most films today seem to be marketed to 18-to-24 year-olds, perhaps it will subliminally let them know that not only are gay men real people, they’re being portrayed in a three-dimensional way by actors that are well-respected for both their craft and their name recognition. However, there are plenty of gay actors who could do that as well, and it’s slightly ironic that the liberation of gay characters in films is being done by guys who are, more’s the pity, hopelessly straight.