SALON asks - Are straight actors in gay roles the new blackface?
Instead of lauding straight artists for taking risks by going gay, we should be holding them to higher standards
By Christopher Kelly
“Behind the Candelabra” was troubling from the start. First came the wearisome sight of Michael Douglas congratulating his heterosexual costar Matt Damon for having the “courage” to play a gay role. Then followed the repeated assurances from director Steven Soderbergh: In crafting this biopic about the flamboyant pianist Liberace (Douglas) and his decade-long relationship with Scott Thorson (Damon), he claimed to be “very conscious of trying to not look at it through any sort of political lens.” As if such political content or relevancy to the ongoing debates about marriage equality might somehow diminish the purity of his vision.
But worst of all has been the way this shrill, deeply unconvincing movie has been praised by critics for its “universality.” On NPR’s “Fresh Air,” David Bianculli talked about screenwriter Richard LaGravenese’s decision to “underscore the similarities between gay and straight relationships, not the differences.” (Bianculli went on to say that “nothing in “Behind the Candelabra” feels gratuitous” – “gratuitous,” apparently, being a synonym for “too gay.”) And in the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum read the film as a portrait of “a typical Hollywood marriage: a powerful star spots a young blonde, drapes her in jewelry, foots the bill for plastic surgery to suit his fetishes, and makes promises of security that ping all her daddy issues … The difference, of course, was that, because they were two men, Liberace never called Scott his husband.”
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You have to admit, it's a well written, thought provoking article. And as much as I enjoyed Candelabra, Kelly has a point.
I haven't seen it but people say that it's "ok" not great, also this article makes great points.
I don't have a problem with straight actors playing gay parts, but other than that, I agree with pretty much everything.
It's not well argued because he provides a narrow characterisation of the work that suits his point of view - he's a journalist, he pitched this to his editor because he's probably the go-to gay for Salon. He needs the work.
His own argument folds back on him when he concedes that it doesn't mean gay actors shouldn't or can't play straight people. And what is the logical extension of his p.o.v.? That gay people should just work in a gay ghetto? A cultural vacuum where they only tell gay stories by gay people for gay audiences? No thanks.
The whole point of equality is that there is a universality to our experience, a shared humanity. There's no reason that shouldn't be accessible to all.
You listen to these arguments for decades and where at one time they were relevant after a while when people echo them out of context they just become tiresome.
He doesn't make any sense anyway. Gay filmmakers have always been present and at times practically ruled the high brow art house scene. We've always been present at the low and middle brow scenes as well, progressively. And lesbian viewers were very critical of their depiction in Blue Is The Warmest Colour.
Ultimately, you're never going to please everyone. What matters is the quality of the work and the story itself. Scott Thorsen was a consultant on the film that depicted his life with Liberace. The most enjoyable aspect of the film was the performances - given there was no reveal for those familiar with the story - and none of the performers pulled their punches.
This article is pretty irrelevant. Note there are no comments posted to it. That's how tired it is.
Gay actors in gay comedy roles on TV are the new Stephin Fetchit.
....one of the stupidest titles for an article that I've ever seen. Yet the real point is continuing the conversation regarding straight actors playing gay characters and getting praised for their "bravery" when there are plenty of gay actors/actresses that could use the work. Would people care or even tune in to some lesser knowns?? Yeah, probably not. My question to the Hollywood hype machines is why gay actors/actresses tend to remain lesser knowns in such a said to be "liberal" place? So, the conversation continues with whether those representations of gay people in movies are true to form or mostly inventions from the minds of heterosexual writers/directors.
My problem is that many straight actors aren't good enough actors to "play gay". They do the forced, limp wrist thing that is just so unobservant.
What R6 said.
Nothing has ever seemed as "Gay Amos and Andy" to me as "Jack and Karen."
R4, I agree with you. To add to that, I think a lot of the author's points just don't make sense. Like the comparison of "Candelabra" and "The Help". Or the ascertation that Robert Downey Jr's blackface in "Tropic of Thunder" left little room for insensitivity or caricature." Or even that films like "42"- movies about the black experience helmed by white writers/directors- go through some extreme vetting process. This simply is not true.
I think this piece is full of extremely weak argument that simply don't hold up to even the slightest scrutiny.
R8 has it right. Get the good straight actors to play us.
[italic]Strangers With Candy[/italic] addressed this issue better during the "Raisin In The Sun" episode.
Hollywood is certainly not liberal - it's hedonistic. There's a difference.
I didn't get why Liberace made him have surgery to look like himself....ultimate narcissist? Why would you want to sleep with yourself?
R4 Well put. I found that Salon piece infuriating to read.
I thought the plastic surgery was to make Scott look like he could be Liberace's son. What he seemed to want really was a son he could fuck.
[quote]These actors capture the looks, sounds and movements of their gay characters, but barely seem to scratch the surface of the depths of anguish, self-hatred and fear these men must have known in their lifetimes.
But, seriously, could anything but the most talented actors, gay or straight, accomplish this? This isn't documentaries we're talking about.
A less-than-stellar gay actor, even if he's experienced those emotional life aspects himself could not necessarily convincingly present those emotions on call on camera.
The "depth of anguish, self-hatred, or fear" experienced by gay men is not something that is readily translatable to screen no matter the actor's sexuality. It takes the very best writing, directing, and acting.
[quote]Besides, if straight actors shouldn’t be allowed to play gay characters then, by logical extension, gay actors shouldn’t be allowed to play straight characters – an idea that would certainly seem to run counter to most people’s notions of progress and equality.
That's where the author's thought process should have come to a screeching halt.
[quote]I certainly don’t want to suggest that heterosexual artists aren’t capable of extraordinary gay-themed works: Two of my favorite films of the past quarter-century, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Brokeback Mountain,” are anguished portraits of psychological and spiritual ramifications of being trapped in the closet in a society that will very literally destroy you if the truth about one’s homosexuality – both directed by straight men, (Anthony Minghella and Ang Lee, respectively), and starring heterosexual lead actors.
And this is where he should have hit the delete button on the whole ridiculous argument which ultimately boils down to "seeing straight actors play gay characters sort of bugs me somehow. Do you know what I mean? So it's got to be wrong, right?"
It's not straight actors' fault that there aren't that many gay actors to begin with, and certainly a miniscule number of gay actors who would even come out anyway.
Where are these openly gay actors getting heterosexual roles? We are not seeing gay actors in roles like Edward Cullen or Bella Swan from Twilight. There are posts on here that say we shouldn't expect equality if we don't let heterosexuals play gay. Heterosexuals are playing gay so where is the reverse? And don't tell us to imagine actors being gay. Openly gay actors either play gay characters or characters who have no stated sexuality. A few get roles that are heterosexual but they are not romantic and almost all of them are single. This really is about heterosexuals being able to play whatever characters they want while gay actors are limited or blocked in their selection.
Where are the openly gay actors, period?
R21, we don't "let" anyone do anything. Hollywood is as capitalist as any other industry in the US (which is why they now almost exclusively make tent poles for China). There's no public minority say in representation except in the market place. And, as much as Spike Lee wants to deride him, when the market speaks it supports the films of Tyler Perry over his.
There has been a lot of progress made in terms of representation for gays and lesbians both in the market and in front of and behind the camera. And that progress has not crested yet, there's still some way to go. The whole nature of distribution is changing, blurring the lines between features and television and, as good as American television drama is, it's going to get even better with a larger part of the industry shifting their focus from features to television and "smaller" screen viewing. Television and distribution have to change to suit people's viewing habits while big studio filmmaking will continue to serve the needs of the foreign market. All this coupled with political advances will continue to change and progress the content and its delivery. I say, give it five years.
To continue progress, gay creatives need to keep telling stories in ways that are unique to our experience that communicate to a wider audience. We can't make the mistake of the black community by always but never offering any homegrown alternative (or very few). It's not enough to moan at the industry and play the victim. Or moan about films that should be made that the market doesn't even support. It's up to gay writers and filmmakers to set the precedence, create the model. Get the work done. Because Hollywood owes you nothing.
I didn't have any beef with Behind The Candelabra. I lived through it, remember the television appearances, how much people liked Liberace, the appearance of Thorson, the tabloid headlines, Liberace's death and the law suit that followed. You couldn't fault Douglas or Damon's performances (or out gay Cheyenne Jackson's). What Kelly misses in his article is that there is a strong message of support when a well-known Oscar-winning filmmaker opts to make his ostensibly gay film for cable television without a theatrical release - he's pretty much saying, "This is the medium that matters." And it's a testimony to how much he wanted to make this film and tell this story.
And there's also the element of Douglas's involvement, a rebound from cancer, at the height of his acting power taking on perhaps the riskiest role of his career and drawing in an older audience that might not have otherwise paid attention. The film is his triumph and he speaks to people that perhaps a gay spokesperson wouldn't reach. And he has represented the story and the production very well.
Straight actors always get preferential treatment in casting--for both straight and gay roles.
The people behind the camera don't consider gays playing gay to be "acting." They consider straight people playing gay to be acting. Yet those same people don't believe gays can play leading straight roles convincingly, either. So out and closeted gay actors get fewer roles than straight actors.
No gay actor has won an Oscar for playing straight in the last 50 years, yet lots of straight actors have won Oscars specifically for playing gay.
No gay out gay actor has ever been praised for playing straight, yet even today, we have to hear about how "brave" Matt Damon is for taking the role of Scott Thorson.
So what you're suggesting, R21, is we should pander to straight audiences, by presenting homogenous pap, starring straight actors. How exactly is that "progress"?
The people behind the camera may be gay, but they are also more homophobic, and anti-gay than the general public.
And the powers at the top--the people who sign the cheques, are usually right-wing conservative business men, who bring their anti-gay bias into the movie business.
Soderbergh made a film about male strippers, featuring one of the hottest gay acts and made it the least homo erotic piece of shit ever, No he make this crap, which is basically straight actors mocking gays for a straight audience.
Anyway I thought Soderbergh had retired.
"This really is about heterosexuals being able to play whatever characters they want while gay actors are limited or blocked in their selection."
My comment R24 was meant for R23, not R21.
Well, I also agree with everything you said, in addition to the statements I made. Absolutely. However, I would re-state that moaning about it, having a false sense of entitlement about it and ignoring what progress has been made isn't going to improve the situation (which is more in reference to the article and not your contributions here).
Matt Damon is really pissed about the Michael Douglas "revelations" and fears he might have HPV from his enthusiastic kissing scenes in the movie.
Also Diandra has publicly claimed that her "ladyparts are clean" so that leaves CZJ being possibly infected with HPV.
Very interesting article. It probably needed better arguments..but overall it does make a point.
"Mr. EnemaBag Jones" is spot on with how the industry works though. Very good points.
"This really is about heterosexuals being able to play whatever characters they want while gay actors are limited or blocked in their selection."
And that's the foundation of the sexual politics of the Hollywood "closet".
You would think that with the gay mafias untold millions, they would spend some of it on great stories, and gay actors playing great roles to elevate the form and raise the bar..
Very interesting, thought provoking way to look at it. Reminds me I still need to see Candelabra as well.
R32 They were conspicuously absent when Soderbergh couldn't get funding for Behind the Candelabra as a theatrical movie.
We can talk about great stories and elevating the form, but at the end of the day it's a business. Straight. Gay. All executives are the same when it comes to business decisions.
From working in Hollywood there are a lot of gay actors who are playing straight roles so why not the other way around. We discuss on this site all the time who is and isn't gay in the acting world. We are watching many gay people playing straight. So why get all twisted when the reverse happens.
Salon has gone to the dogs. Can't read it.
R30, that just triggered memories of the brouhaha Rock Hudson caused in the mid 80's over his kissing scenes with Linda Evans on Dynasty and then his AIDS diagnosis hitting the media. It was a firestorm back then because people still were ignorant on what, exactly, transmitted AIDS. I wonder if Michael revealed his HPV status to Damon well before filming? Perhaps this is a non-issue except for tabloid fodder.
r35 We are talking about OUT gay people playing straight. Which rarely happens. Although it is changing.
[quote]Gay actors in gay comedy roles on TV are the new Stepin Fetchit.
True. And most of those actors aren't even homosexual. They instead have gender disorders. But of course the goal is to convince the public that it's the same thing.
Being straight and playing gay is akin to playing a paraplegic in Hollywood.