In April 2010 a journalist called Ramin Setoodeh wrote an article for Newsweek magazine which caused considerable controversy. In it he argued that openly gay actors, namely Promises Promises co-star Sean Hayes and Glee’s Jonathan Groff, fail to make convincing straight male leads in romantic storylines. Setoodeh’s generalisation, implying that gay thespians regardless of their acting abilities would never be able to make the enormous leap required to play heterosexuals was illogical and made all the more bewildering by the fact that he himself is gay.
He claimed that an actor’s background influences how we see his or her performance. This is not without foundation, but great acting is about transformation; we may see a film featuring Leonardo DiCaprio but his skill as an actor is such that we forget the latest bit of celebrity gossip about him and embrace the character he has created for our viewing delectation. Thus a talented gay actor, for example Neil Patrick Harris, is more than capable of portraying a straight character on the TV show How I Met Your Mother, in the same way that a straight actor such as James Franco can give a convincing performance as the gay poet Alan Ginsberg in the biopic Howl.
Setoodeh’s comments were ill-considered but they served as a catalyst for positive discussion; focusing attention on the difficulties faced by gay actors trying to make it big in Hollywood. In the last couple of decades attitudes towards homosexuality have changed dramatically and Hollywood reflects this bourgeoning liberality. It is increasingly common for gay characters to appear in mainstream successful films where previously they were relegated to low budget independent movies lest they upset middle-brow America. Blockbusters such as Brokeback Mountain, A Single Man, and The Kids Are All Right have proved that movies which centre on realistic non-mincing portrayals of gay people can attract the masses and make money.
However, upon closer inspection Hollywood’s progressive attitude is something of a veneer, distracting attention from the homophobia that still exists in Tinseltown. The successful ‘gay’ films mentioned earlier may be progressive in their subject matter, but not in their casting; all of the homosexual characters featured in them are played by straight actors. There is of course nothing wrong with straight actors playing gay roles providing that the reverse is possible, but this doesn't seem to be the case. The film industry has double standards. As Colin Firth who plays the homosexual professor, George Falconer in Tom Ford’s visual masterpiece, A Single Man, put it: "If you're known as a straight guy, playing a gay role, you get rewarded for that. If you're a gay man and you want to play a straight role, you don't get cast – and if a gay man wants to play a gay role now, you don't get cast."
Playing gay has become a rite of passage for straight male actors in Hollywood looking to make it big. In 1993 Tom Hanks established this trend, taking on the role of Andrew Beckett, a lawyer who contracts and eventually dies of AIDS, in the groundbreaking film Philadelphia. Hanks won two Golden Globes for his emotionally charged performance and the film grossed $206 million, demonstrating that taking on a gay role was far from a stigmatising career move and could be extremely lucrative. Hanks opened the floodgates and the nineties were littered with actors who jumped at the chance to play gay, from bastions of masculinity such as Russell Crowe and Patrick Swayze to teenage heartthrobs like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
Why then, given that Europe and America seem to have embraced sexual diversity, do gay actors face what Firth refers to as Hollywood's "invisible boundaries"? British actor Rupert Everett testified to this in late 2009 when he told the Guardian that being openly gay had seriously damaged his career, and advised young gay actors to stay in the closet. There is a false perception in film marketing, echoed in Setoodeh’s article, that somehow the public won’t accept a gay actor in a romantic scene with a woman. Similarly unenlightened is the notion perpetuated by many Hollywood studios that having a straight actor play a gay role is more palatable to a straight audience than a gay actor playing a gay role. God forbid a homosexual actor should actually draw on his or her wealth of personal experience and play a gay!
Hollywood is driven by market forces and will always be conservative, but it’s about time the film studios stopped patronising the viewing public and realised that we judge an actor not on their sexual orientation but on their acting ability.