By **Trish Bendix**
Movies often call for viewers to suspend disbelief. I’m not just referring to films of the science-fiction variety; this can pertain to depictions of real-life situations, even those based on true stories. Take Monster, for example, the celluloid adaptation of murderer Aileen Wuornos and her descent from prostitute into serial killer. Charlize Theron won the Oscar for playing Wuornos, a poor and unattractive (by most standards) woman who was down-and-out, and a lesbian. Theron was praised for being able to sink into the role, for being so unrecognizable and able to perform as an ugly, gay murderess.
Hilary Swank, similarly, won the Oscar for her portrayal of transgender Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, transforming herself into an androgynous-looking teenager and feigning sex with Chloe Sevigny on screen. Nicole Kidman donned the fake nose and subtle lesbian sexuality as Virginia Woolf in The Hoursand Salma Hayek put on the famous unibrow and bedded women for Frida. Kidman also won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and Hayek was nominated, as was Felicity Huffman for her MTF character in Transamerica. So it would seem that playing queer and/or unrecognizable would guarantee an Oscar, just as much as, say, playing crazy would (as alleged by Newsweek writer Ramin Setoodeh).
Playing gay(ish) was part of the win for Best Actress this year, too, as Natalie Portman won and Annette Benning was a frontrunner, and both engaged in some “lesbian sex” in their respective films (Black Swan and The Kids Are All Right). And a new piece in the Guardian wonders if these “great gay roles” (which is arguable in and of itself, especially considering Portman’s role isn’t gay, per se and The Kids Are All Right comes with accusations of being not so lesbian-friendly since Julianne Moore’s character sleeps with the male sperm donor) are being “stolen” from real lesbian actors. Stolen, of course, by the straight actors who end up playing them.
The word “stolen” doesn’t seem quite accurate, but I can see where the Guardian is going with this: Straight actors receive preferential treatment. This comes on the heels of Setoodeh’s Newsweek article discussing how gay actors can’t play straight convincingly. So if gay actors aren’t getting gay parts, and they aren’t getting straight parts, what are gay actors to do?
The unfortunate part about both of these articles is that they aren’t completely true. While they have some major gay actors and actresses willing to speak up in their favor, such as Jane Lynch, who has maintained that she will never be cast as the leading lady, it isn’t always the case. Lynch, for example, said she would never be cast as an ingenue, or as a “Julia Roberts” type:
“This is a business of projection and desiring people from afar. And watching people go through trials and tribulations, so there has got to be some truth to it, in terms of, ’I could see myself with that person’. Because the leading man and lady are the people we want them to fall in love with, and most of the audience is straight. So, for right now, we can only use straight actors.”
That is likely true; as a character actress, Lynch has played several hilarious roles, but none quite so romantic. However, she was believable as the overtly sexual-harassing boss in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, as well as the (straight) reformed-coke addict leader of a girls and boys club in Role Models. They weren’t romantic roles, but they were non-gay roles, and she made them the most memorable parts in both films.
But there are some out women who do get cast in the “sexy” roles. Take Amber Heard. As someone who has often been relegated to “girlfriend” roles in films likePineapple Express and The Stepfather, Heard has come out publicly only in the last few months, but has since managed to maintain roles in several films (including Drive Angry 3-D with Nicolas Cage and The Rum Diaries with Johnny Depp) as well as the starring role in the NBC pilot for “Playboy,” where she will be playing (guess?) a bunny at the original Playboy Club in Chicago during the 1960s.
So if gay actors aren’t getting gay parts, and they aren’t getting straight parts, what are gay actors to do?
Out actresses Sarah Paulson and Portia de Rossi have also had success in playing non-gay roles. Paulson is in the Sundance breakout film Martha Marcy May Marlene and de Rossi is set to reprise her role as Lindsey Bluth in theArrested Development film that will hopefully come to fruition. Some other women who could fit right into the “gay but good enough actress to play otherwise” category include Clementine Ford, Leisha Hailey, Sara Gilbert and Cynthia Nixon. The majority of these women have also played gay roles on TV.
Could any of these women star in The Kids Are All Right? Maybe, but they are all very different from Annette Bening, who was superb in the role of the lesbian mother/doctor trying to keep her family together after her children’s sperm donor comes into their lives. As for Black Swan, Natalie Portman was part of the film since before it even had a lesbian sex scene written into it. (She joked in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that they added the scene so men would go see a ballerina movie and women would go see a thriller.)
There doesn’t need to be an affirmative action of sorts when it comes to gay actors playing gay roles. But the truth that arises from both the Guardian andNewsweek is that several rising gay actors feel the need to stay closeted so there isn’t even a question of believability when it comes to being cast as the romantic lead. Several actors and actresses who may be out in their personal lives refuse to comment publicly.
For decades, Hollywood has kept gay actors—Tab Hunter, Van Johnson, Richard Chamberlain, Rock Hudson, etc.—in the closet, to their detriment. The fear was, if people knew your sexual orientation, you could never work again. Thankfully, this seems ridiculous in the era of Portia de Rossi and Neil Patrick Harris. But the truth is, openly gay actors still have reason to be scared. 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 like the ones in Brokeback Mountain or even The Proposal
Last year, Rupert Everett caused a ruckus when he told the Guardian that gay actors should stay in the closet. “The fact is,” he said, “that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the film business.” Is he just bitter or honest? Maybe both.
My answer: bitter, but based on some semblance of truth in regards to his own career. But I think Rupert falls into the camp of camp, much like Jane Lynch. He’s established himself as a brilliantly funny character actor, much like Kirsten Vangsness, another out actress who plays the colorful Penelope Garcia on “Criminal Minds” and its new spin-off, “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior.”
“I understand being up-in-arms about that [Newsweek] article, but it was so bizarre to me, and not true,” Vangsness said. “I’m the only character on ’Criminal Minds’ that’s had sex. You see her come out of the shower with a guy. I shamelessly, obviously flirt, and I enjoy all of that, and I’m as queer as a purple unicorn singing Madonna. You wouldn’t do that with a straight woman playing a gay character.
Ninety percent of the women on ’The L Word’ were straight and no one was walking around saying ’This is somehow unbelievable.’ I can look at men [on the show] and say ’I want to go there!’ As an actor, you can find those things. I think it’s really silly.”
Ironically, some of the actors who have come out long after they established careers have found more parts being offered to them once they’ve been honest about their sexuality. Both Kelly McGillis and Meredith Baxter have received more press, roles and even a book deal for Baxter. Coming out doesn’t have to be the career-ender it used to be, but it also won’t guarantee you get first dibs on all of the lesbian roles written for film and TV.
Though we now know that ingenues like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich had romantic and sexual relationships with women, it would have been a huge scandal for the movie-going public to know that at the time. But being privy to that information now doesn’t affect their performances, just as Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda Hobbes is just as neurotic about men and sex as she was before we knew the actress was involved with a woman. And when it comes to the “great gay roles” being written, it might not be the challenge they are looking for—as actors, not as gay women.
Copyright 2011 Trish Bendix
This post originally appeared at Alternet.Org.
Trish Bendix is the managing editor for AfterEllen.com. Visit her wsite at trishbendix.com or follow her on Twitter @trishbendix.