The Straight Story

2 03 2010

Colin Firth & Julianne Moore in 'A Single Man'

Colin Firth won a well-deserved BAFTA last week for his portrayal of a bereaved gay college professor in Tom Ford’s A Single Man. In two weeks’ time, Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor will appear as cell-mates and soul-mates in I Love You Phillip Morris, the true story of a gay ex-cop and con-artist who repeatedly escapes from jail to be with the man he loves.

On the surface, both films seem to represent a bold departure from Hollywood tradition, firstly by casting ‘name’ actors as homosexual characters, and secondly by placing these characters squarely at the centre of the narrative.

It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that even the hint of a gay private life could be enough to ruin a career in the movies. During Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’, studio publicists were keen to ensure that actors like Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift never appeared in public without a starlet on their elbow. More recently, stars like Tom Cruise and John Travolta have taken swift legal action to quash rumours of same-sex affairs. Films about gay life and culture have long been relegated to their own ‘special interest’ ghetto, and there’s long been a taboo among actors, straight or otherwise, about appearing in gay roles.

So, with recent films like Brokeback Mountain, Milk, A Single Man and I Love You Phillip Morris, is all this slowly starting to change?

Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey

'I Love You Phillip Morris'

Well, the answer is yes and no. Yes, because a new generation of actors – and audiences – is more socially-liberal and gay-friendly than ever. And no because, when it comes to shifting tickets, gay-themed films are still seen as, if not box office poison, then at least a hard sell. I Love You Phillip Morris, for example, initially failed to find a US distributor at all, despite the commercial heft of Carrey and McGregor. It wasn’t until the film was re-cut to tone down a frank sex scene that it managed to secure a release date. And, for all of the kudos that Sean Penn’s Best Actor Oscar brought to Milk, the film still performed somewhat sluggishly at the US box office.

Brokeback Mountain garnered Oscars aplenty too, of course, and acting nominations for both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. In fact, without downplaying either of those actors’ talents, it seems that ‘gaying-up’ is quickly becoming something of a fast-track route to critical acclaim in Hollywood today. Heterosexual actors who play homosexual characters are seen as ‘brave’ and committed to their art, in a way that gay observers could be forgiven for seeing as a little patronising, as if kissing another man (or woman) on the lips is the height of thespian achievement.

And what about actors who are gay? Well, in some ways, very little has changed. If a gay actor wants to be considered for heterosexual roles in Hollywood, he or she still needs to keep tight-lipped about his or her sexuality. Jodie Foster, for one, has only recently talked about her private life, and was careful not to do so in the early stages of her career. To be openly gay from the start, à la Rupert Everett or Alan Cumming, is to risk being pigeonholed, or at least to be limited to supporting and character roles.

No wonder then, that so many eligible bachelors (and bachelorettes) still take great pains to ensure that they have a ‘date’ of the opposite sex on their arm whenever they have to walk up a red carpet. Those who try to opt out of this game, like Kevin Spacey, who has always refused to talk about his sexuality, have limited success in doing so. True, Spacey managed to hold on to his mainstream ‘A-list’ status and carry on with the business of making movies for a few years. But, on the other hand, his subsequent retirement to the Old Vic in London may have had much to do with the fact that those “Is he? Isn’t he?” questions are far less important in theatreland than they seem to be in Tinseltown.

Rupert Everett. Pigeonholed?

But why are audiences so reluctant to see gay actors in leading, heterosexual roles? Indeed are they reluctant at all, or it just studio cowardice that prevents them from doing so? Would a gay actor ever be accepted as James Bond? Would Johnny Depp be such a box office draw if he were married to Jean-Paul Gaultier rather than Vanessa Paradis?

When it comes to tried-and-tested formulae, it seems, Hollywood is as conservative here as it is elsewhere. Heterosexual audiences want to see films about people like themselves, the argument goes. A ‘real’, bone fide leading man is someone the girls want to be with and the guys want to be – a James Dean or a George Clooney. A fat fifty-year-old in Fife may have little chance of actually meeting Brad Pitt, but she wants to know that if she does then, in theory at least, she has a chance of sleeping with him.  Thus it has always been and thus it will always be. 

With Hollywood taking fewer and fewer risks in the current economic climate (A Single Man was, lest we forget, funded by its director), it’s easy to conclude that change, if it comes, will come very slowly indeed. And yet, as we have already seen, more and more heterosexual actors are choosing to play gay parts and finding that, far from harming their careers, these roles are actually giving them the chance to do new and impressive work, and possibly pick up an award or two along the way.

So far, this has been a one-way exchange, of course, and the actors involved have been mostly ‘B-’ or ‘C-list’, rather than ‘A-list’. But surely it can only be a matter of time before, accustomed to this new metrosexual fluidity, and struck suddenly by the thought that, ‘Hey, it’s all pretend anyway!’, studio bosses will finally loosen up a bit and let Rupert Everett blow stuff up or Alan Cumming tell us that he’s too old for this shit.

I’d certainly buy a ticket for that.

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