“Queer eye for the straight thesp”

For those following the progress of Brokeback Mountain, etc., Variety had an interesting article today on gay roles in films: “It’s a queer eye for the straight thesp.” Since it’s locked up on the Web site, I copied the article

Twenty years ago, Arthur Hiller struggled to cast the leads in “Making Love,” as numerous stars rejected the script about a romance between two men. Even 10 years ago, Will Smith described the decision to play a gay character in “Six Degrees of Separation” as “the scariest choice I’ve ever had to make in my career.”
Today, actors like Johnny Depp, Tobey Maguire, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Hanks, Antonio Banderas, Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Heath Ledger and Peter Sarsgaard seem unfazed by “playing gay”: They only want good scripts.

Clearly progress has been made, but will it continue?

On Feb. 25, President Bush called for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages, partly as a response to the same-sex ceremonies that have been going on in San Francisco and elsewhere.

The issue promises to be one of the hot-button topics of the 2004 election.

At the moment, Hollywood shows no signs of politically-motivated cold feet: The film biz seems to be relishing its newfound gay-lib aura, with several high-profile homosexual roles being actively vied for by top talent. Oddly, what led the way to this latest gay breakthrough on the bigscreen was television, which traditionally has been more cautious in matters of violence, profanity — and sexuality.

But TV has been revolutionized by Ellen DeGeneres and “Will and Grace,” as well as shows ranging from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “Six Feet Under” to “Queer as Folk” and “The L Word.”

“You can’t underestimate the power of television,” says Christine Vachon, who has championed gay-themed material through her Killer Films banner. “It brings it into a Middle American household. I don’t know if that makes it more accepted, but it definitely has had a cultural impact.”

While it may be premature to herald the pinking of Hollywood, mainstream TV audiences seem more than ready to embrace gay and lesbian characters and stories.

But is mainstream Hollywood?

Matt Damon played gay in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Keanu Reeves was a gay-for-pay hustler in “My Own Private Idaho” and a homoerotic frisson underscored scenes between Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in “Interview With the Vampire.”

But would these actors — whose fan base is constructed in part around a hunk factor — take part in a hot-and-heavy gay sex scene?

And would audiences be OK with that?

Talking about “Six Degrees” with Premiere magazine a decade ago, Smith raised eyebrows in the p.c.-sensitive media by confessing that before he accepted the role, his friend Denzel Washington had warned him, “Just don’t be kissing no man.”

And for top stars, that attitude may still prevail.

But there are plenty of reasons to see the glass as half-full.

Gyllenhaal and Ledger signed on in January to play cattle hands who become lovers in Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.”

In addition to playing queer conquerorAlexander the Great in Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” for Warners, Colin Farrell stars in Warner Independent Pictures’ upcoming “A Home at the End of the World,” from Michael Cunningham’s novel about friends whose relationships blur the boundaries of their sexuality.

At MGM, “In & Out” star Kevin Kline is playing gay again as Cole Porter in “De-lovely.” And again at WIP, top talent is circling the roles of Truman Capote and Perry Smith in Doug McGrath’s “Every Word Is True,” which chronicles the relationship between the “In Cold Blood” author and a Kansas killer.

The complex gay character in “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” being assembled by Scott Rudin and adapted by Michael Chabon from his novel, also is expected to attract a high-profile star.

So is the autobiographical lead character in author Armistead Maupin’s “The Night Listener,” coming together for director Patrick Stettner at Hart/Sharp Entertainment.

Sarsgaard (“Shattered Glass”) has two gay roles upcoming: In writer Craig Lucas’ directing debut “The Dying Gaul,” he plays a writer drawn into a sexual relationship with Campbell Scott; in Bill Condon’s “Kinsey,” he plays the sex researcher’s associate, who hooks up both with his boss (Liam Neeson) and the latter’s wife (Laura Linney).

“I actually think a lot of the interest in these roles comes from the writing,” Sarsgaard says. “It’s voices from the margins and not the mainstream that have always made the best art, so it stands to reason that the gay community, getting over the crisis of AIDS in the 1980s, would have a lot to say.”

Condon, who won an Oscar for his script “Gods and Monsters” about gay helmer James Whale, says “actors are very changeable; it’s who they are. But it takes a certain kind of security to play a gay character, and Peter and Liam both have that.”

While today’s actors may be less frightened about playing gay, many are still reluctant to talk about it, as shown by the number of polite refusals to comment for this story.

Meanwhile, high-profile actresses have had fewer qualms about portraying lesbian sexuality: Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve in “The Hunger,” Cher in “Silkwood,” Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct,” Meryl Streep and Allison Janney in “The Hours” and Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci in “Monster,” just for starters.

But for male actors more self-conscious about their public persona and projected masculinity, the corresponding choices have been another story.

“I went to half a dozen different actors who were names or getting established at the time, and most of them really felt it would endanger their careers,” says Hiller, recalling the casting of “Making Love.” Among those he says declined were Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford and Tom Berenger.

Harry Hamlin, Michael Ontkean and Kate Jackson eventually were cast in the 1983 Fox release, the first time Hollywood produced and marketed a gay-themed film to a mainstream audience.

“I think what really scares most actors personally about playing gay roles is the fear that they’ll be turned on,” Sarsgaard suggests. “America is pathologically uptight about sex, so it stands to reason actors will be, too. I’ve been doing nothing but kissing men in movies lately. It’s acting.”

However, the proliferation of gay roles in recent years has done little to open closet doors for gay actors.

“It’s extraordinary what’s happened with gay culture,” Condon says. “But Hollywood is still a little village where it’s challenging for gay actors to be open about their sexuality.

There are still very few actors coming out, and that’s a big hurdle. The anxiety about coming out and losing parts because of it is still there, so it seems easier for undeniably heterosexual actors to play gay.”

In many ways, the major studios pick up cues from the indie world.

Speaking of pics like “Go Fish,” “Trick,” “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss” and “Kiss Me Guido,” Vachon says: “There was a time in the cycle of independent film when gay-themed projects were specifically targeted at a gay audience. As far as I’m concerned, it’s gotten a lot more sophisticated. We got movies like ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and ‘Far From Heaven’ made, and they reached a relatively wide audience because those movies were far more complex.”

Good-natured gay and lesbian themes have even moved into the teen-pic arena — such as Sundance entries “Saved!” from United Artists and Screen Gems’ “D.E.B.S.” — hinting that youth audiences may be less intimidated by sexual barriers than they were a decade or two ago.

And the rules of television have changed.

When “Making Love” was acquired by CBS in the early 1980s, Hiller clashed with the network’s Standards & Practices office, which wanted to cut the discreetly shot man-on-man lovemaking scene, eventually agreeing to air only a version diffused with a filter.

Even a decade ago, ABC refused to air a scene of two men in bed in “thirtysomething,” despite the fact they were just talking.

Now, actors portray gay every week without feeling the need to verify their heterosexuality by mentioning a wife or girlfriend in every interview.

“I never thought of David Fisher as a great gay character,” says Michael C. Hall, who plays him on HBO’s “Six Feet Under.” “I think of him as a great character. My initial attraction had to do with the fact that he was inherently conflicted and that conflict has to do with his sexuality. So I suppose you could say I didn’t pursue the role in spite of the fact he was gay, but because of it.”

Some politicians will make gay marriage a lightning rod, if only to avoid more complex issues such as international relations and the economy.

Hollywood stars may weigh in with their ideas. But the true measure of people’s feelings may not be gauged by polls but by Nielsens and the box office.

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One Response to “Queer eye for the straight thesp”

  1. simplelyric says:

    I’d already given thought to several of the points raised in that article, but I appreciate your having shared it. It was interesting.

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