Dec 5, 2013
Hollywood’s Closet Still Closed for Business
Posted on Nov 26, 2008
By Larry Gross
On Nov. 27, 1978, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, was assassinated. Thirty years later, on Nov. 26, 2008, the film “Milk” will open, directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk.
Besides marking a historic anniversary, this opening concludes a decades-long effort to bring the story of Harvey Milk’s life and death to the Hollywood screen (a documentary, “The Times of Harvey Milk,” was made, and won an Oscar in 1985). As they launched the project that led to the making of “Milk,” after many prior attempts by many writers and directors had failed, Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black hoped to achieve another cinematic milestone by casting openly gay actors as the gay and lesbian people in the forefront of the story, especially in the key role of Harvey Milk. In this they did not succeed, and this tells us something important about the position of gay people in Hollywood today.
Being openly gay behind the camera is no longer a problem, and some have claimed that it’s even a plus in many instances. In the case of “Milk,” besides Van Sant and Black, there were numerous gay folk behind the camera, and some gay cast members, such as prominent New York theater actor Stephen Spinella. But the lead gay roles of Milk, his lovers Scott Smith and Jack Lira, his aides Cleve Jones and Ann Kronenberg, are all played by straight actors.
What’s going on here? The first major Hollywood “gay themed” film since “Brokeback Mountain,” and moreover (unlike “Brokeback”), this one is about openly gay activists, not tortured closet cases. Yet, once again, the lead gay roles couldn’t be filled by openly gay actors. To their credit, Van Sant and Black refused to cast closeted gay actors in these roles, although more than a few signaled their interest. But the simple reality is that there is not a supply of openly gay actors acceptable to the producers of a big-budget film. So the question is, why is Hollywood’s closet door still locked so tight?
The answers are both complicated and simple. Let’s start with the simple ones.
First, there are more openly gay performers than in the past, and many of them are doing just fine, thank you. But always with qualifications.
Ellen DeGeneres may be Hollywood’s most prominent lesbian these days but, like her East Coast counterpart Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen is a misleading example, because acting was never her strong suit. Ellen was always most appealing as a version of herself, a spontaneously funny person, but when she came out on her eponymous TV show, the ratings tanked after the excitement subsided. Her current success as a talk show host depends on her personality and her willingness to keep her sexuality tacitly unspoken. There has been a recent exception to this, when she spoke about her marriage to Portia de Rossi, and her opposition to Prop. 8, which recently outlawed same-sex marriage in California.
Similarly, Melissa Etheridge, Hollywood’s other leading lesbian, is a singer who never played to the male audience’s romantic fantasies.
Portia de Rossi’s most recent role, after her relationship with DeGeneres became public, is as a lesbian on cable station FX’s “Nip/Tuck.”
Of course, any discussion of Hollywood’s lesbians must contend with Jody Foster, who remained resolutely confined in her glass closet until December 2007, when, accepting an award at a Women in Entertainment breakfast, she broke her taboo to thank “my beautiful Cydney, who sticks with me through all the rotten and the bliss,” thus for the first time publicly acknowledging—if still in somewhat coded words—the woman she lived with for 14 years. Six months later, Foster dumped Cydney Bernard for another woman, screenwriter Cindy Mort—perhaps she got tired of the pretentious spelling. But Foster is 45, well into Hollywood’s Bermuda Triangle—that mysterious territory into which actresses disappear once they are no longer “young” and from which they may later emerge as “older women” who are no longer cast in leading romantic roles.
On the male side, things are not much different. There are some openly gay actors in Hollywood, but none that challenge the primacy of the closet. In movies, there are the British queers, Ian McKellen, who is not the leading-man type, and Rupert Everett, who thinks he should be. As Everett told The Times of London, he “believes that his sexuality has cost him ‘tons’ of leading roles” during his career. In his acclaimed and frequently outspoken autobiography “Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins,” he claims that the head of MGM once vetoed his casting as the male lead opposite Sharon Stone in a film, saying that for “all intents and purposes, a homosexual was a pervert in the eyes of America and the world would never accept me in the role and therefore MGM would never hire me.” (Hoyle, 2007).
This puts the matter clearly in focus: Will American, and world, audiences accept openly gay actors in leading roles? In the Hollywood lexicon, A-list leading actors generally mean action and/or romantic roles, and being accepted by audiences means being credible as an action hero and a (heterosexual) lover. In the minds of studio executives, we’re told, known queers don’t qualify for either or both of these essential attributes, and so, no dice. But surely things are different these days? Yes and no.
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