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Hollywood’s Closet Still Closed for Business

Posted on Nov 26, 2008
AP photo / Phil Bray

Land of Milk and irony: Sean Penn (center) plays the late gay activist Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s “Milk”—another instance of a straight male actor playing the role of a gay character in a major film.

By Larry Gross

(Page 2)

Anyone who follows Hollywood and media gossip is probably thinking, what about Neil Patrick Harris (star of CBS’s sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” on which he plays a very heterosexual character), T.R. Knight (on ABC TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy”), and Lindsay Lohan (film and TV actor, singer and tabloid magnet)?  Well, they don’t really challenge the argument that Hollywood won’t accept an openly gay A-list star. Harris is a long-time successful actor, who first became a star as a teenager playing “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” and while he has worked steadily, it would be fair to say that he’s not on anyone’s A-list. T.R. Knight is well on his way to a similarly solid mid-level career. It remains to be seen whether Lohan, who recently made a happier sort of tabloid splash when she went public about her relationship with DJ Samantha Ronson, can regain her footing on the ladder to stardom.

There are, of course, also the singers Lance Bass and Clay Aiken, but here, too, no pattern has been shattered. Bass came out long after the demise of the band ‘N Sync, and after his post-band career had sputtered along without igniting. It’s fair to say that his coming-out cover of People magazine was his most successful media appearance in several years. Aiken, who followed Bass with a People magazine coming-out cover, surprised no one, except possibly his “Claymates”—who, following in the tradition of Liberace’s legions of adoring fans, managed to miss the obvious. Aiken’s coming out evoked less praise, in part because (unlike Harris, Knight, and Bass) he had previously denied being gay, going so far as to say that a video on a gay dating site wasn’t him—it was just somebody who looked exactly like him.

So, what’s behind Hollywood’s reluctance to move with the times and admit openly gay actors to the center ring of the Big Top? Quite simply, there’s too much at stake and this is a risk-aversive business—as well it might be, given the amounts of money involved. 

Let’s start with the basics. Hollywood has long known that stars, not stories, sell movies. There are exceptions, of course, but they are just that, exceptions. This is particularly true nowadays when movies stand or fall by their opening weekend grosses, and thus the obsessive concern with stars who can, as they say, “open a movie” and open it big. This is one reason why Will Smith, an African-American, is considered by many the biggest star in the world: his record in “opening movies” at No. 1 on big summer holiday weekends.

  A little time with Google will reveal how central this question is in showbiz chatter: “Can he (or occasionally she) open a movie?” But beyond opening movies, there is the larger question of whether an actor will perform the key function of attracting the right audiences—these days mostly young and predominantly male (because the women will come along with the men, but rarely vice versa). The same goes for television shows, more or less, where the “young demographic” is endlessly sought after by advertisers.

So, if stars sell movies and TV shows, casting is crucial to financing, making and marketing product, and actors are key properties in this system. Actors are chosen from among the pool of aspiring auditioners that constitutes a reserve army of the un-cast who are always eagerly available. Thus, despite the myths of talent and destiny, however real those are, there are always many more applicants than roles; and agents, managers and casting directors have the luxury of passing over potential trouble by making another choice. At least at the start, if not long afterward, the power is in the hands of the system, not the young actor trying to break into the magic circle of those employed in acting (as opposed to waiting tables). 

An actor has to have an agent in order to get anywhere, but an agent rarely has to sign any particular actor. Once an agent takes on an actor, they are making an investment, one which might pay off very well indeed for the actor and for the agent, who gets a percentage of the actor’s income. Thus, an agent has an interest in developing and protecting the property in question—the actor’s career—and a likely aversion to anything that might endanger that investment. Like being openly gay in the case of any actor remotely credible for action and/or romantic lead roles. Even Neil Patrick Harris, whose character in “How I Met Your Mother” is a womanizer, was already in the show when he was outed and then came out. It’s far from assured that he would have been cast in the role had he already been out.

Casting, in the words of longtime Hollywood publicist and gay activist Howard Bragman, is all about red flags: He’s too old, too young, too thin, too fat, too anything. You don’t even have to say he’s too gay. As casting director Bonnie Zane put it, “No one would come out and say it, because everyone here is politically correct. There are other ways to put the kibosh on (hiring).” (Ventre, 2008).

So it only makes sense from the perspective of the system: the agent and manager, the casting director and the producer, the studio, and even, it must be said, the actor, to remain in the closet and protect one’s viability as a potential action/romantic lead. An analogy here might be the advice often given by real estate agents to homeowners hoping to sell: it’s always better to paint your house beige and reduce the risk that someone might not like the color. 

But the bargain is becoming harder to enforce than it was in the old days. When Confidential magazine was launched back in 1952, revealing that an actor was gay could mean the end of a career.

Famously, Rock Hudson’s agent, Hank Willson, who specialized in discovering and “creating” young male movie stars—besides Hudson he was behind the careers, and made-up names, of Tab Hunter and Troy Donahue—made a deal with Confidential to prevent an exposé of Hudson’s gay sex life. The story is that he traded the revelation of Rory Calhoun’s jail term as a teenage car thief. As it turned out, Calhoun’s career survived, as juvenile delinquency didn’t hurt his tough-guy reputation any more than had the earlier revelation of Robert Mitchum’s pot bust. Willson later was rumored to have given Confidential the story of Tab Hunter’s arrest at a gay “pajama party” after Hunter fired him as his agent. (Hofler, 2005, pp. 248-9).

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Blueboy1938's avatar

By Blueboy1938, December 1, 2008 at 11:31 pm Link to this comment

Penn’s women (beards?):  Elisabeth McGovern, Madonna, Robin Wright (two children), Jewel.

Unless those were all fake relationships and his children had surrogate fathers, I think we can safely say that Sean Penn is straight.

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By actor from LA, December 1, 2008 at 8:17 pm Link to this comment
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an actor worth his or her salt would most likely want to remain as typeless as possible, whether they like guys or chicks or both or just themselves. They have to hide in order to be open.

If an artist comes out of the closet then that is probably necessary in their eyes for their art to exist truthfully, or for them to exist truthfully. For some it might be more truthful to be as unknown in the real world as possible. Sean might be gay for all we know.

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By JimBob, December 1, 2008 at 6:36 pm Link to this comment

Straight roles have been filled by openly gay actors for decades, what’s wrong with returning the favor?

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By Maani, November 28, 2008 at 3:43 pm Link to this comment

The following three comments sum up this entire discussion:

Dave24: “I’d rather see a great actor like Sean Penn play a profound role, rather than choosing an actor based on their personal sexuality.  Choosing actors should be based on talent.”

SuzieKidder: “I think Harrison Ford said it all when asked how it felt to work with a ‘lesbian’ - Anne Heche in Six Days.  His evolved, gracious and accurate response, ‘You mean, a thespian?’” (though Heche is, sadly, more lesbian than thespian…LOL).

BruSays: “Gays have been playing straight roles since the first actors stepped on stage. Nobody knew any different because (a) they’re actors and playing roles is what they do…and (b) it was assumed…that every gay person fits into their stereotypical Liberace or Richard Simmons role and couldn’t act any differently if they tried. I think there remains an ignorance that in reality, to most people most gays are indistinguishable from the population at large.”

Besides (and these are simply questions for thought), what makes someone “homosexual?”  A single experience?  Multiple experiences?  An ongoing lifestyle?  If the first, then two of the most “macho” actors today - Sly Stallone and John Travolta - are “homosexual.”  If the second, then even more actors are homosexual.  If the last, then even more…

Second, why is it NECESSARY that a homosexual actor be “out of the closet” - i.e., OVERTLY homosexual - in order to be “accepted” by the Hollywood community as a “gay” actor?  This seems awfully intrusive.  Jodie Foster’s determined closetedness does not make her any less great an actress, whether she is playing a straight or gay woman.  Nor does it seem to effect Ian McKellan, who has given us two of the greatest, “male” screen roles of last decade in the fantasy genre: Gandalf and Magneto.

Personally, I find this entire issue distasteful, and ultimately insulting to the gay community.


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By BruSays, November 28, 2008 at 2:36 pm Link to this comment

Gays have been playing straight roles since the first actors stepped on stage. Nobody knew any different because A) they’re actors and playing roles is what they do (duh) and B) it was assumed - and many continue to assume - that every gay person fits into their stereotypical Liberace or Richard Simmons role and couldn’t act any differently if they tried.

I think there remains an ignorance that in reality, to most people most gays are indistinguishable from the population at large. But, Brokeback Mountain and a very few other films excepted, Hollywood continues to feel more comfortable pushing the ignorant stereotype rather than the reality because the stereotype is safer and sells more tickets. There’s no risk portraying gays in the fringe, effeminate, conflicted, brooding or zany comedic roles (“Zack & Miri Make a Porno,” “Ugly Betty,” etc. than as they actually are.   

And Russian Paul…spot on. It’s been my view that gays are far more connected to a broader spread of non-gay issues than the general population.

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By troublesum, November 28, 2008 at 8:33 am Link to this comment

Agreed, Nicholson is the greatest.  Talent is what matters.

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By Dave24, November 27, 2008 at 9:33 pm Link to this comment

troublesum: I agree with you—but my point in general is that Jack Nicholson’s interpretation of a character is where the talent shines.  That’s what he was paid for as an actor: to interpret a particular character.  And sexual preference, in the case of this article, has no bearing on talent.

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By troublesum, November 27, 2008 at 4:27 pm Link to this comment

It’s not who gets the part; it’s who writes the script.  When gay people are scripted out of true stories or histories, that’s not good.  Americans can’t bear too much reality.  It has to be sugar coated.  For example, “Shakespeare in Love” had to be presented as a light romantic comedy for an American audience.  Anyone familiar with the sonnets knows the reality was anything but that.

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By rhbee, November 27, 2008 at 12:29 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

that this discussion is as healthy an example of how far out of the closet we all have come (yes, denying gays their sexual orientation does put heteros in a closet, too)?  Penn wanted the role.  Does anyone think that would have been true when he started his career?  The fact that every where we turn on tv these days we are being treated to girls going lesbo only shows to go yuh that gay is truly here to stay.

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By troublesum, November 27, 2008 at 8:47 am Link to this comment

Can’t imagine Jack Nicholson playing a general unless the general happened to be off his rocker.

Russian Paul
I didn’t say gay activists were “unaware” of other causes; I said or meant to say that they were uninvolved in causes which are unrelated to gay rights and that this is to their own detriment.  I don’t see Milk as a gay activist.  He was an activist.

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By Suzie Kidder, November 27, 2008 at 8:32 am Link to this comment
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I think Harrison Ford said it all when asked how it felt to work with a “lesbian” - Anne Heche in Six Days? 

His evolved, gracious and accurate response, “You mean, a thespian?”

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By Dave24, November 27, 2008 at 8:11 am Link to this comment

I’d rather see a great actor like Sean Penn play a profound role, rather than choosing an actor based on their personal sexuality.  Choosing actors should be based on talent. 

It might be more authentic to get, for a example, a real general to play the role of a general in a movie; but I’d rather see Jack Nicholson perform it.

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By mad_world, November 27, 2008 at 6:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s called acting. You don’t have to be what you play.

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By Mike - Venice Beach, November 27, 2008 at 5:23 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I was troubled by the non-existent “gay people” in the “no on Prop 8” advertising campaign. Every commercial that I saw on television had someone else advocating for us. This was a strategic mistake.

Gay families are good families and should have been shown in all of their oh so normal glory. After all “we” are fighting for ”“our rights” and should not be afraid to tell our stories.

With the “no on Prop 8” campaign we put ourselves back in the closet and it made us look ashamed to be and show who we are.

We can do better!

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By Russian Paul, November 26, 2008 at 8:23 pm Link to this comment

Troublesum - To say that gays don’t reach out and support other causes than their own…and then to imply this is why Prop 8 passed is an ignorant assumption.

Most of us gays are well aware of other more pressing issues facing us now…But gay marriage was not on the table in Milk’s time - this is what we are focusing on now. Proposition 8 only passed because people were repeatedly told two lies: homosexuality will be taught in schools and churches will lose their tax exempt status…and good old-fashioned prejudice.

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By troublesum, November 26, 2008 at 7:09 pm Link to this comment

What I remember about Milk - and I learned this from the 1984 documentary - was that he was interested in more than just gay issues.  He was trying to build a coalition of leftist groups includion labor unions, womens rights groups, the elderly, the poor, unlike todays gay leaders who seem to care only about gay rights.  This probably has something to do with why proposition 8 passed.

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By lindabeth, November 26, 2008 at 5:43 pm Link to this comment

I thought this was a great article, but I think your characterization of Lohan as “openly gay” is a bit exaggerated.  Unless something’s happened that I’m unaware of, Lohan did not use the work gay or lesbian to characterize her or her relationship in her public “admission” of the relationship, and afterwards, there was even an attempt to backpedal by saying that wasn’t what she meant when she said “love.”  She’s also 20 years old, and unfortunately, in our society, it’s very hip especially for young women to faux lesbian or faux bisexual, so I’m not sure how seriously people even take her dubious queer status when she hasn’t used the words lesbian or bisexual definitively. 

As far as being “bankable,” its circular:  if you don’t get the needed exposure because of prejudicial assumptions about your sexuality, you’ll never become bankable. 

But I really liked this suggestion: “Could we be in a historical moment when the system—studios, agents, actors—are worried about an audience reaction that is no longer real?”  This is the same for women as well—the assumption by the execs that only certain types of roles for certain people will be money-makers.  Therefore, such movies that challenge assumptions aren’t made, and when they are, they are poorly funded and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Hollywood is uber-cautious:  time and again, it goes with what it know will make money, and continues discriminating in the process, so I agree that they’re way behind the population in terms of actual attitudes.  But will they ever get the guts to find out they’re wrong?

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By alterid, November 26, 2008 at 4:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

baloney…....premise worth consideration for a moment..
nope. baloney.

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By Linda, November 26, 2008 at 12:56 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Not to deny or gloss over any discrimination (overt or otherwise) practiced by casting agents and directors against GLBT actors, I believe that in casting all biographical films—‘Milk’ and ‘W’ being only two recent examples—the casting agent first and foremost seeks an actor who bears a strong physical resemblance to the subject and who has the necessary gravitas to bring forth the famous personality. 

Will Ferrell was brilliantly spot on as 43 on Saturday Night Live, but for the film ‘W’ I believe that because of his comedic portrayal on SNL, Mr. Ferrell could not have brought the necessary gravitas to the role that Josh Brolin did.  I cannot imagine anyone other than Sean Penn playing the role of Harvey Milk.

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By Russian Paul, November 26, 2008 at 11:50 am Link to this comment

Being a very talented (and gay) director, I’ll trust Van Sant’s decisions…My biggest concern when I see gays portrayed in media is that they are always shown as effeminate charactures (Bravo TV).

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By Blueboy1938, November 26, 2008 at 11:20 am Link to this comment

The fact that roles are being written for same-sex oriented characters that are so good that actors straight and gay fight to play them is light years ahead of prior periods.  It’s already been said that the “best” and “most bankable” stars have priority when putting together a movie deal, as that’s where the money will be.  It is only natural for directors and producers to cast them when possible.  Milk star Penn wanted to play that part, has the chops and the stature to attract funding, and along with that other stars.  As a business decision, hiring him was a no brainer.  It is also turning into an artistic coup as well, and Penn will very likely get an Oscar nomination at the very least.

That said, out GLBT actors are making progress in being accepted to play whatever roles.  It is a difficult and slow process, but at least it is progress.  Some of those actors want to avoid being pigeonholed into just playing “gay” roles, and that is consistent with the idea that an actor can play a variety of roles.  That has been more easily done by straight actors, notably Javier Bardem, the Brokeback duo Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, and even super macho Antonio Banderas.  The fact that didn’t hurt their careers significantly is only a recent and welcome phenomenon, as it overcomes that fear.

You don’t have to have a gay actor play a gay character, and you don’t have to have a straight actor play a straight role.  For things to even out to the point that it becomes unremarkable enough that no one bothers to take notice and write about or debate it will take a bit more time.

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By troublesum, November 26, 2008 at 9:49 am Link to this comment

Why is there so much homophobia at this website?  Whenever there is a column dealing with gay issues, 90% of the people who post here won’t go near it.  Isn’t it unusual for a left-leaning site to be so homophobic?  If you read and respond to a column about homosexuality will it make you gay?

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By Anarcissie, November 26, 2008 at 8:45 am Link to this comment

But what is the “best and most bankable actor”?  If the article is correct about audiences mainly using the movies to inspire fantasies about the actors, and most people are strongly heterosexual, then the Gay actors won’t be bankable no matter how good they are as actors.  Such movies are a kind of pornography, and porn, open or covert, has to synchronize with its audience’s fantasy life regardless of whether it’s politically correct.

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By troublesum, November 26, 2008 at 6:45 am Link to this comment

It’s a matter of the actors themselves coming out of the closet.  The majority of male actors are probably gay and especially the ones who take tough guy roles.  According to a recent biography of Marlon Brando, he had several homosexual affairs.  Americans can’t bear too much reality; it has to be sugar coated.  That’s what hollywood is all about.

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By Frank, November 26, 2008 at 4:49 am Link to this comment

Larry Gross’s idea that the same audience that accepts a gay leading character would not accept a gay actor in the role is pretty silly. The reality is that the best and most bankable actors get the roles. How else should a business function?

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