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Hollywood’s Closet Still Closed for Business
Posted on Nov 26, 2008
By Larry Gross
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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