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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 4)

But is this still true for audiences as well as hyper-cautious studio executives?  Could we be in a historical moment when the system—studios, agents, actors—are worried about an audience reaction that is no longer real? After all, just as actors have grown up in a world that includes gay folk, so have audiences. MTV’s “The Real World,” the pioneering reality show, has from its inception in 1992 included gay members in its collections of youngsters living together in various locations, and the genre of reality programming that has followed maintains this as a pretty standard attribute.

In a recent interview, after he came out publicly, Neil Patrick Harris spoke of the impact on him of seeing Danny Roberts, the gay cast member of “The Real World-New Orleans,” which aired in 2000 (Harris was 27 at the time!): “Danny Roberts was on a reality show, so I was watching him exist in his world and … what was empowering was to see him interacting socially and admiring the way he behaved in any given situation.”

In fact, for younger audiences, the presence of gay people is part of the recipe for establishing the verisimilitude of reality TV.  This is important for the growing stream of cable-based reality shows, many highly successful, like “Project Runway” and “America’s Next Top Model,” which are almost as gay as the trend-setting “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” The king of this reality mountain, “American Idol,” has not exactly been welcoming to the possibility of openly gay stars, as Clay Aiken well knew, and as this year’s quickly dropped openly gay contestant, Danny Noriega, discovered.

But reality programming is not the basis for big-budget movie making. Would the coveted young audiences flock to the opening weekend of the next installment of blockbuster franchises like “Mission Impossible,” the “Bourne” series, Spiderman, James Bond or Batman if they knew the lead actor was gay? Would teenage girls still make “High School Musical” a megahit if they knew the romance between Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens was limited to the screen? There’s no way to tell for sure, as no one is about to put the question to the test, but it seems safe to assume that the studios are not being paranoid here.
After all, think about this: If two straight young men go to the movies together, how do they sit? Time’s up. The answer is that they will almost always, if possible, leave an empty seat between them.

Ultimately, what it will take to cut through this Gordian knot is for someone credible for A-list roles breaking the rules and coming out – and succeeding. A Jackie Robinson moment – in part because this will also require a Branch Rickey in order to make it happen. There are a number of potential players who might be cast in this epochal role, some of whom have already begun to climb the ladder while remaining in their glass closets.
CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper could play this role, although not an actor, because of his visibility and charisma. Lindsay Lohan is already moving into this uncharted territory, but her rocky road through rehab and paparazzi ambushes puts her in a different category from the start. Or it could be an openly gay actor drawn from the more relaxed world of Broadway (home to such successful openly gay stars as Nathan Lane and Harvey Fierstein, neither in any danger of being cast in an action or romantic lead).

A credible candidate for the role is Cheyenne Jackson, an up-and-coming Broadway actor-singer who most recently starred in a revival of “Damn Yankees” (along with the unconvincingly closeted Sean Hayes, lately Jack on TV’s “Will & Grace”). Jackson is openly gay and he recognizes that this may have cost him roles. As he told the Advocate last April, his agents aren’t necessarily happy with his choice to be open: “They just don’t want me to be pigeonholed, because they want me to have as many opportunities as I can … . To be frank, I think I’ve missed out on some parts because I’m open.” (Voss, 2008, 36).

  If not Jackson, there are others. And there will be more all the time because, as Margo Channing learned, the youngsters keep on coming, and increasingly they’re coming along already out of the closet.

After he was elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, Harvey Milk recorded an audio testament, to be played after his death—little knowing how soon his fear of assassination would become a reality. In that tape, Milk proclaimed, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

  If we’re lucky, Milk’s example will become an inspiration to the new generation of queer activists that has taken to the streets in protest of the passage of Proposition 8, and further his dream of destroying every closet.

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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
(Unregistered commenter)

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
(Unregistered commenter)

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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Russian Paul's avatar

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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Russian Paul's avatar

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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Blueboy1938's avatar

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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