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