Year of the Queer: Hollywood and Homosexuality

By Larry Gross
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Larry Gross
Larry Gross is a longtime contributor and a Truthdig advisory board member. Truthdig also features items from his blog, "Larry's List" in our Ear to the Ground. A specialist in the areas of media and culture,…
Larry Gross

As our society is increasingly inclined to choose entertainment figures as its cultural heroes, it is hardly surprising that the stars of stage and screen have been as devoted to the sanctity of the closet as any Washington politician. Despite, or perhaps because of, the stereotypical assumption that Broadway and Hollywood are havens for homosexuals, there has never been a major Hollywood star who has voluntarily come out. This is not exactly a matter of personal choice. The entire industry operates on the principle that the American public is suffused by prejudices that must be catered to. In earlier decades the same logic required Jewish actors to submerge and hide their ethnicity. As Hollywood historian Otto Friedrich described the practice of the film studios: “In Hollywood, stars assumed neutral names like Fairbanks, or Howard, or Shaw; actresses underwent plastic surgery; some made a point of going to Christian churches or donating money to Christian charities. This was not so much a denial of Jewishness — though it was that — as an effort to make Jewishness appear insignificant.”

Friedrich tells the story of New York actor Jules Garfinkle, who changed his name to Jules Garfield for the Broadway stage, but when he arrived in Hollywood Jack Warner told him that Garfield didn’t sound like an American name. Upon being told that Garfield had been the name of an American president, Warner relented, but the Jules had to go. As one of Warner’s executives put it, “… we wouldn’t want people to get the wrong idea.” “But I am Jewish,” said the future John Garfield. “Of course you are,” said the Warners executive. “So are we … most of us. But a lot of people who buy tickets think they don’t like Jews…. And Jules is a Jew’s name.”

With only minor changes the same discussion could have occurred last week in connection with homosexuality. But while there may be less pressure nowadays for Jewish actors to change their names or their noses, lesbian and gay performers are still expected to stay quietly in the closet. In a 1980s interview Kim Fellner, then information director for the Screen Actors Guild, said, “Hollywood creates its own myths about what is and is not acceptable and it does not believe the public will accept an actor kissing a woman on screen if he goes home at night with a guy.” In the same story, publicity agent Alan Eichler added, “It’s not morals, it’s just a dollar-and-cents decision. That’s what runs this town.”

In the last decade the industry has become relaxed about openly gay folks in backstage roles, and there are now numerous directors, writers and producers who are not required to hide or dissemble. It might even be said to be an advantage to be openly gay backstage at this point, adding liberal gold stars to the enterprise. Broadway and Hollywood have become used to the sight of award winners thanking same-sex partners and even, as in the case of “Hairspray” songwriters and Tony award winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, kissing them.

Still, there is an unshakable conviction on the part of most people in positions of power in the entertainment industry that the American public will not accept openly lesbian and gay performers, especially in romantic lead roles. Lesbian and gay actors and others who begin to achieve success and celebrity are quickly taught the rules of the game, if they haven’t already demonstrated their discretion. As prominent gay writer Armistead Maupin put it, “One of the unwritten laws of gay life, is where you reach a certain level of fame, you shut up about your homosexuality. You’re not told this by straight people, you’re told it by other famous homosexuals who are ushering you into the pantheon of the right.” Openly gay British actor Ian McKellen remarked to a gay American journalist in 1992: “There’s not one [leading actor] in your country. Not one. It’s odd, isn’t it? It’s the one area of American life where there are no openly gay people.”

A new play that just opened Off Broadway, “The Little Dog Laughed,” puts this familiar backstage dilemma out front. As described by New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley (Jan. 10, 2006):

What has garnered the most advance attention for “Little Dog” has been the promise that it would be about a closeted gay actor who knows his homosexuality is incompatible with being a matinee idol. Sure enough, the character of Mitchell (Mr. Huff) is suggestively familiar enough that certain contemporary male stars (names withheld in view of possible litigation) should probably stay away from this show if they want to avoid sleepless nights. (Diane muses wonderingly on her client’s nave idea of taking his mother as a date to an awards ceremony “so that no one will know he’s gay.”) Certainly the play’s basic plot hinges on the professional problems of such secrecy, after Mitchell begins an affair with a young prostitute named Alex (Mr. Galecki) while visiting New York. Diane has secured the film rights to a play in which the lead male character is gay. And as she observes: “If a perceived straight actor portrays a gay role in a feature film, it’s noble, it’s a stretch. It’s the pretty lady putting on a fake nose and winning an Oscar.”

It’s not that there aren’t plenty of gay actors around Hollywood who could readily handle the dramatic challenge of “Brokeback Mountain.” As “Little Dog” suggests, being openly gay is not a career option for young actors with romantic lead or action-hero (i.e., A-list) ambitions. Aspiring actors can advance only with the active assistance of agents and managers. These key gatekeepers are vigilant in guarding the value of their investments in their clients’ careers, and they know full well — and remind their clients if necessary — that there is a reserve army of the uncast waiting in the wings to replace any young talent that refuses to play by the rules. Only an actor who has achieved sufficient success — read box office clout — to be independent of these constraints could break the mold by coming out while still young and attractive enough to be credible in romantic roles. When this happens, and one must assume it will eventually, it will be a Jackie Robinson moment that might pave the way for other queer talent (it’s also a safe guess that it’s more likely that a woman will pioneer here than a male actor).

Critic David Ehrenstein has noted that those actors who have come out — among them Chad Allen, Mitchell Anderson, Robert Gant, Randy Harrison, Peter Paige (the last three being the only openly gay cast members of Showtime’s “Queer as Folk”) — are “left to fend for themselves in indie and pay-TV climes…. When it comes to parts like Ennis Del Mar, Jack Twist and Truman Capote, they’re not even going to get an audition. Only heterosexuals need apply.” Whether the slim roster of openly gay talent has actors who would be credible contenders for these parts, even were they allowed to audition, is a question that points back to the enforced closet in which the industry locks gay actors.

When straight actors take on gay roles, we can expect to encounter showbiz gossip intended to convey the heterosexual bona fides of any actor cast in a gay role. When the successful Off-Broadway play “Boys in the Band” opened in New York in 1968 Cliff Gorman, the actor playing Emory, “the definitive screaming queen,” made sure the public knew he was only acting. As a New York Times reporter explained in an interview entitled, “You don’t have to be one to play one,” it’s “not exactly the kind of part you’d imagine for a nice (married) Jewish boy.” But then, “Cliff really needed the money,” and was so broke he had even taken to “hocking his wife’s silver candelabra.” Elsewhere in the article we were shown Cliff popping open a cold beer, listening to country music (the only music “that really moves him”) and generally swaggering around the living room. In the accompanying photograph he clutched his “incredibly beautiful” wife.

In 1983 The New York Times ran a lengthy feature article, “How Stars of La Cage Grew Into Their Roles,” the week “La Cage aux Folles,” a musical comedy about a gay couple, opened on Broadway. One of the stars of the show was Gene Barry, “best known to millions of television viewers as the debonair star of Bat Masterson, Burke’s Law, and The Name of the Game.” As the Times put it, he “did have a public image…. The possibility of being stigmatized” concerned him for a while, he said, and the impact on his family was another question. Before accepting the role, he gathered his wife and three children for a family conference to make sure it was all right with them.

The pattern remains unbroken today on the slopes of “Brokeback Mountain.” Publicity about the “gay cowboy” movie has enforced all the rules of this game: The actors’ heterosexual credentials are much rehearsed, and their method-acting skills admired. In an early account of the film, while it was still in pre-production, quoted a Hollywood executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity: “Realistically, let’s talk about the giggle factor. I mean, it is a story about gay cowboys! That is the most daring thing you can do.”

Still, as Salon’s Rebecca Traister put it, “If the I’s do get dotted on Gyllenhaal and Ledger’s contracts, it’s worth noting that both will run less of a risk of being ‘taken for gay’ than many of their colleagues; Gyllenhaal dates supercute wunderkind Kirsten Dunst, while Ledger squires Naomi Watts, 11 years his senior, to lots of events covered by Us Weekly.” As it happens, the account in Salon and Us Weekly needs to be updated, because as anyone paying even the slightest attention will know, Ledger and supporting star Michelle Williams, who plays his wife Alma, became romantically involved during the shooting and have recently had a baby.

Their straight cred firmly in place, Ledger and Gyllenhaal can face the inevitable barrage of questions about what it’s like to kiss another man. After all, this is an important demonstration of the acting skills that might win an Oscar. As Guardian critic Philip Hensher put it: “the actors in these films are always at pains to stress the incredible trauma involved in having to pretend to kiss a person of the same sex in front of cameras. To be fair, this is always a subject that unhealthily obsesses interviewers, but actors’ responses are often highly amusing. Jake Gyllenhaal has said: ‘Heath and I were both saying, “Let’s get the love scenes over as fast as we can — all right, cool. Let’s get to the important stuff.” ‘ ”

Sometimes the actors evade the dangerous implications of their roles — that their acting might be too real — by trying to widen, or cloud, the lens. In a cover-story interview in the gay-oriented style magazine Details, Gyllenhaal stresses the universality of “Brokeback’s” story: “My character could have been played by a woman and it would have made just as much sense.” Apparently not having read any of the promotional material on the film, the actor says that he doesn’t believe Ennis and Jack are gay: “I approached the story believing that these are actually straight guys who fall in love,” he says. “That’s how I related to the material. These are two straight guys who develop this love, this bond. Love binds you, and you see these guys pulling and pulling and tugging and trying to figure out what they want, and what they will allow themselves to have.”

Ledger played the same card in an interview in Time magazine. “I don’t think Ennis could be labeled as gay. Without Jack Twist, I don’t know that he ever would have come out,” Ledger tells the magazine. “I think the whole point was that it was two souls that fell in love with each other.”

“Brokeback Mountain” producer James Schamus told one reporter that he was not worried about audiences who were troubled by the love story and sex scenes between men. “If you have a problem with the subject matter, that’s your problem, not mine,” Schamus said. “It would be great if you got over your problem, but I’m not sitting here trying to figure out how to help you with it.” But he also knows how important it is that the story be defined as universal. “Once people saw the film, they understood that it was a film about a kind of epic greatness that can exist in anyone, anywhere, no matter who they are, no matter what their sexual orientation or class or historical circumstances.”

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