Gay actors can’t play straight roles convincingly because, as soon as we know their sexuality, it undercuts their performance entirely. However straight actors can do the reverse without much difficulty.
This is the premise of a Newsweek article entitled “Straight Jacket” written by Ramin Setoodeh (apparently openly gay himself). While I don’t agree with the concept, when I began to read the article I expected that, as we approach the International Day Against Homophobia on May 17, the article would be an examination of how open sexuality can be a perceived obstacle that Hollywood and TV producers have identified and used to dissuade actors and actresses from coming out.
Unfortunately not. The writer quickly goes beyond critique and lands firmly in the realm of bias:
The reviews for the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises were negative enough, even though most of the critics ignored the real problem—the big pink elephant in the room. The leading man of this musical-romantic comedy is supposed to be a single advertising peon named Chuck who is madly in love with a co-worker (Kristin Chenoweth). When the play opened on Broadway in 1968, Jerry Orbach, an actor with enough macho swagger to later fuel years and years of Law and Order, was the star. The revival hands the lead over to Sean Hayes, best known as the queeny Jack on Will & Grace. Hayes is among Hollywood’s best verbal slapstickers, but his sexual orientation is part of who he is, and also part of his charm. (The fact that he only came out of the closet just before Promises was another one of those Ricky Martin-duh moments.) But frankly, it’s weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, like he’s trying to hide something, which of course he is.
The word “weird” is perhaps key here. A myriad of ways were open to Setoodeh through which he could have presented his argument as a genuine exploration of how sexuality, among other personal characteristics, might alter audience reaction to a performance.
Instead, Setoodeh makes sweeping personal statements, first as to Hayes’ performance, and then moving on to openly gay actor and Broadway star Jonathan Groff who guest stars as Jesse St. James in the hit show Glee, saying:
There’s something about his performance that feels off. In half his scenes, he scowls—is that a substitute for being straight? When he smiles or giggles, he seems more like your average theater queen, a better romantic match for Kurt than Rachel.
This completely ignores the fact that while the character is supposed to be a leading man – which, in my opinion, Groff clearly is – he is, at the same time, a theater darling (the character readily admits this fact in his first episode). It also neglects to factor for the brilliant and unapologetically sudsy overtures of the show, instead attacking Groff whom the writer even admits a few sentences earlier was, in a straight role for Spring Awakening, a “knockout singer and a heartthrob.”
Perhaps most offending is this little nugget: “As viewers, we are molded by a society obsessed with dissecting sexuality, starting with the locker-room torture in junior high school.” Setoodeh uses this as a reason to support his concept that gays aren’t convincing in straight roles for the viewing audience, while ignoring that his own article seems to be grounded in the very same mentality that feeds that climate.
He continues by cherry picking other stars who would seem to undercut his argument by explaining that they either came out after they were in a starring role and are now no longer famous – Cynthia Nixon – or play broad, ineffectual caricatures – Portia de Rossi – tossing around crudely constructed excuses (at one point incorrectly suggesting that because people accept lesbians more than gay men they don’t count) before crashing on to his closing argument.
He asks, if George Clooney came out tomorrow, would an audience still accept him as a heterosexual leading man? Then he concludes with this blunted hook: “Doesn’t it mean something that no openly gay actor like that exists?”
The shame of all this is that the through-line of the article contains a very salient question as to why the lack of out-actors has come about and what we can do to tackle the issue, but it has been marred by a clear bias that prevents intelligent debate.
While I could take my time to dissect and refute the above points, I have been beaten to the punch by someone who has done it so marvelously that it would really be redundant for me to do so, though I do have a few small comments that I will save for later.
However, pint-sized Broadway sensation, LGBT rights advocate and devoted Christian, Kristin Chenoweth (pictured), was so affronted by the article, and especially at its targeting of her co-star Hayes, that she felt forced to write a response that has now been published on the website autostraddle.com in which she calls the article “horrendously homophobic” and berates Newsweek for publishing the article. Her letter is excerpted below:
From where I stand, on stage, with Hayes, every night — I’ve observed nothing “wooden” or “weird” in his performance, nor have I noticed the seemingly unwieldy presence of a “pink elephant” in the Broadway Theater…
This article offends me because I am a human being, a woman and a Christian…. Setoodeh even goes so far as to justify his knee-jerk homophobic reaction to gay actors by accepting and endorsing that “as viewers, we are molded by a society obsessed with dissecting sexuality, starting with the locker room torture in junior high school.” Really? We want to maintain and proliferate the same kind of bullying that makes children cry and in some recent cases have even taken their own lives? That’s so sad, Newsweek! The examples he provides (what scientists call “selection bias”) to prove his “gays can’t play straight” hypothesis are sloppy in my opinion. Come on now!…
Cynthia Nixon only “got away with it” ’cause she peaked before coming out? I don’t know if you’ve missed the giant Sex and the City movie posters, but it seems most of America is “buying it.” I could go on, but I assume these will be taken care of in your “Corrections” this week…
Lastly, as someone who’s been proudly advocating for equal rights and supporting GLBT causes for as long as I can remember, I know how much it means to young people struggling with their sexuality to see out & proud actors like Sean Hayes, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris and Cynthia Nixon succeeding in their work without having to keep their sexuality a secret. No one needs to see a bigoted, factually inaccurate article that tells people who deviate from heterosexual norms that they can’t be open about who they are and still achieve their dreams… I encourage Newsweek to embrace stories which promote acceptance, love, unity and singing and dancing for all!
You can read the full, sensational response by going here.
Everyone is allowed their opinion, of course, and I would defend Setoodeh’s right to say or write anything he wishes, even if it is as broadly unqualified as the aforementioned piece. But, that Newsweek would publish this article in its Culture section as a serious analysis, and not for the op-ed it clearly is, when it so broadly misrepresents the issue seems to break the duty of responsible journalism.
It is not due to a lack of talent that openly gay and lesbian actors are prevented from achieving the heights of fame that their straight and closeted counterparts manage as the article seems to suggest, but rather it is the homophobic (not necessarily anti-gay) attitude of Hollywood that uses the same defense that this article (perhaps unintentionally) perpetuates: That audiences won’t find an openly gay actor believable in a straight role.
This is a circular argument that encourages actors and actresses to stay closeted if they wish to get anywhere in the business that we call Show, and therefore the problem, never challenged or changed, is left to stagnate and prevent yet another generation from being open about who they are, perhaps dissuading them completely from wanting to pursue a career in the limelight. Their talent should be the primary thing of concern and, increasingly, this is the factor on which they are judged.
That there are no openly gay actors or actresses in the searing spotlight is also clearly an incredibly narrow statement. Put simply, there are.
Sir Ian McKellen, for instance, has starred in several high grossing and globally recognized film franchises in the past decade – Lord of the Rings, X-Men – while continuing to play leading roles in theater productions such as in Trevor Nunn’s 2007 production of King Lear, whereby one critic called McKellen’s performance “a crowning glory.” McKellen came out in 1988. His best days were certainly not behind him.
Another British example to sit alongside the likes of Neil Patrick Harris or Cynthia Nixon: Russell Tovey, known to international audiences as Rudge from the play The History Boys, currently stars in BBC 3′s acclaimed supernatural drama Being Human as a (straight) man called George who suffers under the curse of being a werewolf. There is nothing about his performance in the show that is unconvincing, “wooden” or “weird” but Tovey has been openly gay for a number of years and continues to be offered diverse roles, including that of the leading man.
Based on this Newsweek piece though, who could blame young stars such as Tovey for choosing not to come out?
Yet, in the spirit of looking on the bright side of things, the article did give the ever radiant Kristin Chenoweth a chance to respond with her usual affirming and ever irreverent style, whereby she could yet again voice her support for LGBT rights from the standpoint of being a straight, devoted Christian, who is also a powerful voice for equality.
Lastly, because Setoodeh neglected to support his statement that gays can not play straight roles with any polls, statistics, or even anecdotal evidence of audience reaction, I wanted to throw this over to you in our quick poll and ask: Does an actor’s sexuality matter?
Update 12 May, 2010: Setoodeh has now written a response to Chenoweth and those who have criticized his article. You can find it here.
He details how he has received distressing emails and phone-calls regarding the article that have been personally insulting and have said such things as calling him a “self-hating Arab” and more.
Let me be clear, this behavior is completely unacceptable and should never have happened. However, he also claims that his words have been misrepresented or over-simplified and I find this a stretch.
While the concern over Newsweek publishing this as a serious analytical piece and not an op-ed remains, I am, however, pleased to see that in his follow-up, Setoodeh has clarified the through-line of the article that I mentioned in my post above, and that he has attempted to steer the discourse back to the actual point that he was trying to make:
But what all this scrutiny seemed to miss was my essay’s point: if an actor of the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet today, would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man? It’s hard to say, because no actor like that exists. I meant to open a debate—why is that? And what does it say about our notions about sexuality? For all the talk about progress in the gay community in Hollywood, has enough really changed? The answer seems obvious to me: no, it has not.
As mentioned in my own small post, it was a deeply sad that these very valid, very relevant questions were obscured by needless invective. I am therefore grateful that Setoodeh has sort to clarify the article’s intent in this way.
I stand by what I, and others, have said however. Setoodah’s original article was clouded by a preconceived opinion toward actors such as Hayes and Groff (in spite of the latter largely disproving his case) and that he used sometimes personal, unqualified examples and remarks to try and support an essay that was ineffectual and unfortunately quite unclear.
The controversy over the original Newsweek article continues to rumble on though. Ryan Murphy, the creator of the hit show Glee, has written an open letter that was first published on EW, wherein he has called for a boycott of Newsweek:
“I would like to join my good friend Kristin Chenoweth on her condemnation of a recent Newsweek article written by Mr. Ramin Setoodeh, in which Setoodeh basically says that out gay actors should go back into the closet and never attempt to play straight characters. This article is as misguided as it is shocking and hurtful. It shocks me because Mr. Setoodeh is himself gay. But what is the most shocking of all is that Newsweek went ahead and published such a blatantly homophobic article in the first place…and has remained silent in the face of ongoing (and justified) criticism. Would the magazine have published an article where the author makes a thesis statement that minority actors should only be allowed and encouraged to play domestics? I think not.
Today, I have asked GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios to stand with me and others and ask for an immediate boycott of Newsweek magazine until an apology is issued to Sean Hayes and other brave out actors who were cruelly singled out in this damaging, needlessly cruel, and mind-blowingly bigoted piece. An apology should also be issued to all gay readers of the magazine…steelworkers, parents, accountants, doctors, etc…proud hardworking Americans who, if this article is to be believed, should only identify themselves as “queeny” people (a word used by Setoodeh in the article) who stand at the back of the bus and embrace an outdated decades old stereotype.
The letter continues with Bryan Murphy inviting Setoodeh to the Glee set to soak up the inclusive atmosphere. I would personally say that calling the piece “mind-blowingly bigoted” might be a bit strong, but that is my opinion.
As always, I am keen to hear your thoughts on all this so please have your say below and take part in our quick poll.
Thanks for the image go to watch with kristin via flickr.