Author Bret Easton Ellis has been tweeting that actor Matt Bomer is too gay to play the lead role in the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey. "OK I'll say it. Matt Bomer isn't right for Christian Grey because he is openly gay," he wrote, adding that "Fifty Shades of Grey demands an actor that is genuinely into women. Get it?!?" In stating his opinion, he is reviving the dispute about whether openly gay actors playing heterosexual characters can be accepted by American audiences. This debate has been raging of late because more and more actors are coming out of the closet and continuing to maintain their careers. In 2010 Newsweek printed an article about this topic, titled "Straight Jacket," written by journalist Ramin Setoodeh. The article concluded that actors such as Sean Hayes and Jonathan Groff, actors who had publically acknowledged their homosexuality, were no longer able to play heterosexual roles because audiences would not "buy" them playing straight.
Is this true? Must gay actors kiss straight roles goodbye?
Heterosexual actors do not seem to have this problem. They are easily accepted as gay in film. Tom Hanks, William Hurt, Sean Penn, Charlize Theron, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Christopher Plummer, all heterosexual actors, as far as I know, won Oscars for playing homosexual characters. Where was the outrage when these films were cast? Was anyone shouting, "Tom Hanks playing gay? Never! No way! Unbelievable!!!"? No. Instead, Hanks was handed an Academy Award, and audiences marveled at how brave he was for tackling an incredibly challenging role. Simply put, he received his Oscar for Philadelphia because he excelled at his job, his acting job, his job of making audiences believe that he was someone other than himself.
Meryl Streep is one of our most lauded actresses. She received an Oscar last year for playing Margaret Thatcher, but Streep is not British. She received an Oscar for playing a Holocaust survivor in Sophie's Choice, yet she is not Polish. She received an Oscar for playing a woman fighting for the custody of her child in Kramer vs. Kramer, yet she is not divorced. We admire Streep for her incredible transformations, for acting so truthfully in every role. But let us not forget: She is acting. Why is it difficult to accept Matt Bomer as straight, yet easy to believe Meryl Streep as a nun, as Julia Child, as a fashion magazine editor, as an Abba-singing mamma?
The role of Christian Grey is one of the most coveted in Hollywood. It brings to mind another hotly contested role when another famous book was turned into a movie: Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. This Southern belle character was so beloved by book readers that the producers took great care in trying to find just the right woman to play the role, famously auditioning hundreds of would-be Scarletts. In the end, they chose an actress who was not Southern at all. Heck, she was not even American. It was a British actress who played this very Southern American character, Vivien Leigh. And she played the role so brilliantly that -- you guessed it -- she won an Oscar. A dozen years later, she was handed her second Oscar for playing another iconic Southern character, Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire.
I am a director, and I have shocking insight for Ellis and Setoodeh and others who think gay actors cannot play straight: Actors are acting. Yes, I know, it is hard to believe! Actors portray people who are not themselves.
Can Bomer play the non-gay Grey? Shouldn't we examine his acting chops to answer that question, rather than his private life? Why did Bret Easton Ellis wade into this casting debate anyway? He did not write Fifty Shades of Grey, and as far as I know, he is not attached to the film adaptation. His comments are irresponsible, adding to the homophobia that holds gay actors back from potential jobs. Matt Bomer held off from being open about his sexual orientation until just recently. Presumably, he did this because the revelation might hold back his rising career. Has coming out cost him this sought-after role? If he had kept his sexuality hidden, would that have helped his chances? Isn't being a good actor enough to secure a role?
So, Bret Easton Ellis, listen to this: Fifty Shades of Grey demands an actor who is genuinely good at acting. Get it?!