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Gabriel Rotello

Gabriel Rotello

Posted: February 13, 2006 06:46 PM

Sir Ian McKellen and 'Backlot Mountain'


God bless Sir Ian McKellen. Amid Hollywood's orgy of self-congratulations about how Brokeback Mountain marks a 'milestone,' a 'landmark,' a 'breakthrough' that proves how progressive and pro-gay the industry has finally become -- he had the English gentleman's guts to mention the elephant in the room.

In accepting a lifetime achievement award at the Berlin International Film Festival this weekend, the openly gay McKellen was asked to predict Brokeback's influence. He tartly replied that the film might lead to more honesty about homosexuality on the screen, but probably not behind the scenes in Hollywood.

"It is very, very, very difficult for an American actor who wants a film career to be open about his sexuality," McKellen lamented. "And even more difficult for a woman if she's lesbian. It's very distressing to me that that should be the case."

Not just distressing; downright disgusting. And these days, more than a tad hypocritical, because frankly, Hollywood's ceaseless hype about Brokeback Mountain as a "universal" love story is a lot of bull. Brokeback is precisely and specifically about a uniquely gay dilemma: the destructive horror of the closet. And the closet -- Hollywood-style -- is what McKellen is talking about.

The fundamental purpose of gay liberation has been to chip away at the closet everywhere, carving out huge swaths of freedom in which lesbian and gay Americans can live honest lives. We've been so successful that one of the standard comments about Brokeback is that if Jake and Ennis were alive today, the whole horrible tragedy probably wouldn't happen at all.

That's true, but here's the real irony: in 2006, Jake and Ennis would find it easier to live as openly gay sheep farmers in Wyoming (where Casper has an openly gay mayor) than as openly gay stars in Hollywood.

The industry assumes that moviegoers will not accept gay actors playing straight leads, and agents and managers routinely insist that their gay clients remain discreet, which isn't easy in today's world of tabloid snoops. So gay stars cower, and Hollywood remains one of the few outposts in liberal America where the hellish old closet reigns supreme.

The funny thing is, there's really no evidence to support what McKellen too politely calls Hollywood's "old fashioned" attitude towards openly gay stars.

I remember when the music industry had that same attitude: people used to say that any pop star who dared to come out would be dropped like a bomb. But then pop stars began coming out left and right, and it either had no effect on their careers, or they became even bigger stars.

Then consider the example of classic romantic movie stars like Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Montgomery Clift and James Dean, who were closeted in their lifetimes but not anymore. If the theory of career death for queer stars were true, their movies should now be consigned to oblivion. Yet these guys remain in very heavy rotation. No one seems to be saying they can no longer watch Rebel Without a Cause or Pillow Talk because their stars are simply not believable -- or acceptable -- in straight romantic roles.

I think the whole theory is a myth left over from the bad old days. But there's nothing as powerful as a scary myth when millions are at stake. So today, we have the weird spectacle of Hollywood executives preaching a feel-good message of tolerance to the rubes of Wyoming while enforce a stifling closet in their own home town.
 
As Oscar night approaches, the industry has every reason to feel proud of a great film like Brokeback Mountain. But we have every reason to feel embarrassed about the Backlot Mountain that still looms over Hollywood.
 
Kudos to Sir Ian for that reality check.