I thought we were past this, America.
After Cate Blanchett outacted a bunch of biological males as Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, I figured it was universally understood that anyone can play anyone. Tyler Perry can play an old, sassy black matriarch. Charlize Theron can be a lesbian prostitute/serial killer, a sociopathic children's book author, and an evil queen. Brad Pitt can age backwards. Kate Winslet can be a sexy Nazi cougar. Eddie Murphy can be a talking donkey. Meryl Streep can portray a British prime minister, a nun from the Bronx, an animated fox, an aging hippie on a Greek island, a Machiavellian political mom, a lesbian New Yorker, and a chef nearly a foot taller than she is. I could even suspend my disbelief enough to buy Mark Ruffalo turning into a giant green man and smashing tall buildings and Chris Hemsworth being a Viking god from outer space in The Avengers. So surely America can buy the relatively simple transformation of a queer actor playing straight, right? Maybe not.
Maybe I'm an idealist, but when I first heard that Bret Easton Ellis had taken to Twitter to personally embargo openly gay actor Matt Bomer from being cast as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey, the film adaptation of E. L. James' BDSM/mommy-porn phenomenon, I was rather taken aback by it. After the uproar two years ago, when Newsweek writer Ramin Setoodeh (himself a gay man) claimed that Sean Hayes was too "queeny" to play a straight man in Promises, Promises, I didn't think someone would so publicly "go there" again. No one would make that mistake again. Wrong.
Unlike the word-vomity Ellis, I at least understood what Setoodeh was getting at -- even if he was unpacking his point in completely the wrong way. Setoodeh later clarified his real argument that a star's off-screen persona can be distracting, which often works against out actors, in the same way that it works against other actors whose personal lives are made very public by the tabloids. This is why audiences can't take Tom Cruise seriously in any of his roles these days, and why each of his recent films outside the Mission: Impossible series has flopped.
But this isn't for the reason you'd expect, and the actual reason disproves Setoodeh's (and Ellis') homophobic views on the subject: Despite wide speculation that Tom Cruise is "hiding something," audiences don't seem to care much whether or not Cruise is a gay man; instead, they care that he's "crazy," as the fervor over his religion and marriage have dominated his late career. When Cruise played an eyepatch-wearing Nazi in Valkyrie, some theaters reportedly hooped and hollered at the screen, because the meta-commentary was simply too good not to catcall. The fact that he's become box-office poison has nothing to do with whom he sleeps with or whether the tabloid rumors are true. It's because the public just doesn't like him anymore, gay or straight.
However, in cases where the actor isn't Tom Cruise, that ironic commentary can actually work in the actor's favor. Neil Patrick Harris has made a second career out of being a gay actor playing straight. Although Setoodeh dismissed Harris' portrayal of straight men because of the "caricature" aspect of the performance, Harris' over-the-top zeal wasn't any less enjoyable back when he was still in the closet, when the original Harold and Kumar film debuted in 2004. Harris didn't come out as a gay man until 2006, two years later, and his revelation only served to make the joke even cleverer, allowing Harold and Kumar writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossenberg to go even further in the next installments. By the third film they had Harris pretend to be gay in order to sleep with a woman he's attracted to, but the joke works not just because the joke itself funny, which it is, but because Harris is a great comic actor with killer timing, which is why the Tony Awards won't get rid of him. He's a joy to behold on screen, in any role he's in.
But the fact that Harris has portrayed such exaggerated masculinity in Harold and Kumar and How I Met Your Mother doesn't mean that he can't go to honest and real places with his work, and Ellis simply referring to the joke as "lame" discredits the strength of Harris' performance. For instance, the Barney-Robin pregnancy storyline on How I Met Your Mother (despite receiving mixed reviews from fans) stands as the finest work that Harris has ever done. This arc allows him to balance his flair for bawdy comedy with a dramatic tone rare for a broad CBS sitcom.
Similarly, Setoodeh dismissed Portia de Rossi's role in the criminally underrated (and now cancelled) Better Off Ted for the same reason that he dismissed Harris' How I Met Your Mother role, despite the fact that many of de Rossi's straight co-stars were also playing caricatures and none of them were criticized for it. De Rossi played a character similar to Better Off Ted's Veronica on Arrested Development, a show populated entirely by caricatures, and none of her straight co-stars got lambasted for that, either. In fact, many of them have made careers out of playing versions of those same characters in other roles -- especially Will Arnett and Jason Bateman.
What this does is hold queer actors in Hollywood to an unfair and homophobic double standard, whether holding them to unrealistic expectations or asking (as Ellis has done) that they be "genuinely into" the opposite sex, when we don't expect the same thing of straight actors going gay. This doesn't leave queer actors a lot of options other than playing one of the handful of queer characters that pop up in movies every year -- roles they'll have to fight straight actors for.
This was the exact reason that Rupert Everett (who gained mainstream recognition for playing Julia Roberts' gay BFF in My Best Friend's Wedding) told The Guardian in 2009 that coming out killed his career. Because of that, Everett advised young queer actors thinking about going public with their sexuality to keep their mouths shut. According to Everett, "A gay man can only do drag."
However, even that might be wishful thinking. If you look back at films like To Wong Foo and Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, all those actors were straight, just like almost every actor who has been rewarded for playing a queer person on screen. When Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Leonardo DiCaprio, James Franco, or Javier Bardem play queer, they are lauded for their "bravery" and get nominated for awards -- a sentiment I feel is offensive to people who actually are brave every day by not pretending to be anything but queer. Remember those photos of marchers in the Ugandan Pride parade? That's bravery, not Sean Penn simply doing the thing he was hired to do: act. So why would that be any different for Matt Bomer?
In his article on the homophobia implicit in this systemic double standard, Jeff Labrecque of Entertainment Weekly writes of such industry "realpolitik":
Perhaps the reason they were accepted in prominent gay roles and generously honored for doing so is because, deep down, there's homophobic residue that exists in even the most enlightened dude's psyche that is reassured by the reality that those actors are "just pretending" to be gay. It gives these males the opportunity to have it both ways -- no pun intended. They can admire the "courageous" performance but sleep easy knowing that the actor is, really, just like them.
Labrecque is right that part of the problem has to do with the straight male moviegoer, whose tastes tend to dominate what entertainments grace the multiplexes, but the gay buck doesn't stop here. Sure, audiences have bottom-up voting power in deciding what they see onscreen, but viewers can only decide between the options they are given, and the folks in power have to be willing to take chances and allow actors like Matt Bomer (or Rupert Everett) to take parts traditionally reserved for straight actors, whether those parts be in the hottest projects in Hollywood, like Fifty Shades of Grey, or any part that comes their way. The system dominated by white straight males has to be as blind to queer actors playing straight as it is to straight actors playing queer, or closeted A-Listers won't feel encouraged or able to come out, and the glass closet will never be broken. Recently, Rashida Jones urged the scandal-ridden John Travolta to come out, but whether or not he is gay (which is likewise none of my business), any actor of his status would be unlikely to risk killing his career. No one wants to become the next Rupert Everett.
Luckily, this conventional wisdom is changing, with the help of actors like Harris and Portia de Rossi and the recently out Jim Parsons, a two-time Emmy winner for his role as the nerdy Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. In previous years, out actors like Jane Lynch have won Emmys for playing straight, at the same time that Chris Colfer and Jesse Tyler Ferguson were both nominated for playing gay men. (This fall, out actor Andrew Rannells will likewise portray one half of a gay couple on Ryan Murphy's new sitcom, The New Normal, which recently previewed on NBC to big numbers.) In the same year that Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Ezra Miller, Anderson Cooper, and Frank Ocean have come out to shrugs or applause, we can see that the industry is taking baby steps in fostering a culture of honesty and inclusiveness, one we need to continue to push further.
In a slight mea culpa on the issue, Ellis stated that the reason for this step forward is "that we've moved beyond stereotypes and gay is hot," but that's hardly the case. I think the reason is that Ellis, Setoodeh, and other critics on the issue have long underestimated audiences and their ability to see past an actor's sexuality to just appreciate the quality of his or her work. We have a long way to go before stereotypes are a thing of the past (or Ellis' and Setoodeh's statements would cease to exist), but the only way to challenge the status quo is to push the boundaries in any way we can, including allowing queer actors to play anyone they want. Audiences need to show queer actors that it's OK to come out by supporting their work, or we make it easier for folks like Ellis to look correct. And by calling Ellis out and reaffirming the wide fan support for Bomer as Christian Grey, audiences are already showing Ellis how wrong he is.
And maybe the next time an actor comes out, we won't even have to have this discussion.