Everyone remembers “Monster’s Ball” as the movie that won Halle Berry her weepy Oscar and got her mauled by Adrian Brody during her acceptance speech. Because of the enormous success it brought Berry, Billy Bob Thornton’s work in it is often overlooked. And it’s a shame, really, because it must have been hard for him to, …you know…have to act like he was in love with a black woman. And those sex scenes! There really should be a special award for actors like him who have to suffer for their art like that.
Now, before you start writing letters to the editor, let me assure you I do not feel this way. Perhaps some people do, and more likely, more people did 40 years ago, but it’s an anachronistic and repulsive perspective that rarely sees the light of day, thankfully.
Yet here we are, in 2009, and we hear this very same argument each time a straight actor dares to play gay. They are held up as heroes, pioneers, and not just by the scions of mainstream culture (Oprah, the New York Times, etc), they are even awarded by our very own watchdogs. Can you imagine if the NAACP had given Katharine Houghton an award for being so brave as to portray a woman in love with a black man in "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?" Or Jane Alexander for playing James Earl Jones’ wife in The Great White Hope? Nevermind that Poitier and Jones had to act as though they loved white woman – I mean how hard could that be - everyone loves a white woman, right?
And so it goes with gay roles: Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal; Charlize Theron; Tom Hanks…all of them, in the hunt for credibility, took on gay roles. And those that didn’t win Oscars for their roles were at least nominated, reflecting the dominating perspective in Hollywood that there is no better way to proclaim your dedication to your craft than to kiss someone/play gay. No wonder Brad Pitt wants to join the club.
So what of gay actors who play straight? Why is their challenge any less noteworthy or meaningful than the other way around? Is it because straight audiences assume there is nothing challenging about it? “I kiss women, so it’s easy for Neil Patrick Harris to kiss a woman." But if the industry, and our society at large, is going to applaud the Heaths and the Jakes for risking it all and going against their own sexual nature, it would seem only fair to bestow the same accolades on those gay actors who are doing the very same by playing straight. The fact that they’re not exposes Hollywood’s hypocrisy when it comes to recognizing the legitimate work gay actors do.
Earlier this year, British entertainer Stephen Fry ("Gosford Park," "V is for Vendetta") told the Radio Times: “Straight actors can play gay people and they’re rather congratulated on it. People say ‘Ooh, how brave of you’.”
But Stephen, 50, added that no one says to a gay actor who plays a heterosexual person: “‘How brave of you to kiss that woman, that must have been very difficult for you’. He said: “It wouldn’t be at all difficult for me to kiss a woman - I’ll kiss a frog if you like. And why should it be difficult for a man to kiss another man?”
So who are the gay actors who play straight? A recent Google search of “gay actors in straight roles” yielded hundreds of articles of straight actors playing gay. Changing it to gay actors playing straight, and it still came out the same. No matter how you shake it up, the results are the inverse of what you’re looking for.
So not only do gay actors not get gay roles (was Eric McCormack really the only actor who could play Will?), they barely get credit for playing straight. When they do land a straight role, they are pretty much limited to the small screen. And these actors are not just “not being gay” – they are playing full-on heteros (to varying degrees), the most notable example right now being Harris in his Emmy-nominated role as uber-womanizer Barney on CBS’ sleeper hit, "How I Met Your Mother."
Defying the odds of childhood stardom, Harris worked steadily over the years while keeping his sexuality out of the spotlight. He was still not publicly out when his role on "HIMYM" started to garner buzz, but celeb blogger Perez Hilton pressed the issue and Harris ended up acknowledging his sexual preference with a feel-good interview in People magazine.
Harris’ coming out couldn’t have gone better, a process likely made easier by virtue of his being at the top of his game. And while the debate over outing rages on, it seems to have not only not hurt, but even helped the careers of younger actors.
In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Harris says, “There have been very few negative repercussions about my personal life, partly because I was on the show already playing Barney, partly because I was very candid with everyone in my work world about my life so it wasn’t like this big, scandalous revelation. It was a nice moment of clarity and exhalation (sic) to see that everyone kind of shrugged…there’s a lot of people that appreciate that an actor acts.”
It’s almost as though there is some twisted logic at work in Hollywood, where there is a certain cache to coming out as a gay actor once you’ve scored a hot, straight role. Take the case of T.R. Knight. His name was certainly not the one on everyone’s lips when "Grey’s Anatomy" became an overnight success. But along comes Isiah Washington, and Knight is suddenly the one everyone’s interested in.
Whether Knight was ready to come out at the time or not, Washington may have done him the most backhanded favor ever. Knight’s nebbish George O’Malley has since gotten married and cheated on his new wife with It-girl Katherine Heigl. Off-screen, he and his boyfriend make regular appearances on the red carpet and in the weekly celebrity magazines.
Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. Today’s actors may have learned a lesson or two from the likes of Robert Reed, Dick Sargent, Raymond Burr, and Richard Chamberlain. All of these actors played iconic roles on television only a generation ago, but as we now know, suffered off-screen as they perpetuated studio-sponsored “auto-biographies” of lives full of imaginary girlfriends and wives (Burr alone had three wives and a child who died; Sargent was said to be married to Fannie Flagg) and suppressed their true passions.
And what of gay women? Generally speaking, less is made of straight women playing gay because of this questionable conventional wisdom we’ve all apparently signed off on that “all women are a little bit gay”. Accordingly, even less is made of lesbians who play it straight. Actresses Saffron Burrows ("Boston Legal"), Cynthia Nixon ("Sex and the City") and Portia de Rossi ("Ally McBeal," "Arrested Development") have all made names for themselves playing the apples of many a man’s eye…then again, considering how few roles there are for women, and lesbians at that, they don’t have much choice in the matter.
Of these, de Rossi is clearly the most visible, thanks in large part to her high-profile relationship with Ellen Degeneres. Their relationship, along with Knight’s and to a lesser degree Harris’, represents the first time mainstream media has followed a gay couple’s every move. We are finally allowed reminders that off-screen, these actors are gay – a welcome counterpoint to the myriad instances we are reassured that straight actors who play gay are indeed straight.
We’ll have to wait and see if time will be kind to out actors like Harris and Knight, or if we are witnessing the apogee of their careers. Will audiences continue to accept them (or perhaps more importantly, will producers continue to cast them) or will be they be defined henceforth by their sexuality and increasingly limited to smaller and/or gay roles?
Then again, what’s the motivation (besides “stretching yourself as an actor”) to continue playing straight? These actors have all proven they can do it, they’ve won over fans and critics alike, and yet they are still denied the same level of recognition as their straight peers. Harris’ recent Emmy nod may signal a shift in the prevailing attitude towards gays playing straight, but the real PROOF won’t be until straight actors who kiss each other are regarded not as heroes, but simply actors. Just like their gay peers.
Written By Jenny Stewart
Originally published on PlanetOut, Gay.com, 2009