Imitation of Life

A journal about film, music, literature and any other form of imitation of life. Seeing through a glass darkly…

Straight as Folk

Some weeks ago Newsweek magazine published an article by contributor Ramin Setoodah in which the journalist declared that gay actors are “incapable of being believable as straight characters”. The piece, entitled Straight Jacket, was a review of the Broadway revival of Promises, promises, in which Sean Hayes, of Will & Grace fame, recreates the role that Jerry Orbach originated back in 1968.

Setoodah points out at the “real problem” of the play, namely the “big pink elephant in the room”, and goes on to describe Hayes’ performance as “wooden and insincere”, as if “he’s trying to hide something”. He also calls the portrayal of the straight main character as “too queeny” to be believable. Mr. Setoodah then slams the work of Jonathan Groff, another openly gay actor, in the TV series Glee, labelling him as “your average theatre queen”.

Kristin Chenoweth, Hayes co-star in Promises, promises, immediately came to Hayes’ defence and called the article “horrendously homophobic”. I have always admired Chenoweth as an accomplished actress and singer. She was probably the only reason to watch the otherwise dull Pushing Daisies, for which she won a deserved Emmy, and her guest appearance in one of the episodes of Glee‘s first season turned it into the best instalment of the series. With her take on Setoodah’s article, I will also look up to her great personality from now on.

There is, admittedly, a sad truth in Setoodah’s article: gay performers are subject to a double standard by viewers and by the industry alike. From Rudolph Valentino to Tom Cruise, actors have gone to any lengths to deny rumours of their homosexuality. Cruise went to trial, while Polish silent film diva Pola Negri was sent to Valentino’s funeral as celebrity mourner to avoid a posthumous outing of the sexually ambiguous Valentino.

Negri was also sentimentally linked to the actor William Haines in a desperate attempt to hide his declared homosexuality. Haines, the first openly gay actor in cinema history, was given the choice by the studio of a sham marriage or his life with partner Jimmy Shields. He chose Shields, with whom he would share his life for 50 years, and his contract was immediately terminated.

Ever since then, Hollywood has punished any attempt to deviate from the rigid sex and gender role imposed by society. During the fifties, some actors of undefined sexuality like James Dean and Montgomery Cliff helped to disrupt these codes through a new troubled, fragile, more complex image of masculinity, while other closeted homosexual performers, most notably Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, were forced to act as the embodiment of mainstream heterosexuality.

Openness among homosexual male actors has remained the exception until today, and there is little doubt that the coming out of a player limits the kind and number of roles offered to him.  Rupert Everett is the perfect example of a gay actor usually typecast as the leading lady’s best friend.

The acknowledgment of this reality, however, cannot be a reason or an excuse to bash an actor’s performance because of his sexual orientation, and that is precisely what Setoodah, consciously or not, did in his review. As a response to Kristin Chenoweth’s reaction to the original article, Setoodah claimed that the New York Times had already smashed Hayes’ performance in Promises, promises without anyone raising a voice. The New York Times, however, did not link the “pale” performance to the actor’s sexual orientation in any way, and its choice of words is worlds apart from the utterly offensive terms used by Setoodah. The Neewsweek contributor argues that the NYT is talking “code”, and that the review is “a way to say that Hayes’ sexual orientation is getting in the way of his acting without saying the word gay”. Nevertheless that is Mr. Setoodah’s interpretation of the NYT article, his personal perception of it. And perception is, in fact, the key (missing) link in Setoodah’s chain of thoughts which makes his whole logical argumentation tumble down.

In his article, he declares that “an actor’s background does affect how we see his or her performance”. This sentence encapsulates the vicious aberration of Setoodah’s line of thought. When he talks about the actor’s incapability to play a straight role, he’s blatantly oblivious to the fact that it all has nothing to do with the player’s performance, but with his (Setoodah’s) own inability to transcend his biased perception of the person and the actor.

Was, for example, Brüno Ganz’s spotless criminal record an obstacle to his fine portrayal of Hitler in Der Untergang? Or similarly, did Marion Cotillard’s healthy lifestyle stand in her way to her phenomenal transformation into morphine and alcohol addicted Edith Piaf in La Môme? These questions are obviously ridiculous, but they follow Setoodah’s logic, given that a violent nature or a substance abuse are as much a defining characteristic of human behaviour as sexual orientation.

Furthermore, the author seems to convey the message that sexual orientation as such is not the real barrier, since “it’s ok for straight actors to play gay”, but it’s in the jump in the opposite direction where homosexual actors are unable “to pull off the trick”. Thus Setoodah once again falls in the bigoted foray of heterosexual dominant stereotype.

Moreover, Setoodah is clumsily short-sighted and narrow-minded in (his perception of) the external manifestation of homosexuality. I am not sure what he refers to when he uses terms as “queeny” or “theatre queen”, but given the shallowness of his thoughts, I assume he means a certain form of effeminate affectation. An effeminate nature, however, is neither defining nor exclusive of homosexual males. It may come to a surprise to many, but there actually are effeminate heterosexual men. To put it in words that Mr. Setoodah can understand, many straight guys are two whiskies away to jump off their seats with open arms at the first notes of the Village People’s YMCA. It doesn’t really matter, anyway, for an effeminate nature, like any other harmless feature of human behaviour is not good or bad in itself, and it should never be used to judge anybody. However, by highlighting this characteristic, especially as an obstacle to a certain achievement (in this case good acting), Setoodah reinforces the dominant cultural cliché which gives rise to the bad joke at the office, to the bullying of the ‘different’ kid at recess time and, ultimately, to the hate crime.

In the last part of his review, Setoodah mentions Rock Hudson and the 1959 classic Pillow Talk. Well, he shouldn’t have, because a single scene (see clip on the link bellow) of that movie crumbles his whole argument. In what has become a classic scene of American comedy, Brad Allen, Hudson’s character, makes an innuendo about his own homosexuality to gain the sexual attention of reluctant, prude Jan, played by Doris Day. The comedy farce is out there: the heterosexual hunk faking to be too sensitive in order to get the girl into his bed. The other turn of the screw, of course, is that the actor himself was gay in real life: a gay playing a straight playing a gay to get sex with a girl. Hudson’s homosexuality is known to contemporary audiences, but it was not to the viewer in 1959, and yet the freshness of the acting, the flawless script, the film experience as a whole is as enjoyable today as it must have been back in 1959. And what matters is that if it is not, then it’s one’s own fault. There you have, Mr. Setoodah: your whole point destroyed by a comedy with Doris Day.

An article like the one written by Setoodah in a publication like Newsweek should not be tolerated because, disguised in political correctness-free, liberal intellectualism, it represents a point-blank attack to what constitutes, in my opinion, one of the greatest joys of this world: the right of anyone of us to be wonderful and beautifully different to the rest.

Have a look at the Pillow Talk clip.




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7 Responses

  1. A says:

    Well said! And based on solid evidence!

  2. toño says:

    Un excelente artículo, Alberto. Buen guiño con la elección de la foto de cabecera (recuerdo el shock de “aquella nueva enfermedad” que se llevó a Rock Hudson en 1985 y las imágenes por la tv), y tienes toda la razón en los argumentos. Se me ocurre a bote pronto que uno de los símbolos del actor-hombre que enamora por su masculinidad ha sido siempre Cary Grant, una persona con una vida fascinante, pero que no era en absoluto lo que interpretaba en la pantalla.

    Bravo ;-)

  3. Uncle Walt says:

    Your best post to date, I think: beautifully written, perfectly argumented and, to many of us, personally moving and touching. Great stuff. Thanks!

  4. Ana says:

    “She was probably the only reason to watch the otherwise dull Pushing Daisies”

    Sorry, you lost me there.

  5. hope lang says:

    …And to put an european movie touch on this, let’s not forget Helmut Berger in Visconti’s…what a man, what a role in “Ludwig”, what a romance to Romy Schneider (let’s not forget she was the ideal bride of half europeans those years)and what a performance in “La caduta degli dei”… and he was only for Visconti’s eyes!!!!

    Congrats, Albert, wonderful post!

  6. Ross says:

    I myself have never had a problem buying Sir Ian McKellen or Neil Patrick Harris as a straight man.
    But double standards for gay actors are frightening. If a straight actor portrays a gay man on screen, he wins an Oscar no matter how good (or mediocre) the performance is. If a gay actor portrays a straight character, there is always the talk of his sexuality (and of course, audiences and narrow-minded journalists have a problem buying their sexuality because they know a lot about their personal lives). And if a gay actor portrays a gay character, the very same journalists, critics and audiences feel in a way threatened by the fact that a gay actor is playing a gay character. In this day and age it feels absolutely absurd.

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