May 16, 2010

"You can't say gay isn't actable in the same sentence you say overly macho acting reads as gay."

"Either there exists a certain set of characteristics, expressions, and vocal modulations that can indicate sexual orientation to an audience or there aren't. And it's pretty clear that there are."

Another entry in the debate about whether gay actors can "play straight."

This is a strange debate, because we don't know the sexual orientation of every actor. Since there are many more roles for heterosexual actors and since the perception of straightness occurs in the mind of the viewer, a gay actor who is good at playing straight has a strong motivation to keep his sexual orientation secret. And actors are actors. I assume when we see them outside of roles, as themselves, they are playing the image of themselves that they want us to see. An actor who chooses to be known as openly gay isn't quite the same as your gay friend or acquaintance in life outside of the world of acting. An actor is a  performer who is to some extent always acting. If he's openly gay, he's performing the part of an actor who is openly gay. Doing that, he can shape our ideas about what homosexuality looks like, which will affect how we determine whether an actor playing a part seems gay. Similarly, a gay actor who hides his sexual orientation is doing some sort of performance too, and what he does represents some kind of conception of what straightness is. If we never find out he's gay, he never contributes to our knowledge base about whether gay actors can play straight. And straight actors are also part of the knowledge base. They too perform in roles and as they present themselves as themselves, acting out whatever they think will work well for them and make us want to see them pretending to be characters we find authentic and worth caring about. They've shaped our perception of what straightness looks like. Is it Clint Eastwood and John Wayne? Can we even begin to shuffle through the layers of reality and pretend and discover what really is?

We need to step back and acknowledge the complexity of what we are perceiving before we can contribute anything useful to the debate about whether gay actors can "play straight."

ADDED: Judge this performance:

42 comments:

damikesc said...

Neil Patrick Harris is the least gay-acting gay dude I've ever seenso, yes, gay guys can play straight really well...but not frequently,

Andrea said...

It's called "acting" for a reason.

former law student said...

Neil Patrick Harris si.
T. R. Knight no.

Success depends on how non-wussy the gay guy comes across. T. R. Knight's character was too in touch with his sensitive side to be believably straight after T. R. was outed.

PatCA said...

That's right, it's about "performance."

You could wade through reams of intellectual writing on critical theory, or just accept that it's possible for anyone to play anything.

Partially this discussion is caused by the custom nowadays to reveal all sorts of personal data, real or unreal, about an actor in order to popularize him or her. We feel we know them. We don't.

Expat(ish) said...

It's all about what you want to believe about the performance. "Willing suspension of disbelief" anyone?

On a more macro level, is is okay if I just don't give a crap about an artist's orientation or politics? Seriously, so many artists have ruined my ability to enjoy their work by being criminals (Polanski), perverts (Woody Allen), or political morons (Sean Penn and a list too long for any blog).

You know what I know about Nathan Fillion? Nothing. Probably why I have so much enjoyment in Firefly and Castle. Would that more artists could just STFU.

-XC

edutcher said...

Obviously, lots of homosexual actors have played heterosexual parts. If they couldn't, how could they have worked before the Democrat Party discovered urban homosexuals bloc vote and started attempting to legitimize them? As Andrea notes, it is why it's called acting, after all.

Our perception of what's 'gay' is mostly caricature, largely due to comedians, such as Robin Williams, giving exaggerated presentations of what they're supposed to be like.

FWIW, I've always thought the swishing was mostly an act. A good many actors who have since come out sound perfectly normal (i.e., unaffected) in old movies and TV shows.

c3 said...

Rock Hudson....

It appears 50's audiences did not detect "gayness". (Was that even a concept to the general public then?)

Do we view him differently today? (and I mean not based on what we now know but his "gayness" or lack thereof on the screen.)

I would agree that certain actors struggle to act beyond their gayness (although to be fair I have no idea what they are like in "real life.)

Actors who don't go beyond their gayness
-Rupert Everett
-Alan Cumming
-George Clooney (just kidding)

Actors who could not play gay (as if I knew)
-Clint Eastwood
-George Clooney

Although to be fair this discussion really does play into a stereotype. A somewhat "legitimate" stereotype (many of my gay friends seem....well "gay") but an overused stereotype (other of my gay friends, not so much)

(By the way, is there some "master list" out there?"

MayBee said...

I've been to a few events with actors, and there are some I was surprised to find seemed very...gay in real life. So, I think good acting is good acting and you can't tell from the screen.

OTOH, the actor who plays "Cameron" on Modern Family (Eric Stonestreet) is not gay, and is not the least bit Cameron-ish in real life.

Christy said...

Funny how we all think sexual orientation doesn't matter, but yet we, the public, didn't bother to see the Anne Heche-Harrison Ford romantic comedy, Six Days, Seven Nights, that opened when Heche was famously involved with Degeneres. Ford had just done Air Force One. His next movie should have been a big hit just off the wake of AF1. Odd that.

Public perception is everything, isn't it? And we react the way we react. I know my ardor for John Barrowman has waned since he married a guy. Yes, he can play the seducer of women like nobody's business, but I no longer get that little frisson that came even when he was playing bisexual.

I'm with XC, I'd just as soon not know. Damn my compulsion to google my favorite actors!

c3 said...

And what are you suggesting re: Olivier?

(I would add that one can't judge the actor behaviorally from a 30's or 40's movies to one today. The audience sensibilities were entirely different. Hell, even the word gay meant something significantly different than today. And along those lines how many gay men today could be called gay in the 40's sense?)

Kevin said...

I know my ardor for John Barrowman has waned since he married a guy.

That's what the studios are afraid of - it's not that gay people can't play credible male romantic leads, but if it is generally known that Mr. X is gay, then many females will be less likely to see a movie where Mr. X is the male romantic lead. Movies are all about fantasy, after all...

Big Mike said...

@Christy, there have been movies where the romantic leads were well-known to be straight, but where there was no chemistry between them. I don't recollect that any of those movies did well, either.

I don't understand the debate. In his private life Rock Hudson was pretty flamboyantly gay, and a woman I knew well who met him face to face at Naw'leans Mardi Gras told me afterwards that there was no way you could mistake him for straight. But on the screen, as C3 points out, there was no way you'd imagine him as anything other than straight.

Flexo said...

So, what you are implying is that, being an "actor" or not, all of gayness is nothing more than playing a role, putting on a performance, i.e. it is a chosen lifestyle, and not something that is genetically-driven and contrary to free will?

Hagar said...

How reliable it is I do not know, but there always have been actors - such as Rock Hudson - who made me feel vaguely uncomfortable and that now with the change in public mores have been "outed" as "gay."

Dark Eden said...

I know a lot of gay people and none of them 'act gay' but everyone here knows exactly what I mean by 'act gay.' Its a stereotype but it is something that a certain segment of gay people do.

Borepatch said...

Just to add to C3's comments, look at Dirk Bogarde, British matinée idol who played a gay lawyer in the 1961 film Victim. It was banned in the US when it first came out.

Being gay didn't keep him from playing all sorts of roles that made him the heartthrob to England's women.

former law student said...

I only remember Dirk Bogarde from The Servant, where he was memorably creepy.

ricpic said...

More than mannerisms there is a gay look. Shepard Smith on Fox has it. Whether he's gay or not is another matter. But there is a gay look and he epitomizes it.

tim maguire said...

What are you getting at? Obviously, only some gay actors could play straight people--the ones who can "pass". Some gay men are simply incapable of not acting gay, others can be as straight as they need to be.

You seem to be asking a further question--can an actor who we know is gay play a straight man. In a way, that's a more interesting question because it's as much about the audience as the actor.

And I don't know the answer to that question.

Can we take an actor seriously as a straight romantic lead if we know, no matter how good his performance, he isn't really attracted to that woman? Tom Cruise has spent most of his career betting the answer is no.

Be said...

They're actors, gddmnit! This leaves me cold due to the English accent. I only understand the Love (which might be physical or not - am not the best judge of these things) as conveyed by Currer Bell's written words.

Bob_R said...

To me this debate just highlights how few of our actors have good acting technique at all. So many of them have a very limited range that is very close to their own persona. Lots of pretty people with good teeth and not much craft. The gay ones can't play straight; the northern ones can't play southern; the urban ones can't play rural; the rich ones can't play poor.

Ann Althouse said...

"This leaves me cold due to the English accent."

That's about the hottest scene in all of movies to me.

traditionalguy said...

Could there be a strong acting component in all Gay behavior? It is an alternate culture that has to be learned later by someone who was first raised in straight culture. But there are both gay Divas and dull gays. So acting may be a basic survival skill. Will gay marriage help them at the risk of restricting their use of acting skills?

John Stodder said...

I don't know, maybe I'm dumb. But I can think of at least two male friends who, when they let me know they were gay, it came as a complete surprise. One of them was my boss at the time. Another guy I worked with, I would have sworn he was gay, but then he got engaged to another friend. When they broke up, I said, "aha!" But then it turned out they broke up because he got involved with another woman, who he subsequently married and had kids with. He's a liberal Democrat who has made his living as a factotum for the CA Democratic establishment, an arena where being gay is, if anything, an advantage. So I have to assume his professed straightness is truthful.

But my question is, where does Darwin fit into this? If gay characteristics are so distinct that many gay and straight people can pick them up from people they know nothing about, why did that evolve? I've long assumed that there is some evolutionary reason why a certain percentage of the human population is gay, that it's not a flaw but to the contrary it is something that advances the survival of the species. If that's true, then what makes gays immediately identifiable to (some) other people must exist for a reason. Who is the signal intended for and why?

Be said...

@Ann: Too Ealing Studios for me. As much as I love those movies, I could never warm up to the principals.

Another thing that makes me cold:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BW3gKKiTvjs

(And I know how many *guys* blood gets a coursin' from this.)

Flexo said...

where does Darwin fit into this? . . . it's not a flaw but to the contrary it is something that advances the survival of the species.

Can someone tell me how the inability of two males or two females to procreate solely between themselves "advances" the survival of the species??

To be sure, if Darwin tells us anything, it is that, if homosexuality were truly genetic, if you were "born gay," then it would necessarily have died out a long time ago since same-sex couples are biologically incapable of reproducing. Survival of the species DEMANDS heterosexuality.

Methadras said...

So how is lisping genetic then?

C Black said...
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C Black said...
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C Black said...

Two cents, GO: Yes the interesting question to me that Mrs. Ann raises is not "can gay actors play strait"? A: Sure; given there is a sufficient story so that I'm not just sitting there questioning their sexuality for 2 hours. But, rather, can an audience BUY INTO a "Romantic" role where we know that the actor/actress is gay but is playing strait. A: Not often. I know the PC thing to scream out is: "It shouldn't matter!". Maybe it shouldn't. But we are human beings; Making stuff matter that doesn't really matter is part of the job description. BUT here's my real question and it is FOR THE LADIES! Can you get emotionally invested in a romantic role/movie where the character is strait but the Actor is gay? When you know that while he is kissing that woman, now, he'd rather be out polishing some dude's knob? I think guys can overlook an actresses "lesbianism" because we don't really believe in it. (HA!) Or at least we assume that some women do have bisexual tendencies that can be er, "negotiated". So long as she isn't, y'know, on the cover of "American Bitch" magazine.**

WV: canemour: a lover of questionable sexuality but not questionable ability.

** anyone?

P.S.: Oh, and yes, I was being bad and using completely hetero-normative assumptions all over the place in the previous post. Because I'm just a pretty hetero-normative kinda guy ("Not that there's anything wrong with that!")

missoulapolis2 said...

I think the missing info here is that in hyper-romatic stories like Wuthering Heights, the ideal man is a mirror image of a woman, only a man's body. There was always a historical disconnect between women's idea of men and the real deal. Hence the dysfunction in the generations of women who were raised on romantic novels, movies and TV.

Men and boys saw these romantic leads as faggy all along.

Paul said...

I've been thinking about actors after seeing "Iron Man 2" last night.

For example, it's easy to buy Robert Downey jr as smart. For some reason it's also easy to buy Mickey Rourke as smart. However, Gwyneth Paltrow is supposed to be really smart in the movie, as is Scarlett Johansson, and I didn't buy it in either case. When you hear them speak, and look at the focus in their eyes, they come off as average, not particularly smart. There's something about intelligence that you pick up on when you meet a person and it comes through on the screen. Meryl Streep comes across as smart.

Sammuel Jackson is supposed to be the top man at SHIELD. Sorry, can't buy it. He's not top management. The dumb eye patch doesn't help, but even so.

Don Cheadle is supposed to be an Air Force colonel. He doesn't come off as military; he doesn't have the manner and bearing. Also, he seems gay, but the Air Force is gayish, from what I hear.

David said...

Wait! Wait!

Vivien Leigh was gay?!

I'd have never thought that about her. Sure proves she could act!

William said...

It wouldn't influence my opinion of Tom Cruise if he turned out to be gay. He has good looks and talent and has made some excellent films, but he just doesn't inspire hero worship. If, on the other hand, it turned out that Sean Connery's life was a massive fraud, I would feel personally betrayed and dumbstruck at his acting skills.

Joe said...

I'm confused by the point of the clip.

John Stodder said...

Can someone tell me how the inability of two males or two females to procreate solely between themselves "advances" the survival of the species??

You're looking at it too narrowly. Humans don't survive only as individuals. I suspect the existence of homosexuality has a social value, with keeping a family or community functioning in such a way as to allow the individuals within it a greater chance at survival. We are completely dependent on communities and families for our survival.

How the genetic material is passed on? Dunno, but lots of gay men and women have made babies and continue to make them, so that's one way. It's a mystery, which is why I posed the question. I believe that many things about the human conditin that we consider to be problems or defects are, in fact, features we just don't fully understand.

C Black said...

Q: "How the genetic material is passed on?" A: Probably because homosexuality isn't a strictly (or probably even mostly) genetic issue. It's an orientation because it is a condition existing in time. And there is um..."flux". For example, about 5 years ago I met an (obviously and openly) gay guy who told me he frequently had sex with women when he was younger. I don't think he had a reason to lie. Children could have resulted, I dunno. But, anyway, I think human sexuality is way more intricate than the tick of a check in a box.

C Black said...

PS: except my sexuality. It's just a check in a box. No ambiguity there, mates. Straight up and down check. In a box. A nice warm box....Jeez.

Sokmnkee said...

As always, I prefer the book, which I read for the first time as a teenager. A leatherbound edition of the classic now graces my bookshelf and I had been thinking it was high time to get it out and re-read it.

I'm always let down by actors. I prefer the much swarthier Heathcliff I built in my mind.

Kirstin said...

Jodie Foster seems highly intelligent and capable, but unfeminine. I think she's only credible playing a straight woman if her husband is not around (as in The Panic Room).

Franco said...

All theater depends on the "willing suspension of disbelief". Audiences are able to go along with the premise as long as they are assured certain internal consistencies. Artists need to bring their very best to engage the audience to forget that they are watching a play or movie. They should never do anything that distracts an audience member and takes them away from the premise of the story.

Audiences are "willing" to do this to have an enjoyable experience, but when the players flaunt aspects that counter the story they are destroying audiences ability and enthusiasm for going along.

My most recent Broadway play I'm watching the male and female dancers. Now we know most dancers are gay - that's ok with me, but this group was particularly flamboyant with big smiles and and obvious affect. They we singing about love and romance dancing with the females. I couldn't buy it. These young men were flaunting their sexuality, out of their own personal needs that ran counter to the story, and in fact the premise, the premise of the show was that the men dancing with the women because they "liked" women.

They have to act straight if the role calls for straight. If they won't or can't they should not be cast.

TMink said...

Olivier was a great actor. He just pretended that the lady was Danny Kay.

Trey