Playing It Straight

What ever happened to acting?

That’s what I wondered after reading Matt Damon’s controversial new interview this week in the Guardian.  Asked whether it’s still difficult to be openly gay in Hollywood, Damon—who is openly straight—responded in the affirmative, then offered the following advice:

I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period.  And sexuality is a huge part of that.  Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.

Rarely has a beloved celebrity been so right while also being so very, very wrong.

Damon was asked the gay question because of his recent performance as Liberace’s boyfriend in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra.  The implication is that it’s much easier for a straight actor to play a gay character than the other way around.  That is, audiences are more willing to accept a straight person “acting” gay than a gay person “acting” straight.

Historically, this hypothesis has proved true beyond dispute.  Pick any moderately-successful recent film with gay themes and/or prominent gay characters, and you’ll find they all have one thing in common:  heterosexuals.

Just in the last year or two, for instance, we have had Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in Love is Strange and Mark Ruffalo in The Normal Heart.  (That last one was technically a TV movie, but who’s counting?)  Before that, of course, there was Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain and Sean Penn and James Franco in Milk.

Know how many same-sex relationships those actors have had in their collective lifetimes?  You could count it on the fingers of two fists.

Taken in isolation, this doesn’t necessarily strike me as a problem.  The names I just listed include some of the finest performers working today and I wouldn’t trade those performances for anything.  A straight person is allowed to be gay in a film.  As a wise man once said, there’s a reason they call it acting.

But that’s only one half of the issue.  The other, much more challenging part is the natural follow-up:  Where are all the gay movie stars?

Why is it that, in a supposedly liberal Hollywood in a supposedly gay-friendly epoch of American history, virtually all of the great gay and straight roles go to heterosexuals?  Is it because the major studios still treat gays the way they treat black people and women over 40—namely, as an inessential niche commodity?  Or is it simply that there are no bankable gay actors available to fill these roles?

In the Guardian interview, Damon cited the British thespian Rupert Everett as evidence that “coming out” can actually damage an actor’s career—that is, by precluding him from ever again being cast as a strong heterosexual lead, out of fear that audiences won’t buy such a character if they know the man playing him is a queer.  (“It’s tough to make the argument that [Everett] didn’t take a hit for being out,” Damon said.)

The implication is clear:  If you’re an aspiring gay actor interested in success above all else, you’re better off staying in the closet forever.  Just like in sports, high school and the Republican Party.

It’s worth noting—to use Damon’s own example—that Rupert Everett came out in 1989, which was an entirely different universe from the one we currently inhabit.  It would be ridiculous to suggest that a closeted actor’s fears of coming out today are identical to those of a quarter-century past.

That is, until you take a look at today’s Hollywood and realize how shockingly little has really changed.

Here’s a simple challenge:  Name any successful openly gay film star in, say, the last decade who has achieved his or her success in mainstream cinematic fare, post-coming out.

The list is achingly short and comes with several key caveats.  Almost without exception, the members of this elite club are either British, female and/or primarily involved in television or theater—artistic arenas that, for various reasons, are much more sexually equitable than film.  Even a certified A-lister like Neil Patrick Harris—who has proved, more or less single-handedly, that an “out” entertainer can conquer just about every artistic medium simultaneously—has yet to become anything resembling a cinematic leading man, and neither has anyone like him.

Which is all to say that Matt Damon has a point.  If being openly gay is not a hindrance to success in Hollywood, the evidence is pretty damning nonetheless.

That’s the bad news.  The question is whether this could ever change.  Should closeted actors continue to feign straightness to advance their careers, or are truth and self-respect more important?  It’s all well and good to trump honesty and equality above all else, but when those values necessitate risking your very way of life—and a lucrative one at that—it is not irrational to hedge your bets.

And besides, for all the flak Damon has drawn for suggesting that actors should conceal their true selves from the public—up to and including their sexual preferences—the idea is not without real merit.

Personally, I think it’s kind of neat for a great actor to be utterly penetrating on the screen and a total mystery in real life.  I like the notion of actor-as-chameleon—someone, like Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis, with a superhuman ability to assume the character of anyone else but whose own character remains largely, if not purposefully, unknown.

As a rule, I frankly don’t care what my favorite movie stars do in their spare time, just as I’m not much interested in what my favorite politicians or athletes do in theirs.  While this is hardly a prevailing view in our hyper-voyeuristic culture, it’s one I would recommend all the same.

However, to advocate, as Damon did, that America’s entertainers actively withhold basic information about their personal lives in the interest of objectivity is completely insane in the context of today’s world.  While I don’t for a moment think Damon meant to come off as homophobic, the logic of his theory leads us to no other conclusion.

To wit:  When, in the entire history of forever, has a well-known heterosexual person been compelled to hide the existence of an opposite-sex spouse for the purpose of appearances?  Under what possible circumstances would this be seen as a reasonable request?  Is it not utterly demeaning to both parties to carry on their relationship behind closed doors because, hey, audiences might get the wrong idea when the next big movie is released?

It’s completely idiotic and unworkable, and a huge insult to the intelligence of American moviegoers, most of whom—I dare say—are capable of holding opposing ideas in their heads at the same time.  You know, ideas such as “Matt Damon normally makes love to a woman, but for two hours on HBO, he will make love to Michael Douglas, because that’s what actors do.”

In fact, while straight couples are never expected to keep their private affairs under wraps, gay couples are frequently under pressure to do exactly that.  Whether the pressure is external—say, having to conceal a relationship to get into the army in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” days—or internal—such as wanting to avoid an international incident with relatives at Thanksgiving—the practice of hiding major components of your day-to-day life in the interest of self-preservation has been a part of the gay experience since time immemorial, and one that most members of the gay community would be happy to put behind them once and for all.

As of late, this has certainly begun to happen in the entertainment industry, as it has in most other walks of life.  Closeted actors are coming out in greater numbers than ever before, and audiences have taken it in stride, recognizing that actors (for the most part) are human beings who are entitled to personal happiness like everyone else.

If Matt Damon wants to implore his colleagues to stop revealing so much about themselves to the press and online, he is welcome to try.  For all we know, it might restore a degree of majesty and class to this great art form, creating icons instead of mere personalities.

But let’s not kid ourselves that there is a straight line (so to speak) between being a great actor and being unknowable in real life.  Many of the greatest stars of all time had private lives every bit as lurid and public as those of today, yet audiences could somehow tune them out once the lights dimmed and picture started.

The way Damon talks, you’d almost think he was from Mars.

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