Author Topic: The Curious Case of Gayface: Should straight actors play gay roles?  (Read 7631 times)

Offline serious crayons

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This essay mentions Brokeback Mountain only in passing, unfortunately, but it explores some fascinating issues.

The Curious Case of Gayface
Should straight actors play gay roles?

By J. Bryan Lowder|Posted Thursday, June 6, 2013, at 10:26 AM



A few weeks ago, I found myself in the strange position of seeing both The Hangover Part III and HBO’s Behind the Candelabra over the course of the same evening. Talk about tonal whiplash: The first film is a study in bro humor that almost hypnotizes with its minimalist development of the twin themes “holy shit, man!” and “aw, crap,” while the latter is a delightfully light-loafered jaunt through Liberace’s kitschy glass closet. But looking back, the couple actually doesn’t seem so odd—each depends heavily on gayness for its appeal and, more specifically, on straight actors playing gay or crypto-gay men to produce it.

Before I’m accused of comparing vertical stripes to rhinestones, let me be clear that these versions of gay-for-pay are not identical. Indeed, very little has been made of the gay role-playing in The Hangover, for reasons I’ll get to shortly. On the other hand, the Liberace biopic inspired a CNN/BuzzFeed list of the 20 best  straight-to-gay drag numbers of all time and, more to the point, a fair amount of pushback to the praise that straight actors regularly get for taking on such “brave” and “challenging” roles. The most cogent rebuttal was Tyler Coates’ Flavorwire post, in which he used the listicle’s premise to perform a thought experiment:

“How would the tone of this listicle change if, say, it were called, ‘20 of our favorite white actors who played non-white characters’? After all, Robert Downey, Jr., Ben Affleck, and Angelina Jolie are all hugely popular, and each played a character of a different race in the last six years. To use the same language — ‘Whether it’s for television or a feature film, it’s not easy pull off [a non-white] role as a [ white] actor. Many have tried, but it takes a great actor to make the role three dimensional and believable’ — would be at least as problematic and, I’m guessing, much more incendiary.”


It’s true that such a race-based list would at least raise eyebrows, if not inspire outright anger, due to the ever-present specter of blackface. But does this provocative comparison really hold up? Does “gayface” really deserve to be placed in the same awful category as racial impersonation, and if not, what makes it different?

Let’s look at the movies in question. In The Hangover Part III, Zach Galifianakis reprises his usual effete-man-child persona, but this time surpasses vague swishiness with a handful of clear come-ons to his more manly co-stars (in particular a depressed-behind-the-aviators Bradley Cooper). And then there is the conniving Chinaman caricature Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong), who uses homosex as both a weapon of disgust and a bargaining chip, like when he tries to negotiate his way out a tight spot by asking Ed Helms, “Want Chow to blow your dick?”

Given that both characters are eventually seen gesturing toward something like desire for female humans, I think we’re supposed to conclude that they’re not actually gay, but let’s ignore that cognitive tap dance and take them the way they’re clearly meant to be understood: the familiar gay figure whose performance of masculinity and icky sexual desires are presented as items comedic in and of themselves, or at least congruent to comedy. This trope is so very tired (not really even worth a call to the PC police), and worse, represents a whimper of an ending to a series of films that initially held a thimble’s worth more promise.

In Behind the Candelabra, we again have straights gaying it up, this time two A-list actors—Michael Douglas as the piano man and Matt Damon as his young lover Scott Thorson—enacting the exchange of various goods that that has gone on between old queens and spring chickens since the beginning of time. Distinct from the milquetoast gay minstrelsy lazily tossed off in Hangover, this kind of casting choice is not an entirely new phenomenon: Some discussion of gayface has flared up in the past around films like Brokeback Mountain and Milk, with critics wondering why straight men and women were being given important gay/lesbian parts that underrepresented and underemployed openly gay actors both need and would, so the argument goes, be better at performing. But compared with black- or yellowface (which regularly and rightly bring out angry mobs whenever they appear), gayface has inspired relatively little backlash.

Part of the gay community’s patience with gayface has to do with a kind of representational pragmatism: Many gays are so happy to see a story like Harvey Milk’s told at all that they’re willing to cede the role to Sean Penn, especially considering that without a big name like his attached, the project would almost certainly have never happened. (Big names, so far, are always straight.) But that on its own cannot account for how gayface is a treated differently from other touchy identity-based performances. What makes gayface a special case?

I recently posed the question to a group of gay friends in one of the gayest places I could think of—Central Park on Memorial Day. After we’d clarified that I wasn’t talking about gayface as a physical trait (that, incidentally, we all agreed is real), it became clear that straight dudes snatching gay roles didn’t really bother any of us. But why? As I gazed out at the diversity of gay male subspecies before me—gym bunnies, eyebrow sculptors, schlumpy comedians, screaming exhibitionists and more—I realized that the answer has something to do with what we mean when we say “gay” in the first place.

If we define the term as the Chelsea public health clinic does, it simply means you’re a person who has sex with (and perhaps loves) someone of the same sex. But, in terms of acting, we’re really talking about a set of behavioral traits, interests, or “mannerisms”—the stuff that’s meant to set off a well-tuned gaydar. But that’s not a great definition either, because there are plenty of gay people who pass for straight, could pass for straight if they wanted to, and/or reject the so-called stereotype. And then there’s the somewhat controversial argument (which I espouse) that “gay” is really a specific cultural attitude that one must study and ultimately choose to wear atop one’s innate homosexuality. So that’s three definitions of gay, and there are plenty of others—I do not envy the straight actor who is asked to sort them out for himself. 

The nature of the competing definitions, however, makes the difference between gayface and, say, blackface quite clear. You cannot simply paint your face gay. It is impossible to play gay without resorting to some kind of special performance, whether sexual or cultural. Of course, blackface depends on stereotypical tics as well, but even if a white person could somehow pull off an “accurate” or nuanced performance of a black person in terms of looks and behavior, the unavoidable appeal to racist physical stereotypes makes it unconscionable. But gayface is pure performance—strictly speaking, no physical parody required—so if done well enough and for nobler reasons than Hangover-style boorish humor, could it be justifiable?

I think so. Particularly because, strange as it may sound, the notion of gayness as performance applies to actual gay people as much as it applies to actors and actresses who may play them. You really don’t know that someone is gay (in terms of biological response) until you’re in bed with him, which is probably why gay people are virtuosic taxonomists, classifying each other into easily legible, performance-based categories like butch and femme, bear and twink, camp and gaybro, lipstick and AG. A sort of cultural elaboration on biological same-sex desire, gayness is really a full-time acting gig, and we are all professional critics of ourselves and each other. If you’re a straight actor getting paid to do it, you’re simply subjecting yourself to the same critical gaze.

This is why gayface doesn’t faze me all that much: If Matt Damon wants to try to do me better than me, I wish him luck—just so long as he does me justice. In his review of Behind the Candelabra, Washington Post critic Hank Stuever lamented the film’s use of straight actors and argued that it needed “a gay sensibility and probably a gayer cast. Start with Nathan Lane or David Hyde Pierce; call Neil Patrick Harris; audition Lance Bass for one of the bit parts; ask Andrew Rannells if he’s game. This list is long in 2013.” In other words, for Stuever, the inclusion of openly gay actors would have somehow imparted Candelabra with the gay spark that he found it lacking.

I don’t buy it. Leaving aside the important issue of homophobia at the level of casting, there is nothing essential about a gay actor that would necessarily make him better at a particular gay role, or, as has been debated elsewhere, worse at playing a straight one.  More interesting than the question of whether straight actors should play gay roles is the issue of what kinds of gay roles are being written for anyone to play in the first place. Gay representations on mainstream screens are still so limited, mainly a series of variations  on “the nance” (which, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy), the (often AIDS) tragedy case, or the “post-gay” type  who is boringly histrionic in his own “I’m conflicted about gay culture” way. And this dearth is all the more problematic because it encourages the sense that each gay character must serve as a Commentary on the Entire LGBT Community. Though I’m not the type to need to see myself reflected perfectly back at me in the media, it would be nice to see more complex gay roles, if only to lower the stakes and allow for gay characters—including wonderfully awful ones like Douglas’ Liberace—who can be more individual than symbol.

Indeed, as Emily Nussbaum noted in her New Yorker review, part of what made Candelabra great is that it wasn’t concerned with presenting a GLADD-approved “good role model” or an apologia for all of gaydom. Though I did chafe a bit when Nussbaum addressed the gayface issue by observing how fun it was for her to see Douglas “freed from his trademark macho sulk” in the role of a swish—as if playing gay is some kind of stress-releasing spa treatment—she’s right overall that the actor did well by Liberace. In Douglas’ performance, we have a ridiculous, serious queen who is both hot mess and skilled entertainer, creepy letch and consummate charmer, ruthless businessman and bossy bottom. In other words, a real gay man. Who are we to judge if the actor playing him happens to be straight?



Offline milomorris

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Re: The Curious Case of Gayface: Should straight actors play gay roles?
« Reply #1 on: June 06, 2013, 02:48:06 pm »
Thank you for posting this.

Lowder's review echoes a concept that I brought to Bettermost years ago. Specifically the idea that sexual orientation and cultural affinity are two separate things. One can be homosexual, and not assimilate gay culture. Likewise, one can assimilate gay culture regardless of one's sexual orientation.

But beyond that, I think that Lowder correctly understands the issues surrounding race when it comes to swapping roles. In the opera world, there is a perennial debate about white singers singing roles in Porgy & Bess. I am firmly on the side of "no." The reason is that race, ethnicity, culture, and racism are all essential to the plot of the opera. In other words, the opera is about being both black and African-American, and how white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants in the South treat them. Therefore, a white man playing Porgy, or a black man playing the Policeman would not work on stage.

Yet in our society, we have seen a great deal of cultural cross-assimilation. African-Americans assimilate elements of WASP culture, and WASPs assimilate elements of African-American culture. To me--whether I like the specific assimilations or not--this is true diversity. It is an organic sharing of each others' cultural elements, and understanding those elements that makes diversity real.
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Offline serious crayons

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Re: The Curious Case of Gayface: Should straight actors play gay roles?
« Reply #2 on: June 06, 2013, 03:44:21 pm »
Well put.

I look forward to the day, perhaps not in our lifetimes, when actors crisscrossing racial or sexuality categories is as non-monumental a topic as, say, authors writing from the POV of a character of another race or sexual orientation. The latter, while still occasionally talked about, isn't really controversial at this point -- black authors write white characters and vise versa. Also, women authors write men and vise versa, gay authors write straight and vise versa, etc. The right of authors to do that is usually strongly and sensibly defended. If writers weren't allowed to cross any demographic lines, every novel would become a memoir.

The ugly history of blackface, and of white actors playing Asian, Latino or Native-American roles makes the race/actor issue far touchier.

But of course there are some demo lines that get crossed all the time: rich actors play poor characters, young actors play old. Yes, straight play gay and vice versa. Every now and then (The Year of Living Dangerously, Mindy Kaling's play Matt and Ben) actors even cross gender lines. If it works, or if there's a good reason for it (I saw Matt and Ben in Boston, and found the casting both annoyingly distracting and one  of the most interesting aspects of the play -- a way to keep people from focusing too much on the actors' resemblance or lack thereof to their well-known real-life subjects), why not?



Offline delalluvia

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Re: The Curious Case of Gayface: Should straight actors play gay roles?
« Reply #3 on: June 07, 2013, 01:29:29 am »
Good article. But for Candleabra the gay co-worker who saw it on HBO, said it was brilliant the acting great.  He had no complaint that the straight actors didn't give off a 'gay' vibe, whatever that might mean.

Offline Luvlylittlewing

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Re: The Curious Case of Gayface: Should straight actors play gay roles?
« Reply #4 on: June 07, 2013, 11:54:19 am »
Good article. But for Candleabra the gay co-worker who saw it on HBO, said it was brilliant the acting great.  He had no complaint that the straight actors didn't give off a 'gay' vibe, whatever that might mean.

I saw it and agree with your co-worker.  Actually I saw half of it -- I keep forgetting to tune in, even though I have 4 HBO channels and it is being shown all the time.  But from what I did see, the performances were more than brilliant.  I'll reserve comment until I've watched all of it.   :)

Offline CellarDweller

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Re: The Curious Case of Gayface: Should straight actors play gay roles?
« Reply #5 on: June 17, 2013, 03:18:41 pm »
I personally am not upset by straight actors playing gay.  What should it matter?  It's the performance that is applauded, the the sexual orientation of the actor portraying the character.

Reading this article made me think of a reverse question.  Are straight people angry when a gay actor plays straight?

Were they upset wtih Rock Hudson for all the roles he took?   Are they angry at Neil Patrick Harris for his role on "How I Met Your Mother?"


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Offline serious crayons

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Re: The Curious Case of Gayface: Should straight actors play gay roles?
« Reply #6 on: June 17, 2013, 10:41:29 pm »
I personally am not upset by straight actors playing gay.  What should it matter?  It's the performance that is applauded, the the sexual orientation of the actor portraying the character.

Reading this article made me think of a reverse question.  Are straight people angry when a gay actor plays straight?

Were they upset wtih Rock Hudson for all the roles he took?   Are they angry at Neil Patrick Harris for his role on "How I Met Your Mother?"

It's a different situation, I think. Straight people don't get angry (there's enough straight roles that they don't have to worry that gay people are taking all the good ones). But I do think there's a legitimate fear that if a star who plays a lot of straight romantic roles came out, s/he would no longer be seen as romantic to straight audiences (to be clear: I don't mean the straight bias is legitimate, I mean the fear of the bias may be well-founded). With I guess the exception of Zachary Quinto, I can't think of any actors who are out now who do a lot of those kinds of roles.

Rock Hudson was a romantic star, but he was no longer playing those sorts of roles by the time he was fully out, as opposed to rumored-about. And NPH isn't the equivalent of a matinee idol like, say, George Clooney or Tom Cruise or Megan Fox or whoever.

When Sean Hayes played a straight character on Broadway, one critic wrote a negative review saying he was too aware of Sean Hayes being gay to accept him in a straight role. I don't have time to google for the controversy right now, but it's probably easy to find. I actually think I read that the critic himself was gay.



Offline Katie77

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Re: The Curious Case of Gayface: Should straight actors play gay roles?
« Reply #7 on: June 18, 2013, 01:16:34 am »
What an interesting article and topic, with a question that I really had never heard before.

It really does bring us to the wonderful art of "acting", and whether an actor can make the audience believe the performance.

A straight actor playing a gay role, would be just as challenging as an actor playing the role of serial killer. Both are playing a role that  is not the "real them", but for that couple of hours we watch the movie, we are completely lost in the concept that they are real. If they have a good script, can transfer the right emotions and looks and expressions, we dont question the credibility of their character.

If nothing else, it also shows that gay or straight, the only distinguishable difference is their sexual orientation....it really is an unnecessary tag that the media and critics throw around too frequently. Hopefully the word "gay" will one day not be used as an adjective to describe certain people or movies as in "the gay cowboy movie" or "gay actor so and so"...after all we dont say "straight cowboy movie" or "straight actor so and so". They probably used to say "black actor so and so", but dont say that any more.

If an actor is chosen to play any role, it would be that they have been suggested as the best one to play that role, whether it be a hated killer, a sick child or a musician. The script will be written about the lifestyle of the character, and the best actor to play that character and give meaning to the role, will be chosen. If we as an audience accept the credibility of the actor and his ability to take us with him into that role, then he has done his craft well.
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Offline x-man

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Re: The Curious Case of Gayface: Should straight actors play gay roles?
« Reply #8 on: August 20, 2013, 08:50:10 am »
Reading over the responses to this forum, I am left with one question:  Why should we even expect Hollywood to make gay-theme movies for general release, whether or not the characters are played by straight or gay actors?  If you live in San Francisco, Toronto, Boston, etc.,you may be fooled,  but let's face it--the world is overwhelmingly straight, by some 95%.  Straight people have no interest in gay love or gay sex because it has nothing to do with their lives.  They are of interest only to us.

Sometimes something unusual comes along like Queer as Folk or BBM, but not often.  Should that surprise us?  We have niche film makers and distributors like Here!, TLA, Regent, Wolfe, and others.  Some of their films are bad, but lots of major Hollywood releases are bad too.  Some of them, however, are very good indeed--easily the equal of straight Hollywood fare.

We should look to the gay specialty film makers and distributors, rather than worry about what the straight movie industry is doing and thinking about us.  Perhaps we could even do with less straight handling of our lives in straight-made movies, given the gay stereotyping and barely disguised homophobia often to be found there. 

I suspect that at the heart of this preoccupation with how gay people and gay life are portrayed in the movies is the desire to convince the straight world that we are just like them.  Well, we aren't.  Even the savage send-up of the straight world and gays who try to assimilate into that world which we saw in Queer as Folk should have made that clear to everyone.  All we can and should try for is to stop them from bullying, bashing, ostracizing, jailing, and killing us.They are never going to love us.  Remember the old saying: There are basically two kinds of straight people--those who hate you to your face, and those who hate you behind your back.  It may not be true 100% of the time, but it is true enough to be a good way to proceed.
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Offline serious crayons

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Re: The Curious Case of Gayface: Should straight actors play gay roles?
« Reply #9 on: August 21, 2013, 05:01:18 pm »
That seems very harsh to me.

Are gay-theme movies of interest only to gay people? I'd say this site suggests otherwise, given that Brokeback Mountain is a gay-theme movie and plenty of Brokies are straight. But also, do moviegoers only want to see characters exactly like themselves? I realize audiences do have prejudices -- which is why far fewer than 5 percent of movies have gay protagonists and movies about major events in African-American history often have on a white protagonist -- but I don't think they're quite as self-centered as you suggest.

Quote
Remember the old saying: There are basically two kinds of straight people--those who hate you to your face, and those who hate you behind your back.  It may not be true 100% of the time, but it is true enough to be a good way to proceed.

The old saying seems like outright bigotry to me. As a straight person, I've been involved in countless conversations that touched on homosexuality where no gay person was present. Yes, I have heard people say hateful things. But not even remotely close to 100 percent of the time. The vast majority of straight people I know (admittedly, not necessarily a cross-section of the population, but a fairly mainstream bunch) do not hate gay people behind their backs.