Can Gay Actors Play it Straight?

And is Hollywood to blame for the dearth of gay superstars?

Natalie Hope McDonald

When Newsweek scribe Ramin Setoodeh wrote that Sean Hayes (who played Jack on Will & Grace) couldn’t play it straight in the Broadway musical Promises, Promises, he became a very big (and very pink) elephant in the room. Gay folks were pretty upset with his assertions, complaining that Setoodeh was missing the mark, even going so far as calling him “homophobic.”

Admittedly, the whole argument does hark back to the days when Hollywood heavyweights like Rock Hudson were forced way back into the the deepest and darkest corners of the closet. But does this guy have a point? Is Hollywood missing out on gay talent for fear that box office dollars will dry up if middle American audiences don’t believe the hype?

Satoodeh claims movie studios are to blame for playing it safe and putting straight actors in gay roles. He even admits he may have been wrong about Hayes and the other gay actors he criticized, saying gay talent doesn’t get the same chance as straight talent in the entertainment business.

In a recent post on The Daily Beast, Setoodeh claims that Hollywood is responsible for a dearth of gay actors in award-winning roles. This past year alone he cites several gay characters – like the lesbians in The Kids Are All Right – who were played by heterosexual actors. The writer also mentions Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as the very quirky gay couple in I Love You Phillip Morris. Yep, they’re both straight in real life, too.

So are openly gay actors really denied major roles because of their sexuality? And do closeted gay actors stay that way to guarantee box office success? Are gay actors doomed to play the flamboyant neighbor, best friend or shoulder to cry on? Or worse – are they forced into predictably bad roles in predictably bad gay films with the word “gay” in them if they come out?

Setoodeh isn’t the first to accuse gay actors of doing a bad job of playing it straight. He also isn’t the first to suggest that Hollywood is suffering from a kind of “lavender scare.” A few years back, openly gay actor Rupert Everett advised young entertainers to stay in the closet in his autobiography Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, saying that producers are afraid of homosexuality. And more recently, openly gay actor Richard Chamberlain also suggested that gay actors ought to keep the closet door shut, complaining that roles are limited for gays who come out loud and proud.

It’s hard to tell if either of these guys suffered work-related bias when they came out. For one, Everett has done a disservice to his career – and his face – by indulging in the worst sort of plastic surgery imaginable, rendering him almost unrecognizable. And Chamberlain, admittedly, scored his most memorable moment decades ago playing an adulterous priest – in a TV movie, no less.

The other issue impacting gays in Hollywood is the so-called “freak” factor. It seems that playing gay in Hollywood often paves the golden road to Oscar night – but only if you’re straight. There was Sean Penn in Milk, Charlize Theron in Monster and Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. They all won Oscars for playing gay in these one-word hit machines – or what is perceived as “against type.” The new joke seems to be if you want to win an Oscar, either play gay or gain weight (or both in the case of Theron).

There’s also the harmless Hollywood gay type. Stanley Tucci seems to have made a recent career out of playing this sort of gay, so many times, in fact, that it’s easy to confuse his cute, but smart-mouthed role in Burlesque with his cute, but smart-mouthed role in The Devil Wears Prada. And James Franco also isn’t afraid to play gay as Harvey Milk’s love interest, as a bisexual James Dean and as openly gay poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl – to name just a few.

The real tell-tale of sign of whether gay actors are getting screwed by Hollywood will come when a megastar or blockbuster dynamo (one we thought was straight – wink, wink) comes out of the closet – and not just because Carrie Fisher says he’s gay. If his (or her) career sinks into oblivion (or succeeds beyond wildest expectations) only then will we all have a pretty good idea about whether audiences can suspend disbelief about whether gay actors can play it straight in the mainstream. Obviously independent movies seem to be the exception to every one of these rules, especially if you consider they seldom play to large, mainstream audiences who tend toward flicks chock full of car chases and action-packed adventure.

On the flip side, Sir Ian McKellen doesn’t seem to have much of a problem showing off his acting chops at all – even after coming out of the closet years ago. One might argue he’s become even more of a mainstream presence in feature films after the fact (Lord of the Rings, X-Men, The Da Vinci Code).

So is it really – maybe – just about talent after all?