The Straight Actors Playing LGBT People Film Fad

Recently we’ve seen a spate of straight, white, male actors receiving bravura reviews and lashings of award nominations for their performances as gay men in mainstream movies.   This is a tradition that goes back to Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in Jonathan Demme’s reprehensible saintly-dead-queer-person film, Philadelphia (1993).   Since then we have seen Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain (2005), Sean Penn in Milk (2008), Colin Firth and Matthew Goode in A Single Man (2009), and Jim Carey and Ewan McGregor in I Love you Philip Morris (2009).

Aside from Philadelphia, I’m happy to concede that these films all have merit, but it’s not their quality that concerns me here.   Perhaps I should be more grateful for the exposure they give to gay issues, but as I see these films being released and listen to heterosexual people telling me how moved they were by them (I cried and cried!!!), as a gay person I feel increasingly exploited by a phenomenon that feels like a fad for good-looking, straight, male actors to prove their acting metal (and win lots of awards) by being convincing at playing gay men, while the predominantly middle-class, heterosexual audience assuages its guilt about homophobia without actually doing anything useful at all.   And it seems that only white gay male experience is considered worth representing.

There is a nasty hypocrisy underlying all of this because, while these actors are being cheered on, it’s apparent that hardly any gay or lesbian actors feel able to be out in Hollywood without seriously damaging their careers.  Sean Penn is not taking any risks with his career by playing Harvey Milk because he’s a well-established, rather macho actor, and is securely believed to be heterosexual.  Colin Firth is Mr Darcy for goodness sake and Matthew Goode seems to be making a career for himself as the nicest man in the world.  None of these actors are taking the risk that Dirk Bogarde took by playing a gay man in Victim way back in 1961.  So, in a sense, these films simply replicate and cover-up the very homophobia they seek to address.   When will we see an out gay actor playing a gay man (wizards don’t count) in a mainstream film and getting rave reviews and Oscars for it?

And of course the audience knows all along that the actors are heterosexual and that removes much of the potential threat, allowing everyone to indulge in vaguely titillated speculation about what it must have been like for Sean Penn to kiss a man, but the audience doesn’t really have to worry about whether the two actors enjoyed doing their sex scenes together.

We also saw this phenomenon in relation to trans women in Transamerica (2006) in which a heterosexual, cis actor, Felicity Huffman, was widely praised for playing a trans woman.  People went on and on about how convincing she was as a trans woman, until it seemed that the worth of the film was being judged on the quality of Huffman’s performance, rather than on how well it actually represented transgender experience.   I’m cis, but there were some things that bothered me about Transamerica that I thought worth discussing beyond Huffman’s performance.  For instance, there was horrible power dynamic between Bree and her psychiatrist that the film seemed to be supporting, rather than critiquing.  There was also a nasty, titillating focus on the state of Bree’s genitals, plus a really purient, (and I thought unnecessary) scene in which her own son tries to seduce her.

As for mainstream films about lesbians, which are hardly ever allowed to be (offically) about lesbians, we have heterosexual actresses getting kudos for appearing in the more mainstream films with lesbian themes.   We saw Charlize Theron and Christina Ricci in (oh yay, psycho killer lesbian film) Monster (2004).   A few years ago we had Judy Dench in the (it’s not about lesbianism, it’s about secrets) film, Notes on a Scandal (2006).  Now we have Julianne Moore in the (it’s not about lesbianism, it’s about suspicion) film, Chloe (2009), and will have her again in the (it’s not about lesbianism, it’s about marriage or, oh hell, just say it’s about anything as long as it’s not about lesbianism and is about some “universal” value with which the heterosexual audience can identify) film, The Kids are All Right (2010).

It’s not looking promising, but then again, should LGBT people even be looking to Hollywood to represent them.

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4 thoughts on “The Straight Actors Playing LGBT People Film Fad

  1. while the predominantly middle-class, heterosexual audience assuages its guilt about homophobia without actually doing anything useful at all. And it seems that only white gay male experience is considered worth representing.

    This is the crux of it for me; Hollywood’s making a mint but no actual behind the scenes progress is being made. I mean, the most Power Up! has managed is The L Word, god help us. Most of the good lesbian flicks I’ve seen are shown in art houses and festivals, or go straight to DVD. The representation of GLBT experience created and performed by actual queer people is ghetto-ized. I find it interesting that so far, the mainstream films about gay men are set safely in the past, while the ones involving lesbians are usually thriller-type dramas.

    • The representation of GLBT experience created and performed by actual queer people is ghetto-ized. I find it interesting that so far, the mainstream films about gay men are set safely in the past, while the ones involving lesbians are usually thriller-type dramas.

      I think one of the most pernicious aspects of this fad is that it creates the illusion of progress: “Look, we have mainstream films about queer people winning awards so things must be much better now!” Well, some things are better, but homophobia/transphobia/lesbaphobia etc are still rampant and still shape most queer people’s lives.

  2. I think this is very insightful, and I think that there is this constant issue that white middle class heterosexual people (like myself) do often get seduced by that Althusserian ideological model of thinking that we are really right-on and progressive by taking what we consider to be “political” acts, like seeing these films or adding a twibbon on Twitter which really achieve bugger all. The seduction of the easy option of this kind of action, of the feeling like we are doing good while never moving outside our comfort zone is always hard to resist, and I think it is important to remind us of it.

    • I’m seduced by some of these films myself. I really enjoyed Milk, for example, and bawled my eyes out at the end. I don’t think they’re worthless cultural texts, but I would be much happier if they were accompanied by evidence of less homophobia in the mainstream film industry.

      And going back to Althusser, I do think these films interpellate white, straight people in various ways. There’s something about them that shouts, “Hey you, enlightened liberal one! You’re not a homophobe because you’re here watching this film!”

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