Michael Douglas took home the first Emmy of his career on September 22 for his performance as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra, even beating out his own co-star Matt Damon. The movie, directed by Stephen Soderbergh and based on Scott Thorson’s autobiographical book of the same title, premiered at Cannes in May and was released theatrically in the UK, but its wider American release was straight to HBO (as the channel produced the film), qualifying it for the Emmys.
Liberace, the vocalist, pianist, and tabloid sensation (full name: Wladzio Valentino Liberace), aggressively denied rumors about his homosexuality while alive, going so far as to sue the Daily Mirror in 1956 after columnist William Connor described him as “fruit-flavored” in print (Liberace won). By the time he died of AIDS-related complications in 1987, however, the public had long since stopped being fooled, and since then multiple parties, including Thorson and actress Betty White, have confirmed his orientation.
Douglas was a heavy favorite in the Best Actor category going into Sunday. During his acceptance speech he referred to the award as a “two-hander” and asked Damon, “You want the bottom or the top?” Straight actors winning accolades for playing gay characters (usually based on real people) is a recent but consistent trend in Hollywood. Douglas joins the ranks of:
– Sean Penn, who took Best Actor at the Academy Awards for 2008’s Milk. Though co-star James Franco received no official accolades for playing Milk’s boyfriend Scott Smith, the role is still considered a breakout part for him.
– Charlize Theron, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress with 2003’s Monster for playing executed serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Winona Ryder played Wuornos’ girlfriend in the movie.
– Jake Gyllenhaal won a British Academy of Film Award in the Best Supporting Actor category for Brokeback Mountain. Heath Ledger won an Australian Film Institute Award for the movie. Both men were nominated for Screen Actors Guild Awards and Oscars as well.
– Speaking of which, the man who beat Ledger for that Oscar was Phillip Seymour Hoffman for his performance in Capote.
– Christopher Plummer won Best Supporting Actor for 2010’s Beginners, playing an older man who comes out to his son late in life.
– Oh, and we can’t forget Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, arguably the one that started the trend.
That’s only a partial list, mind you. Several Emmys and Golden Globes have gone to gay actors for various roles over the years, but there are still no openly gay Oscar winners.