And the Award for Gay Man in a Movie Goes to…Someone Straight

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As awards season begins to furiously rain down upon us, (starting with Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards) it leaves pause to consider all the nominations that have come before. There are rules to these things, you know. If you make yourself ugly, fat or developmentally impaired, you’ve got a fair chance at winning. As a straight male actor, you’re especially assured a chance at winning if you’ve chosen to play what polite society calls “the homosexual.”

Looking back on films like 2005’s Brokeback Mountain and the more recent Dallas Buyers Club in 2013, it’s plain to see that both the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Academy eat this type of shit up. In both cases of the aforementioned films, straight men played either gay or sexually fluid men. Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist (a none-too-subtle allusion to being “sexually twisted” per Annie Proulx’s short story) and Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar tell one of the most forbidden love stories of our time—all repression and stolen glances, with the occasional grunt in the dark. And yes, what heightens this fact is knowing that these two men are straight, and that they’re pushing through every personal taboo to let the character take over.

“Brokeback Mountain is one of the most forbidden love stories of our time—all repression and stolen glances, with the occasional grunt in the dark”

This is at the core of why straight men get awards for these types of performances. The same goes for Dallas Buyers Club, with Jared Leto as Rayon, a transgender woman who becomes good friends with Matthew McConaughey’s rendering of Ron Woodroof, who was an open bisexual in real life—though this aspect is downplayed in the film for a better character arc about acceptance. And let’s not even get into last year’s The Danish Girl, where Eddie Redmayne cast off his straightness and cis male-ness to play the first recipient of an experiment gender reassignment surgery.

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) share stolen glances in Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) share stolen glances in Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Obviously, we could go on and on. And we will! 2009’s I Love You, Phillip Morris saw Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor doing their best to be gay as well. Prison gay, no less. And maybe it does say something about a straight actor’s abilities when he can “come off” as being genuinely interested in other men, but then again, is it really that much of a challenge when we’re all probably somewhere on the center of the Kinsey scale?

“For fuck’s sake, where is Rock Hudson when you need him?”

Then you have 2013’s Behind the Candelabra, with Michael Douglas, understated as ever, as Liberace and Matt Damon as his paramour, Scott Thorson. While yes, maybe it was a good casting call to get someone straight to play Liberace—so forced to be in denial about his sexuality at all times in the public eye—they could have at least offered up a bona fide gay for all the boy toy lovers in the film.

A (straight) prison love story: I Love You, Phillip Morris (2009)

A (straight) prison love story: I Love You, Phillip Morris (2009)

Even in proud non-contenders like Cruel Intentions, you have Joshua Jackson playing up the bleached blonde, hyper-gossipy gay stereotype in Blaine Tuttle. All striped button-fronts and yellow sweater vests, Jackson puts the late 90s trope way over the top. Meanwhile, in 2003’s Party Monster, Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green played their gayness way down, giving us only a scrap of the queerness that epitomized the relationship (and club kid era) of Michael Alig and James St. James.

Seth Green and Macaulay Culkin as a watered-down Michael Alig and James St. James in Party Monster (2003)

Seth Green and Macaulay Culkin as a watered-down Michael Alig and James St. James in Party Monster (2003)

It’s all more than somewhat bizarre when considering just how many gay actors there should be to choose from in Hollywood. And yet, casting Neil Patrick Harris or Lance Bass in every same-sex role does lend some cachet of understanding to why the straight man must always perform as a gay. What remains to be apprehended, however, is why the acting world is still very much tailored toward straights. Or at least straights of a bisexual nature (definitely James Franco and Ryan Gosling, just between us). I mean, for fuck’s sake, where is Rock Hudson when you need him? He was born to live in this time, when his sexuality would have been applauded rather than stifled by agents and managers alike. Without a Hudson in sight (that’s not related to Goldie Hawn), it seems—for the time being—like we’re stuck with the straights clamoring for their awards thanks to capitalizing on the gay man’s tale (that might somehow be an unintentional pun). Unless Almódovar ever decides to take a more active interest in American cinema.

About The Author

Genna Rivieccio received her BA in screenwriting from Loyola Marymount University. She has received a number of festival recognitions for her screenplays from The Indie Gathering, Austin Film Festival and writemovies.com. She later transitioned to literature after moving to New York and published her first novel, She’s Lost Control (Lulu, 2011), and started a literary quarterly called, The Opiate. Rivieccio’s work has also appeared on thosethatthis, The Toast and PopMatters. She runs the pop culture blog, Culled Culture, www.culledculture.com.

  • GMB

    How do we KNOW these actors are straight? Until we allow bisexuals to come out as bi — and be fully accepted for it — we’ll continue to assume that just because an actor has been spotted with a woman, he’s straight. I’ve heard far too many rumors about Jared Leto and Jake Gyllenhall to call them hetero. We can certainly say the same for James Franco. And countless others.

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