In 2014, I wrote about the concept of Pink Face: the phenomenon of non-queer actors taking up the majority of high-profile lead queer roles. I wrote about it in the context of The Imitation Game, and how I worried that a hetero actor, a hetero screenwriter, and a hetero director would make a straightwashed movie about a major gay icon and martyr. And, yeah, it was as insulting as it could have been.
Later that year, Ridley Scott gave an interview in which he talked about hiring only white people for his Biblical Epic set in Egypt. He justified his whitewashing as a business decision:
…the outcry online stemmed from [Scott]’s decision to cast white American, European and Australian actors in most of the key roles, no matter that the same could be said of “The Passion of the Christ,” “Noah,” “The Ten Commandments” and virtually any other big-budget Bible movies. “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such,” Scott says. “I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”
Putting aside his race-loaded speech about Mohammad so-and-so, Scott was making a significant business point. He couldn’t get a movie financed if he didn’t have a a bankable white star as its lead, nor would he even try to make the case for racial diversity for fear of risking the budget of his vision. Such is the power of Hollywood’s Jim Crow. Hiring a minority actor is considered risky because nobody goes sees movies with minority actors, but nobody goes sees movies with minority actors because minority actors are rarely integrated into mainstream narratives that aren’t about the actors’ status as a minority. In other words, white people don’t go out of their way to see movies about the minority experience, and minority actors struggle to be cast in movies not explicitly about the minority experience, so white people don’t get to see minority actors.
Last year, the two discussions – casting straight actors as gay characters, and how the financial structures of Hollywood were contributing to a racist power structure – were being conducted separate from each other. The was because nobody ever expects to aim a gay movie at a largely heterosexual white audience, and white actors doing minority impressions are becoming increasingly rare. This year, the conversations are colliding in two separate movies.
First up was Stonewall, Roland Emmerich’s commercially and critically derided attempt to make a cinematic depiction of a key landmark in gay history. Stonewall has a weird history. Emmerich claims to have only recently learned of the Stonewall Riots, and was so moved by them that he made Stonewall into a passion project. He was also motivated by the radical activism of the homeless youth, and chose to focus on the plight of homeless youth. Despite these emotional origins, Emmerich made Stonewall with the intended audience of the straight white middle America.
At the center of the Stonewall Riots is the multi-cultural rainbow of characters, all taking credit for who threw the first brick. Many have recently attributed it to black trans* Marsha P. Johnson. What isn’t argued is that there were young people of color, femmes, males, lesbians, and a whole cornucopia of usual suspects that haunted the bar and Christopher Street. Many of the youth were homeless or transient.
In an interview with Buzzfeed, Emmerich stated, “You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people, I made it also for straight people.” In order to make the movie more palatable for a wider audience, he made the lead character a straight-acting white male, Danny. For large stretches of the film, Emmerich turns away from New York City to focus on Danny’s backstory in midwestern Indiana. Describing the reason behind his casting, “I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting. He gets mistreated because of that. [Straight audiences] can feel for him.” To round out the insult, Danny is played by a heterosexual actor, Jeremy Irving.
When the trailer was released, Emmerich offered up some challenges to modern movie making. He told Vulture, “If you can cast a central character with one or two famous actors, you have a good chance to get the movie financed.” And, herein lies a challenge. Many young actors are struggling with either their sexuality, or their public expression of it and how it will effect their careers. Recently, actors have started hedging their bets with “fluid” or “bi-” sexuality, but famous young gay men are in short supply. But, then casting directors largely work with heterosexual actors because straight playing gay feels more paternal to the straight audiences. And, it becomes a vicious cycle of financing and mainstream appeal that leads into the systemic oppression of Pink Face.
The second movie to court this controversy is The Danish Girl, the new biopic from cisgendered heterosexual director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech). Adapted from the book written by David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl tells the tale of Lili Rabe, one of the first people to receive gender reassignment surgery. Born and presenting as Einar Wegener, Lili Rabe began her transitioning journey by 1912 (30 years old) when she was regularly presenting as a woman. As per usual, the controversy is that Tom Hooper cast a cisgendered male, Eddie Redmayne, to play a transgendered woman.
At its Venice premiere, where it won the Queer Lion award from a jury headed by Outfest director Alonso Duralde, Tom Hooper addressed the controversy:
Access to trans actors, women and men, to roles, both trans roles and cisgender roles, is utterly key, and I feel that within the industry at the moment there is a problem. There is a huge pool of talented trans actors and the access to parts is limited. I would champion any shift where the industry could move forward and embrace trans actors in trans and cisgender roles and also celebrate and encourage trans filmmakers.
Just in case you didn’t notice, the implications in that quote resemble the statements of Roland Emmerich and Ridley Scott. They’re all saying “Hey, I can’t get my film made if I case a flaming so-and-so. Don’t blame me. Blame the financiers.” Considering that both Emmerich and Hooper are listed as producers as well as directors on their respective movies, the claim that they can’t be the change starts to look less like valid excuses and more like systemic racism.
At least it would if there weren’t an ounce of truth to it. The Imitation Game, with all of its straightwashing and Pink Face, made $91m last year at the box office. It made $479k in its first 4-theater weekend. Tangerine, a far riskier film with actual trans actresses, made only $700k over its whole release. The box office draw of a known actor – Benedict Cumberbatch – vs two unknown trans actresses probably had as much of an effect on this dichotomy as the level of hype. How does one finance something if they aren’t assured of getting their money back?
When activists talk about systemic bias (racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc), they’re talking about this system of Catch-22s that lead to a racist result despite little to no explicit racism. The most box office friendly stories are of straight white cisgendered men. As such, it is mostly straight white cisgendered men who are cast in these movies. When faced with the option of financing a story of diversity, the financers try to hedge their bets and demand a known factor: generally a known name as the lead. But, if all you have are straight white cisgendered people making their name in movies about straight white cisgendered people, then they become the known factor in movies about diversity. And so, straight men play gay men, straight men play trans women, and white characters are inserted into stories where they don’t belong. Which raises the ongoing question: how does a gay person become famous after coming out, if they aren’t given the option to play gay people or straight people?
In the face of this system, we regularly see people throw up their hands and cry Uncle. Producer and director Roland Emmerich couldn’t get his movie financed without making a broad appeal using a straight white male as the central character. Producer and director Tom Hooper couldn’t get his movie financed without casting a known name – a cisgendered actor – in the central role. Ridley Scott didn’t even try casting any people of color in lead roles because he needed to secure financing. And, so it goes…
As an aside to my fellow queer people: Hey, gay men, stop dismissing entire communities. Roland Emmerich stated that people told him he’d be running into controversy by making it for straight white audiences, and ignored them. During its brief release, I heard white gay men discuss Stonewall as not being that bad, and that trans activists are wanting to make everything all about themselves. Alonso Duralde, in the Linoleum Knife podcast, made all sorts of concessions to Tom Hooper’s casting citing the above Catch-22s about financing. And, to recall from the earlier Jim Crow article, Bret Easton Ellis was against the casting of a gay man in a straight role. Making concessions is only allowing the oppressive system to continue. Just stop. It’s gross.
Dear readers, I want to leave this whole pile of bleakness with a spot of light. A tiny pinhole of hope. Last week, Variety announced that the Duplass brothers, who produced the film, were launching an Oscar campaign for Tangerine. Pushing for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, this would be the first ever Oscar campaign for transgendered actresses. Even if they don’t secure the nomination, the campaign warms my heart. It shows that some people are actually attempting to lead society forward.