This week, Sony Pictures Classics is releasing Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange, a tale about an older homosexual couple who finally get married, but end up losing their job, their apartment, and forcibly being separated. The older couple is played by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, both heterosexual men. John Lithgow has had experience going queer by being a transsexual football player in The World According to Garp. But, that was the 1980s, and out of the closet transsexuals were rare, especially in mainstream hiring. Now, Ira Sachs, a gay man, has a litany of gay men to choose from, but chooses two heterosexual men.
That isn’t to say that Love is Strange is completely covered in pink face portrayals – that of cisgendered, heterosexual actors going queer for Oscar Bait accolades – as Ira Sachs at least hires Cheyenne Jackson for the role of a gay cop, who one of the men moves in with. However, Jackson’s romantic interest is portrayed by Manny Perez, who recently was married to a woman. The two leads of Love is Strange are demonstrably straight, and one of the two minor gay characters is straight.
While this is a problem, at least Love is Strange is a portrayal of fictional gay characters. Things become significantly more fraught with complications when the cinema depicts gay icons who were brave enough to be out in times when one could be arrested just for participating in gay sex in your own home.
In November, The Weinstein Company and Studio Canal are releasing a high profile, prestige movie about Alan Turing called The Imitation Game. For those of you who may not be up on your WWII history, Alan Turing is the man who spearheaded the cracking of the Enigma machine which the Germans were using for communications. He was one of the finest code breakers, and a genius. And, for those of you who aren’t up on your queer history, Alan Turing was also a homosexual who was eventually rewarded for his heroism by being chemically castrated.
In this movie of The Imitation Game, Alan Turing is being played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a man whose talents are well liked by a fairly large swath of the public, on both sides of the pond. But, there’s a problem with this: Benedict Cumberbatch is a heterosexual.
There’s a bit of an irony at play here. The plot of The Imitation Game seems to focus on Alan Turing having to hide his homosexuality in order to not be arrested and pulled off his project. Now Turing, a man who was forced to hide his sexuality to survive is being played by a man whose sexuality Turing was forced to imitate. To make matters worse, the trailers for The Imitation Game also hide the homosexual aspect of Turing’s life in order to attract the somewhat homophobic crowd who otherwise wouldn’t deign to watch a queer movie about an actual homosexual’s struggles. In essence, Alan Turing is being shoved back into the closet by the marketing gurus at both The Weinstein Company and Studio Canal.
This isn’t new, however. Earlier this year, Daniel Radcliffe played gay icon Alan Ginsburg in Kill Your Darlings. In the 1980s, William Hurt’s performance as Luis Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman earned him accolades and nominations. Even back to Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, time and again gay roles in prestigious movies are handed to heterosexuals so they can claim the accolades and be considered “brave.”
Following is a short and incomplete list of straight actors and actresses who have gone queer in cross-over movies. There are 9 Oscar winners, and 1 Emmy Winner, among the various nominees. In a list of gay actors playing gay characters, there is but one nominee: Ian McKellan in Gods & Monsters.
Over the course of 40 years, I have listed over 70 roles, but 34 of those roles were over the past decade since Capote, and 15 of the roles have been since 2013.
- Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show
- Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon
- Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon
- Ugo Tagnazzi in La Cage Aux Folles
- Michel Serrault in La Cage Aux Folles
- Michael Caine in Deathtrap
- Christopher Reeve in Deathtrap
- Harry Hamlin in Making Love
- Michael Ontkean in Making Love
- Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger
- Susan Sarandon in The Hunger
- Aidan Quinn in An Early Frost
- William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman
- Daniel Day-Lewis in My Beautiful Laundrette
- Steven Weber in Jeffrey
- Tom Hanks in Philadelphia
- Terrance Stamp in Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
- Guy Pearce in Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
- Hugo Weaving in Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
- Wesley Snipes in To Wong Foo
- John Leguizamo in To Wong Foo
- Patrick Swayze in To Wong Foo
- Robin Williams in The Birdcage
- Kevin Kline in In & Out
- Tom Selleck in In & Out
- Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry
- Philip Seymour Hoffman in Flawless
- Meryl Streep in The Hours
- Julianne Moore in The Hours
- Nicole Kidman in The Hours
- Ed Harris in The Hours
- Allison Janney in The Hours
- Jeff Daniels in The Hours
- Charlize Theron in Monster
- Christina Ricci in Monster
- Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin
- Macaulay Culkin in Party Monster
- Seth Green in Party Monster
- Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote
- Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain
- Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain
- Felicity Huffman in Transamerica
- Joseph Cross in Running With Scissors
- Sean Penn in Milk
- Emile Hirsch in Milk
- James Franco in Milk
- Joseph Cross in Milk
- Jim Carrey in I Love You Phillip Morris
- Ewan McGregor in I Love You Phillip Morris
- Colin Firth in A Single Man
- Kieran Culkin in Scott Pilgrim Vs The World
- James Franco in Howl
- Julianne Moore in The Kids Are Alright
- Annette Bening in The Kids Are Alright
- Christopher Plummer in Beginners
- Tom Cullen in Weekend
- Tom Sturridge in On the Road
- Garrett Hedlund in On the Road
- Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra
- Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra
- Rob Lowe in Behind the Candelabra
- Lea Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Color
- Adele Exarchopoulous in Blue is the Warmest Color
- Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club
- Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club
- Peter Hermann in Philomena
- Mark Ruffalo in The Normal Heart
- Pierre Niney in Yves Saint Laurent
- Guillaume Gallienne in Yves Saint Laurent
- Daniel Radcliffe in Kill Your Darlings
- John Lithgow in Love is Strange
- Alfred Molina in Love is Strange
- Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game
Oscar Winners (9): William Hurt, Tom Hanks, Hilary Swank, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sean Penn, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto
Emmy winner (1): Michael Douglas
But, Mr. Kassendorf, should we restrict all actors to playing characters based on their sexuality? Should queer actors play only queer parts? Should straight men play only straight men? Should non-queer people be completely forbidden from playing queer people?
No. That is not my point, at all. The point I am making in this article is that the overwhelming number of Oscar Bait type queer roles are given to straight actors. There is a very VERY large trend of straight people going queer to either push out of their childhood careers, or to be noticed and catch some accolades. Sometimes an actor is just a great actor who fits the role, but with the increasing attention to queer stories in the mainstream, and an increasing number of respected gay actors coming out in public, directors and producers need to start being more sensitive to giving lead roles in gay stories to heterosexual people.
It’s hard to imagine what Capote would have been without Philip Seymour Hoffman. This isn’t the case for the two actors who played roles last year.
The first is Michael Douglas’ mildly homophobic speech at the Golden Globes where he relates a story about how Soderburgh inquired at him about playing Liberace, and Douglas immediately went into defensive mode thinking he was mincing. Gay = Mincing! HAHA! At least Douglas said this was him being insecure as a younger man. Still, it was hard to dismiss the “Hey hey! I’m Not Gay!” tone of the speech. And, I’m sure there are other actors who could have played Liberace just as fabulously.
Then, there is the case of Jared Leto. His portrayal of Rayon was derided as being derogatory and completely regressive. She was a transgendered woman who was a flighty, broken, damaged person whose heart of gold could transform the now-heterosexual hero of the movie. Leto, either not recognizing the regressive nature of the role, or just trying to ignore it, spends one sentence on transgendered issues, saying “And to the Rayons of the world, thanks for the inspiration.” Simultaneously separating himself from the transgendered community while trying to claim that this is an accurate portrayal. In the mean time, he spends the first half of his speech commenting how much work it was getting his whole body waxed! It was so tough, you guys!!
Later, at the Oscars, Leto would get the answer a bit more respectful, saying “To those who have ever felt injustice for who you are or who you love, I stand here with you and for you.” Or, more accurately, instead of you. In neither of his speeches, did he ever mention the term “trans” or “gay” or “queer,” or any of their derivatives. Instead, Leto stands with people who felt injustice for who they are. Talk about worming your away around terminology. All three of these speeches are completely disrespectful, and for roles that could have been played by a gay man or a transfemale with little lost from the movie.
If it’s only disrespectful to have gay roles played by men who are quick to separate themselves from their role, it strikes me as almost an abomination to have gay pioneers played by heterosexual men. Harvey Milk was played by Sean Penn. Larry Kramer’s surrogate character in The Normal Heart, Ned Weeks, is played by a heterosexual man, Mark Ruffalo. And, now Alan Turing, not a gay activist but a gay icon, is being played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
To add insult to injury, the homosexuality of both Milk and The Imitation Game are downplayed by the marketing gurus to make the story more palatable, a direct opposition to the “we’re here, we’re queer” style activism of Pride Parades. This poster for Milk does not even mention homosexuality in any capacity. Similarly, the trailer for The Imitation Game dances around Turing’s homosexuality. Thanks for telling our story, but we also want to be not marginalized, if we can help it.
Mr. Kassendorf, what is it that you want?
I want to not feel as if I’m being pandered to. I want queer films to have inclusive casts. I want equal representation in mainstream films. The sheer number of straight people playing queer characters and being “so brave” for going queer is getting insulting. There are plenty of queer actors and actresses who could easily fill the shoes of these hetero thesbians. Please start using them where appropriate.
I want to be represented. Judging by the numbers, there is a move to be more inclusive in the number of gay male roles. While the move to represent gay men is nice (though, I’m sure both lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered representations could also improve), I also want to be represented by people who actually represent the role in real life.
At a certain point, the density of straight people going gay for awards starts becoming insulting. That point was reached, with bells on, this year when actors accepted awards with their “We’re actually straight, but hey wasn’t it great being…you know…” speeches. There are a great number of queer actors that exist. Please, start using them where appropriate, instead of making gay projects straight.