Ramin Setoodeh’s recent culture piece in Newsweek last week has set off quite the conflagration in the gay blogosphere, with repercussions for those of us who care deeply about theater, movies, and TV.
Let’s start from the beginning. The original article takes down Sean Hayes’ performance in the Broadway production of Promises, Promises and Jonathan Groff’s guest turn on the TV show Glee, two openly gay actors playing characters in heterosexual relationships. Setoodeh clearly regards those performances as inadequate. He then goes on to say, well, I’m not sure what.
The piece inspired tons of negative commentary from gay and straight Netizens, as well as a vituperative rebuttal from Broadway star and sometime Glee performer Kristin Chenoweth, which in turn inspired Setoodeh to clarify his position a bit, saying the piece was about the fact that there were no openly gay stars playing conventional heterosexual romantic leading roles. That didn’t stop Glee creator Ryan Murphy from calling for a boycott of Newsweek.
I haven’t seen Hayes in the show, so I can’t judge his work there. As for Groff, if the relationship between his Jesse and Léa Michele’s Rachel is unconvincing, that’s because his character likely has ulterior motives in wooing her, a point that Setoodeh appears to have missed. (I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if Setoodeh’s hunch turned out to be correct and Jesse was indeed revealed as secretly gay.) Even if we grant the writer’s point that these performances are bad, two gay actors failing in straight roles doesn’t prove anything.
Of course, we’ve had otherwise brilliant gay actors who couldn’t fake the hetero (Nathan Lane, David Hyde-Pierce). Neil Patrick Harris is often cited as Exhibit A among gay actors who don’t look the part, but Setoodeh brushes him aside as portraying a caricature of a straight man on How I Met Your Mother. (Strangely enough, this part is only in the print version and not the online article.) True, Harris’ Barney is an inflated version of a hetero dude, but let’s not forget that we’re talking about a TV sitcom that treats everything in a hyperreal style. Just as many straight actors have played cartoonish, campy versions of gay characters, to good and bad effect. Is their work invalid, too?
Weirder still is Setoodeh’s sidelong mention of lesbian actresses. Is he arguing that they have an easier time faking attraction to men than their gay male colleagues? That Cynthia Nixon has an easier time doing that because she used to be straight? That mainstream audiences find it easier to accept lesbians in straight roles? What the hell is he trying to say?
(While we’re on this subject, last month Anna Paquin identified herself as bi, without further explanation. What does that mean? Did she go through a period of sleeping with every woman who crossed her path, or did she once see someone walk down the street and think, “Yeah, I’d do her.” I need more details.)
I don’t think Setoodeh’s a self-loathing homosexual or an idiot drama critic. I just think his article is incredibly badly written. Of course, bad writing frequently creates confusion, which is why so many readers thought Setoodeh was saying gay people couldn’t act (patently ridiculous) or that they couldn’t play straight characters, whereas straight actors could play gay (also patently ridiculous). Ordinarily I’d ask how the editors at Newsweek let such a fuzzy and ill-crafted piece into print, but given the troubles at that publication, I wouldn’t be surprised if the editors there just didn’t give a crap anymore. (By the way, that’s also why Ryan Murphy’s call for a boycott is so unintentionally funny. As if people still bought Newsweek!)
In response to all this, I’m unveiling two complementary categories of character actors, inspired by the now-defunct Fametracker.com. First is the Not Gay Actor, a group of thespians who specialize in playing gay roles even though they themselves aren’t gay in real life. The patron saint of this bunch is John Hurt, who’s been playing gay in movies going back to the 1980s, because he’s thin, British, and has a speaking voice that’s all the way up here. In real life, he’s been married four times and has two kids, but he looks the part anyway. The same goes for Roger Bart and John Michael Higgins, who’ve both sung on Broadway as well. You might not know about Cécile de France, a handsome Belgian actress who looks great with short hair and played a lesbian serial killer in High Tension and a much nicer lesbian in L’Auberge Espagnole and its sequel, Russian Dolls. That qualifies her for this group, too. Most of the cast of The L Word could probably go in here, too.
The other group is the Not Straight Actor. Gay actors rightfully point out that their straight colleagues tend to win much more acclaim for playing against their sexual orientation than they do, so this is an undersung group. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty cool club. (Take note, closeted gay actors playing straight. You could be a part of this.) Neil Patrick Harris is the leader of this pack, because he’s multitalented and freakin’ cool, and I can’t wait to see him in next week’s episode of Glee singing Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” Rupert Everett could have been the leader if he hadn’t turned into a bitter old man, but he still makes it in for all those brooding, intense straight men he played in British dramas in the early 1990s. Sarah Paulson is currently on Broadway but has an extensive movie and TV resume that includes a number of romantic leads opposite men. (In real life she was involved with Cherry Jones, known to 24 fans as President Allison Taylor, but they’ve broken up.) Jane Lynch is here, too. She’s finally winning some widespread recognition for her work in Glee, but I was a fan of hers back when she was bizarrely coming onto Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Ian McKellen tends to be cast in sexually neutered roles because he’s old, and that’s what tends to happen to old actors. Nevertheless, check out his legendary performance in the 1979 TV version of Macbeth, where the Scottish thane comes home after years of fighting a war and looks ready to jump all over Lady Macbeth (Judi Dench).
None of the Not Straight Actors are headlining movies in which they land Brad Pitt or Sandra Bullock, which I guess is what Setoodeh was ultimately driving at. However, progress in this area doesn’t always arrive all at once; a full generation elapsed between Hattie McDaniel becoming the first African-American Oscar winner and Sidney Poitier becoming the first bona fide African-American star. Of course, if some closeted A-list star comes out tomorrow, I’ll be offering up my applause on this blog. (The same goes if it’s a Supreme Court nominee, though that doesn’t appear to be the case right now.) The absence of any such people today means a lot of things. Too bad it proved to be beyond Setoodeh’s ability to tease them out. Ironically enough, Newsweek also ran a far more thoughtful article about Chely Wright and what her recently announced gayness means in the context of country music. That’s how you do cultural criticism.