Friday, May 14, 2010

Gay for Pay: What's Missing From the "Straight Actors Can Play Gay But Gay Actors Can't Play Straight Convincingly" Dust-Up

So there was this Newsweek column a few days ago by an openly gay entertainment reporter, Ramin Setoodeh:

Straight Jacket: Heterosexual actors play Gay all the time. Why doesn't it ever work in reverse?

about how we, as a society, are willing to watch straight actors play gay (think Brokeback Mountain, where both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are straight actors who play these cowboys who fall in passionate love with each other...) but that gay actors, when they try to play straight, make a farce of it.

He cites as proof the "there's something about his performance that feels off" Jonathan Groff as Jesse St. James - Rachel's love interest on "Glee," and also the "it's weird to see Hayes play straight" Sean Hayes (the more flamboyant gay character from Will and Grace, who recently came out) as the romantic lead versus Kristin Chenoweth on Broadway in "Promises, Promises."

The openly gay actor Jonathan Groff as Jesse St. James
getting all singy-makey-outy with
Lea Michelle as Rachel Barry in the Broadway musical "Spring Awakening."

They play love interests to each other once again in "Glee,"
and you can see a video of one of their scenes together here!

Here they are together in a still from "Glee"

There's been a lot of noise and blowback on the premise (and the specifics) of the article (like this great rebuttal by David Dean Bottrell here, and Kristin Chenowith's rebuke of Newsweek for even running the piece in the first place, calling it "horrendously homophobic") at the article's upshot - that gay actors understandably stay closeted because no one can believe a gay actor playing straight. Then of course, the author of the article published a defense, here. And most recently, this great article by Aaron Sorkin pointing out that the real culprit is our culture's obsession with the private lives of public people. Tabloids. "Entertainment" shows.

My first reaction to this whole thing was "really? Jesse St. James is being played by a gay actor? How cool is that!"

My second reaction was that I'm wondering if watching a known heterosexual actor play gay makes it somehow feel "safer" for people uncomfortable with gay sexuality to watch. Watching two guys kiss passionately, and knowing they're enjoying it, might be uncomfortable in that it makes them reflect on their own sexuality, or their own discomfort.

But watching two guys kiss passionately, and knowing they're really straight, and are probably just doing it because it's a good job, and pays well... well, everyone does stuff they don't particularly love for a paycheck sometimes, right? Okay, and it just really proves those straight guys are amazing actors. Yeah. They're probably thinking about women while they kiss each other...

See? Those uncomfortable-with-gay-sexuality people can watch the two guy make-out session without getting too self-reflective or squirmy. It's just acting, after all.

And maybe when we flip it, that distance backfires. Watching a gay actor play straight, maybe uncomfortable-with-gay-sexuality people think, well, I know he really would be rather kissing a guy, so it's hard to buy that straight kiss.

Maybe uncomfortable-with-gay-sexuality people don't like the notion that closeted gay people fool straight people all the time, and that Ha-HA! If they know an actor is gay, they can't let go of that fact because it's such an issue for them personally, and that knowledge prevents them from actually seeing the performance for what it is.

Why don't we watch a gay male actor kissing a woman on screen and think - man, that's some mighty fine acting?

Because Jesse St. James had me fooled. And isn't that the point of acting? To take on the role of someone else and tell their story?

I hope every GLBTQ Actor comes out.

The more of them that do, the easier this whole thing will be for everyone.

As the Amazing Kristin Chenoweth said in her rebuttal to the newsweek article:

Lastly, as someone who’s been proudly advocating for equal rights and supporting GLBT causes for as long as I can remember, I know how much it means to young people struggling with their sexuality to see out & proud actors like Sean Hayes, Jonathan Groff, Neil Patrick Harris, and Cynthia Nixon succeeding in their work without having to keep their sexuality a secret.

And while I thought Jonathan Groff (Jesse) has a great voice, is a good actor, and is easy on the eyes, knowing he's gay makes me an even bigger fan of him... and of the show.

What do you think? Did you know Jesse St. James was being played by a gay actor? Does it matter to you?

Gleekily yours,



Unknown said...

I had heard the the actor playing Jesse was gay and also love it! I think part of the homophobia in the Newsweek piece (despite being written by a gay man) stems from the character of Jesse not being as stereotypically masculine as characters like Finn and Puck. Jesse doesn't veer into effeminate territory (Kurt's got that corner covered), but he has a slight build and dresses quite well, plus of course he loves singing and performing which are all "cues" that a man is gay.

I wonder how Setoodeh feels about the careers of actors who have come out mid-career. Is Ian McKellan's early work now considered trash? With attitudes like this out there, you really can't blame LGBTQ actors for remaining closeted - though every time they do come out they help to shatter this particular brand of homophobia.

Adrienne said...

Just a note Lee, that the picture you used of Jon Groff and Lea Michele is not from 'Glee', but from when they were in the musical 'Spring Awakening' together. ;)

Denise said...

Angela has a point I think that the issue is he walks the line. His character could be straight, but also his character could just as easily be gay. And the fact that he is played by a gay character makes people uncomfortable.

Jesse St. James doesn’t fit the mold of Jock like some of the other Glee boys, but he also isn’t flamboyant or whatever you want to call some of Kurts actions. He is in the middle, and this lack of concrete evidence either way makes people feel like he is not convincing as a straight man. However, how many guys actually play a sport in real life? What about the computer guys, or the mathletes, chess clubbers or the AV guys? Are they gay because they don’t smell bad and throw a ball at each other? This goes back to the original Glee discussion that the show is full of stereotypes, and because Jesse St. James doesn’t fit into one like a puzzle piece he isn’t a convincing character. I disagree, besides the fact that I’m not sure if he is on the side of Vocal Adrenalin or the New Directions, I like what he brings to the show: a not gay, not athlete, not misfit guy; who is talented beyond belief. He is probably the first real depiction of what a real high school glee clubber is, and I like that. I think his acting is great, who cares if he is gay or not?

Why should that even matter? Oh, because "everyone" cares… I forgot.

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone.

And Adrienne, a special thank you for keeping it real - I didn't realize they were in Spring Awakening together, and did make that mistake. It's corrected now, and I added a link to a video of one of their Glee scenes together (as well as a photo of them that actually WAS from "Glee!"

Thanks for catching it!


Kate @Midnight Book Girl said...

Lots of gay actors play straight, and play it well. I didn't know that Jesse was gay until after he started on Glee and then I only found out because I thought he was hot and googled him.

I fell in love with Jesse Tyler Ferguson when he was on The Class (where he played a straight guy) and didn't find out until he started on Modern Family that he was actually gay. British hottie Rupert Everett plays both gay and straight, and when he plays straight I buy it all the time. Gary Cooper (my all time black and white movie hunk)is rumored to have been bisexual and yet he played the leading man with ease.

I'd like to think that an actor's personal sexuality wouldn't be considered a hindrance to their acting. It's insulting to think that it's easier to "act gay" than to "act straight".

Steph said...

1) Okay, am I the only one who is following the theory that Jesse is gay? The biggest cue was when he was making out with Rachel, and made eye contact with his coach behind her back. So it seems like his relationship with Rachel could be more of a infiltrate-new-directions-and-take-one-for-the-team.

2)The homophobic parts of Glee that annoy me are the slutty bisexual cheeleaders, because bisexuals are not necessarily sluts. Also, the fact that the blond one said Kurt was just about the only boy she hadn't made out with because she thought he was a "capital-G Gay" implies that there are no other gay boys at the school (or that she made out with small-g gays?), and really, ten percent is not one per school. But these are more general television complaints than just Glee.

3)Isn't the actress who plays Sue Sylvester a lesbian? Her character is not only straight but blatantly homophobic, which just makes it funnier. (Youtube: Sue's Corner, Sneaky Gays. And while you're at it, there is a great video of Jesse Tyler Ferguson singing Lady Gaga's Alejandro.)

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

I completely forgot that the actress who plays Sue Sylvester is a lesbian - her name is Jane Lynch, and she's actually been shown on American Idol with her family! It was such an exciting moment of fan-dom for me! So yeah, I guess the whole lesbians can (or can't) play straight is an angle waiting for it's moment... (For the record, they can!)
thanks for reminding us all,

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

More on Jane Lynch and her fiancee, Dr. Lara Embry...

"At the 2010 Golden Globes on Sunday, Jan. 17, "Glee" star Jane Lynch told the New York Times Carpetbagger blog that she plans to marry her girlfriend Dr. Lara Embry in May."

Here's the link:

Go, Jane!


Greg said...

It seems bizarre that anyone would make the comments that Setoodeh made. Looking back in movies: Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson, Richard Chamberlain, etc. Did Setoodeh simply disregard all that history?

Daniel Teeter said...

I've always thought it silly to have straight actors play gay, myself. It's not like there's a shortage of gay/les actors, is there? If nothing else, having gay play gay only adds another layer of subtext and I don't have to suspend my disbelief in Heath and Jake hooking up. But then I also hate actors playing roles w/ fake accents, or young playing old, or someone playing a guitar player who can't even bother to fake chords. Or Jack Nicholson trying to convince us he's a character that isn't Jack Nicholson. In any event, unless the actor is so transcendent we don't care about such things it robs the viewing experience of some of its verisimilitude. [I don't get many chances to use that word!]

Unless, of course, subtext is what they're looking for. (John Waters has used this to good effect). For the purposes of this offensive article, though, it seems the author just can't get over the subtext; that may just be his problem.

I used to believe it was Melissa Etheridge's orientation that made me not buy the "truth" in her songs. But then I realized I believed Morrissey: I don't have to be gay to feel the truth in Morrissey's songs. It's subjectivity: I get Morrissey, I don't get Melissa, That's just me. Like the way I believe Eddie Izzard when he's dressed like a man or Dame Edna when she isn't.

As far the Newsweek article goes, the writer's wrong. He's trying to sell his bias as fact; It ain't. All of this could've easily been avoided had he just said he didn't like the performance. Instead, he inadvertently exposed himself as a hetero-colonialist.

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...


I have a new vocabulary word!

Thanks, Daniel.


MissA said...

I didn't know that but that's great. I think his relationship with Rachel feels a little off because he has ulterior motives not because he's gay playing a straight guy. I also didn't know they were in Spring Awakening together. I didn't know Jane Lynch was lesbian either, but it doesn't bother me or really effect me. I think it's awesome that we have more entertainment stars coming out, but it's none of our business (it's good in that kids have role models but at the same time, stars shouldn't be stalked and their sexuality should not be obsessed over. To be clear: I'm not implying that anyone here is doing that, I mean the media in general).

I've also learned that the star of White Collar is gay. He plays a total stragiht player, but several of my girl friends were crushed to learn he was gay :)

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

You know, I hear you, MissAttitude, but the whole straight woman being crushed to learn that a celebrity is gay confuses me... I mean, if the TV star was straight, would they realistically have any greater chance of connecting with him in real life? Of dating him? Isn't it just a suspension of disbelief thing going on where you look at a hot star and think - wow, he's singing to ME! I want to dream about our future together... It's a totally para-social relationship. So why can't that fantasy - unfettered by reality - continue to work, even if you know the guy's gay in real life? It's only fantasy...

Thanks to you and everyone else who's contributing to this conversation - it's really great!


Unknown said...

What a weird assertion! I can think of lots of gay actors who've convincingly played straight characters (Rupert Everett, TR Knight, Neil Patrick Harris, just off the top of my head). I'm sure there are many more, including some who are not publicly out.

Jodie said...

The whole idea of 'gay actors can't play straight' is just so insane to me, but some people obviously believe it so I guess it has to be given serious consideration (boo).

I think Jane Lynch is a great actress to talk about because of course she's played both gay characters(The L Word for one) and straight roles (Glee as you say). She's excellent in both of them, but I find that when I think about those roles side by side I find I would never have questioned whether her portrayal of her sexuality was realistic in Glee, because her sexuality isn't a big issue in Glee. It's very much background material, whereas in L Word it's obviously front and centre.

I think gay characters often find themselves in storylines that revolve around the character's sexuality and there's a lot more pressure on how an actor or actress portrays that aspect of the character. All the eyes of the gay community and their allies are on that aspect of their storyline, plus here are tons of other people who just don't get why someone would be attracted to the same sex so they're scrutinising the relationship very closely so they can tear it down on 'oh that didn't seem very realistic for the character' reasons. In straight roles there's a lot less pressure on portraying the relationship convincingly because the majority will take it as written that when men and women meet they're going to be attracted to each other (not true, but that's the assumption). So I'm kind of surprised that someone would say it's harder for an audience to be convinced of a gay person playing a straight role. It's surely still harder for any actor gay or straight to convince an audience that the way they're playing a gay character is realistic.

Jodie said...

Omg Lee and I just read your reply about girls being crushed when stars come out as gay - YES what is with that?! Like you would ever have met him and like it stops you from finding him attractive? 'S crazy.

MissA said...

@Lee and Jodie-Haha I admit I never thought of it that way but it's so true! Non-celebrities (especially teenagers) haven't the slightest chance at dating an older celebrity so who cares about their sexual orientation?

What a great discussion!

Jodie said...

MissAttitude and Clooney is Clooney whoever he loves, it's not like if he came out it would make his attractivenes sinvisible to me (insert your own extremly attractive film star in if you must).

Anonymous said...

I know my comment is only tangentially-related, but it stresses me out, as an advocate for more arts education in schools, that drama, art, and dance are "off-limits" for many boys, in that they think it seems like a girls' (or gay boys') thing. It drives me wild. So I am all for anybody who wants to coming out, but will it be even harder to get more boys in the arts? What can we do?

Anonymous said...

Gay actors can't play straight convincingly?

Uhh... David Hyde Pierce anyone?