Welcome to Backwards Day, everyone! Newsweek -- part of the liberal media elite, dontcha know -- published an opinion piece expressing an outdated view of gay actors playing straight characters. Then Kristin Chenoweth -- an Oklahoma-born Christian -- blasted the writer for his "bigoted, factually inaccurate article." Newsweek dissing gays? The Christian lady sticking up for them? It's a world gone mad!

The Newsweek column, by Ramin Setoodeh, uses Sean Hayes' performance in the Broadway show Promises, Promises -- a musical version of the 1960 film The Apartment -- as an example of why it's hard to accept gay actors playing straight. "The reviews ... were negative enough," Setoodeh writes, "even though most of the critics ignored the real problem -- the big pink elephant in the room." Setoodeh says it's "weird" to see Hayes ("best known as the queeny Jack on Will & Grace") in the role of a heterosexual man:
"He comes off as wooden and insincere, like he's trying to hide something, which of course he is. Even the play's most hilarious scene, when Chuck tries to pick up a drunk woman at a bar, devolves into unintentional camp. Is it funny because of all the '60s-era one-liners, or because the woman is so drunk (and clueless) that she agrees to go home with a guy we all know is gay?"
It might sound like the problem isn't with Hayes' performance -- which was nominated for a Tony, by the way, and which generally got positive notices even in the show's negative reviews -- but with Ramin Setoodeh's own preconceived notions. This view is supported by Setoodeh's further comments about other actors:

"For all the beefy bravado that Rock Hudson projects on-screen, Pillow Talk dissolves into a farce when you know the likes of his true bedmates," he writes. (Never mind that Pillow Talk is a silly comedy -- yes, something of a farce -- anyway.) Of Jonathan Groff, the Broadway star now guesting on TV's Glee, Setoodeh writes, "There's something about his performance that feels off.... When he smiles or giggles, he seems more like your average theater queen, a better romantic match for Kurt than Rachel. It doesn't help that he tried to bed his girlfriend while singing (and writhing to) Madonna's 'Like a Virgin.'" (Never mind that two other straight characters did the same thing, to the same song, in the same episode.)

In other words, it's hard for Ramin Setoodeh to take Rock Hudson and Jonathan Groff seriously as straight guys when all Ramin Setoodeh can think about is the fact that Rock Hudson and Jonathan Groff are gay. So, again: Whose problem is it here, really?

Kristin Chenoweth, the pixie-ish dynamo who stars opposite Hayes in Promises, Promises, will have none of this. She posted two comments on Setoodeh's article (on May 7 at 3:31:37 p.m. and 3:31:57 p.m.; there's no way to link directly to them) defending Hayes' performance and excoriating Setoodeh for his "horrendously homophobic" article. She writes:
"The offense I take to this article, and your decision to publish it, is not really even related to my profession.... This article offends me because I am a human being, a woman and a Christian. For example, there was a time when Jewish actors had to change their names because anti-Semites thought no Jew could convincingly play Gentile. Setoodeh even goes so far as to justify his knee-jerk homophobic reaction to gay actors by accepting and endorsing that 'as viewers, we are molded by a society obsessed with dissecting sexuality, starting with the locker room torture in junior high school.' Really? We want to maintain and proliferate the same kind of bullying that makes children cry and in some recent cases have even taken their own lives?"
Oh snap! is right. Setoodeh says he's just a product of society -- we all do this, he says. But Chenoweth makes a good rebuttal. Just because society is obsessed with dissecting sexuality doesn't mean that it should be. It certainly doesn't mean that Setoodeh needs to contribute to it.

But Setoodeh, perhaps accidentally, hints at making a couple of good points. He writes, "The fact is, an actor's background does affect how we see his or her performance." This is undeniably true. Look at all the articles describing how Robert Downey Jr.'s life parallels Tony Stark's, and how much that enhances one's enjoyment of Iron Man. We go into a movie fully aware of what the actors have done previously, not just in other movies but in real life. Filmmakers are savvy about this, and they act accordingly. When Brad Pitt tells George Clooney at the end of Ocean's Thirteen to try to keep the weight off between jobs, and Clooney tells Pitt to settle down and have some kids, we're meant to understand that these are meta-references to the actors' personal lives. In that case, the film wants us to bring our baggage to the theater.

So should it matter if an actor we know is gay plays a straight character? I submit that it depends on the actor and the role. Setoodeh says, "Jack Nicholson, by the force of his charm, makes you forget how he's entirely too old to win Helen Hunt's heart in As Good As It Gets." Maybe for Setoodeh he does, but I remember being very distracted by the age difference in that movie, as were plenty of other observers at the time. (Google "As Good As It Gets" Nicholson Hunt "age difference" and you'll see.) Fans of Promises, Promises might say that Sean Hayes, by the force of his charm, makes you forget he's a homosexual in real life. Still other viewers might, quite naturally, have trouble separating Hayes from the TV role he played so memorably for so many years -- but that's a typecasting thing, not a sexuality thing.

It can be hard to adjust when an actor suddenly plays a role that is very different from what he's done before. The more talented the actor is, the better he can blend into his new surroundings. But even the most open-minded among us wouldn't suggest that ALL actors are suitable for ALL roles. Some actors are more masculine than others, just as some are taller or fatter or handsomer or younger than others. Sean Hayes probably couldn't play Mad Men's Don Draper, for example -- not because Don Draper is uber-straight and Hayes is uber-gay, but because Don Draper is suave, subtle, macho, and authoritative, and Hayes' acting talents tend to be in other areas. Seth Rogen is straight, but he couldn't play Don Draper either.

A lot of it depends on the viewer, too. Setoodeh's article suggests he's too preoccupied with actors' off-screen sexuality. I mean, if Rock Hudson's performances are retroactively ruined, the problem is yours, not Hudson's. So I'll ask you: How much do you let things like this seep into your judgment of an actor's performance? How much of it is due to connecting an actor with his previous roles, and how much of it comes from your knowledge of his personal life?

[Via Movieline.]
categories Cinematical