The Art of Acting Gay: What Does It Entail?

I found this interesting article in the NY Times. There is an emerging and rapdily increasing trend in Hollywood Straight actors playing gay, transgender, or transvestite characters.

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The Winner is…. Only Acting Gay
By: Caryn James

Groups that hand out awards can be suckers for acting stunts, from Nicole Kidman’s fake nose in The Hours to Adrien Brody’s near-starvation for The Pianist. The tradition is so entrenched that Kate Winslet, playing an outrageous comic version of herself in the HBO series “Extras,” listed a surefire way to get that elusive Academy Award.

“Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot? Oscar. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man? Oscar,” she says. “Seriously, you are guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental.” Irreverent, imprecise (the Day-Lewis character was not mentally troubled) yet essentially true.

This season she might have added: playing gay. There has been an explosion of Oscar-baiting performances in which straight actors play gay, transvestite or transgender characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman melts into the role of the gay title character in Capote, while Cillian Murphy plays a transvestite in 1970’s Ireland in Neil Jordan’s witty, endearing Breakfast on Pluto. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger play lovers in Brokeback Mountain (set to open Dec. 9), already better known as “the gay cowboy movie” and already a Letterman joke.

But big-name actors are leaping into such roles in smaller films, too. Felicity Huffman stretches way beyond “Desperate Housewives” as a man about to become a woman in Transamerica (Dec. 2) and Peter Sarsgaard plays a gay Hollywood screenwriter who has an affair with a closeted, married studio executive (Campbell Scott) in the current Dying Gaul.

It’s this cluster of sexually different roles that is new, not the idea itself. These actors are simply following the Oscar-winning path set more than a decade ago by Tom Hanks as a gay man with AIDS in Philadelphia, followed by Hilary Swank as the cross-dressing heroine of Boys Don’t Cry and Charlize Theron, whose role in Monster was a kind of award-baiting triple-whammy: she gained weight, wore fake teeth and played a lesbian.

With evidence that they will be rewarded for such stretches, and with a public now accustomed to seeing gay characters in movies and television shows like “Will & Grace,” big-name actors seem eager to take these roles. Ralph Fiennes is now filming Bernard and Doris, in which he plays the gay butler of the billionaire Doris Duke (Susan Sarandon).
The actors are straight as far as we know (give or take the occasional rumor on the Internet, where you can find rumors about anything), an issue that matters only because it becomes part of the filmmakers’ shrewd if unspoken calculation. Especially in today’s celebrity culture, the line between the actor’s life and the movies never entirely vanishes. [ …] Our awareness of these nonfiction roles makes it easier and maybe more acceptable for middle-class heterosexual viewers – a group that does, after all, include most of us in the audience – to embrace characters whose sexual preferences we don’t share.

This politically incorrect pragmatism aside, portraying gay, transvestite and transsexual characters allows actors to draw on a huge supply of gimmicks – wigs and costumes, mannerisms of speech and posture – that signify Acting. The real magic is to let the stunt give way to character, which happens in the best of these performances. Mr. Hoffman in “Capote” and Mr. Murphy in “Pluto” use the outer signs of dress and manners to get to the essence of the men they play, to define a richness of personality that is entwined with the character’s sexuality, yet goes beyond it. […]

The complete article can be found here.
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I understand the point of actors playing gay characters and part of me hopes that not every actor is taking these intense and challenging parts just for the accolades.

The main problem I see with this “epidemic” of sorts is that straight actors can take on gay roles so easily (the article touches on this point) andthe American public will still have no problem accepting the actor. It will still be considered acting. As long as we know that the actor is married with a family then we’re fine with whatever career moves they make.

If a gay actor played a straight man, people would find issues with this. His performance wouldn’t be great but rather not real acting. And therefore, the out gay actor is limited to the best friend roles (like Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding.)

Maybe the other issue is that there isn’t currently a young gay actor (in that young Hollywood clique of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan) setting the trend. Because actors such as Rupert Everett and Ian McKellan are great actors, I don’t think people automatically associate them with being gay.

Whatever the purpose is for this new trend, it is an ineresting debate/discussion. How do feel about it? Do you think it is a good pattern or just a horrible concept all together? Or does only content matter to you and therefore as long as the film is good then you do not care about the actor’s personal life?

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3 thoughts on “The Art of Acting Gay: What Does It Entail?”

  1. I don’t see it as too challaging for gay actors to play straight men.Rock Hudson did it all the time not only straight but a ladies man. Of course that era of gay men had lots of practice pretending to be straight.
    It’s prob. something lots of actors want to do because of the challange to pull it off well.
    I would like to see more gay actors taken seriously.
    There is a comdedianess(?) who speaks of ‘her gays’ as if they are pets or something. If I was gay I’d find that insulting, i
    think. I would like to see gay people portrayed less as stereotypes, Esp. on T.V. Some times they are portrayed as not having any real issues. They are displayed like an eccesory. I don’t know how accurate it is.

  2. I completely agree. I don’t see any problem with a gay actor playing a straight character.

    Yes, Rock Hudson did so all those years but no one aside from industry people knew that he was gay. It was one of Hollywood’s long and best kept secrets.

    I hope that one day gays are presented less stereotypical. It’ll come eventually and soon, I think.

    It is a challenge to act in a gay role and my applause to any actor who tries so. I just hope that these actors who take these demanding roles are not doing so for the awards and praise that comes with them.

    And the commedienne your thinking of is Kathy Griffin. One of the only funny ones in my opion because she is controversial. But I do find some of her jokes to be offensive.

  3. What is interesting is that the tendency to only accept gay actors in gay roles forces many gay actors to stay underground. Not because they are ashamed of their sexuality, but becuase it’s bad for work. I have one such relative who’s an actor and it’s interesting that his first big part is being gay.

    Since Ellen, now the tendency seems to be “look, I’m gay. Isn’t that funny?” Maybe one day it will be irrelevant.

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