Gay actors: an open and shut closet

Many actors have recently and successfully played gay characters. So why, asks James Mottram, are there so few openly gay stars?

Right now, if you're a straight actor in Hollywood, it's great to be gay. we have a Bafta-winning, Oscar-nominated Colin Firth as the grief-stricken English professor in Tom Ford's sensual and sensitive adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel A Single Man. Soon, we'll see Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor get loved up in I Love You Phillip Morris, an outrageous true story from the writers of Bad Santa. And, later in the year, Julianne Moore and Annette Bening play a married couple in Lisa Cholodenko's sublime The Kids Are All Right.

Of course, you might argue this is nothing new. In 1993, Tom Hanks won an Oscar for Philadelphia, for playing a HIV+ gay lawyer. More recently, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger gained Academy nods for playing two cowboys tormented by their attraction to each other in Brokeback Mountain. And, one year ago, Sean Penn won the second Oscar of his career for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, the gay rights activist who became California's first openly gay elected official, in Gus van Sant's Milk.

Yet, while those films addressed being gay as a source of angst, as Glenn Ficarra, the co-writer/director of Phillip Morris, asks: "How many movies do you need to see where homosexuality is an affliction?" In Phillip Morris, being gay is almost incidental to the storyline. "I think it's one of the few movies that deals with gay subject matter matter-of-factly," says Ficarra's writing/directing partner, John Requa. "Instead of the movie centrally being about a gay issue, it's a minor detail in a romantic comedy."

Indeed, when the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, the trade paper Screen International claimed, "In many ways, the film is as important as Brokeback Mountain in breaking down barriers in mainstream cinema." The story sees Carrey play Steven Russell, a not-so-happily married man who comes out the closet and leaves his wife. Living an extravagant lifestyle in Florida, he's forced to break the law to pay for it all and winds up in prison. Inside, he meets and falls for the sweet-natured Phillip Morris (McGregor) – and the two plan a life together.

Still, McGregor recalls how difficult it is to market a film such as this. Should it be seen as a gay movie? "I remember at Sundance, when it was first seen, we had a press conference in a gay bar in Sundance. There was quite a lot of talk about it not being a gay film during that press conference. And I just found that this was slightly bizarre – as we were sitting in a gay bar promoting a gay movie! And people were saying, 'It's not really a gay film.' It is a gay film. Of course it's a gay film. But I suppose the point of the film isn't that they're gay. The point is the extraordinary lengths that Steven Russell goes to, to be with Phillip."

A Single Man does not dwell on the fact that its protagonist prefers men to women. Yes, Firth's ex-pat Brit, George Falconer, may be living in California, in 1962, when homosexuality was hardly above ground (something echoed by the recent, controversial Proposition 8 outlawing of same-sex marriage in the state). But the film is about the anguish of someone dealing with the death of their lover. As Firth told one newspaper, "I could almost say that, while we were filming, I'd forgotten that 'gay' was one of the epithets you could apply to this character. It's about solitude. And if you change the love interest to a woman, you could make the same film."

While Ford's film exists in a stylised world that at times comes across like a commercial for one of his fashion lines, The Kids Are All Right is the polar opposite. A portrait of a modern family in turmoil, it is grounded in reality, dealing with what happens when the Moore/ Bening characters' two teenage children decide they want to find their sperm-donor father. As Cholodenko said recently, she was interested in dealing with "emotional and psychological" issues around the subject. "When I felt like it was veering off into something more superficial when I was writing it, or political or politically correct, I reigned myself back in."

Cholodenko's work arrived after the so-called New Queer Cinema wave, which began in earnest with Bill Sherwood's 1986 film, Parting Glances, featuring Steve Buscemi as a gay rock star dying of Aids. If that was a defiantly independent movement, with Todd Haynes's Poison, Rose Troche's Go Fish and Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho leading the way, Cholodenko has since seen more commercial entertainment embrace gay characters. Not least with The L Word, the TV series – which she worked on – about a group of Los Angeles-based lesbians. As she says, "It seems like there's a lot more gay characters [on screen now] – well drawn, tokenistic or otherwise."

If gay-themed films no longer need to be political, English-language cinema has come a long way since the days of the 1982 film Making Love. Starring Michael Ontkean as a married man who confronts his love for another man (Harry Hamlin), it was positioned as Hollywood's first treatment of homosexuality in a normal way. Yet as Hamlin, white-hot back then after starring in the original Clash of the Titans, recently told the Los Angeles Times, "My career kind of slowed down after that."

Now, it seems the problem is almost the opposite: actors are accused of playing gay to further their careers. "There's been a lot of talk about, 'Is Jim playing gay because he wants the acclaim?'," says Ficarra. "But if you really look at the material, there's something about Steven, besides that fact that he's homosexual, that's uniquely like Jim."

Likewise, Cholodenko defends her stars. "I didn't feel like Julianne or Annette approached it like a stunt. I think they approached it as, 'Wow, this is a really cool challenge as an actor to get really deeply into the psychology and emotional space of this character.'"

Yet as Firth admitted, Hollywood still has a problem with homosexuality. "There might be risks for a gay actor coming out," he said. "The politics of that are quite complex, it seems to me. If you're known as a straight guy, playing a gay role, you get rewarded for that. If you're a gay man and you want to play a straight role, you don't get cast – and if a gay man wants to play a gay role now, you don't get cast. I think it needs to be addressed and I feel complicit in the problem. I don't mean to be. I think we should all be allowed to play whoever – but I think there are still some invisible boundaries which are still uncrossable."

It was a question faced by Ficarra and Requa when casting for Phillip Morris. "People have asked us, 'Why didn't you hire gay actors to play these roles?'" says Requa. "Well, there are no gay actors in Hollywood! None of them are out of the closet. With the exception of Ian McKellen, who is too old for the part, it's exceedingly rare to see that. And it sucks because they're actors. If a straight guy can play gay, why can't a gay guy play straight? It's just as convincing. But there's this perception in marketing, somehow the public can't overcome this idea of, 'There's a gay guy kissing that straight woman – my God!' I don't understand that."

This backs up recent comments made by Rupert Everett, one of the few openly gay actors who would've been eligible, age-wise, to play Russell or Morris. "The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business," he said. "It just doesn't work and you're going to hit a brick wall at some point. You're going to manage to make it roll for a certain amount of time, but at the first sign of failure they'll cut you right off."

Even so, Requa still believes progress is being made and that, one day, Hollywood will reverse this unspoken homophobia. "It will happen," he says. "There will be the Jackie Robinson [the first African-American baseball player] moment where some powerhouse A-lister will come out, and he'll be so irresistible, no one will care." Until then, while gay characters can enjoy their time on screen, gay actors cannot.

'A Single Man' is on general release. 'I Love You Phillip Morris' opens on 17 March. 'The Kids Are All Right' will open later this year