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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor