Homophobia in Hollywood: Why gay movie stars still can't come out of the closet

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Jodie Foster was widely praised for her 'coming out' speech at the Golden Globes. So why are so many other stars reluctant to follow her lead? Geoffrey Macnab reports on the big names staying in the closet

Is Hollywood homophobic? It's an old question but one that is being asked yet again following Jodie Foster's speech at the Golden Globes. Forty-seven years after a debut as a child actress, the 50-year-old made a "declaration" that she was "nervous about." As the audience hushed, she joked and stated with mock solemnity that she was "single".

"Seriously, I hope that you're not disappointed that there won't be a big coming-out speech tonight because I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago, back in the Stone Age," Foster quipped. Her speech was playful and tongue in cheek. The actress has always protected her privacy. Nonetheless, the very fact that she was so oblique underlined the wariness that gay and lesbian actors in the Hollywood system still feel about discussing their sexuality.

Foster's speech has caused huge commotion in Hollywood. It came days after a story on Hollywood news and gossip site The Wrap quoting director Steven Soderbergh as saying that Behind the Candelabra, his new biopic of entertainer Liberace, was turned down by every studio as "too gay". The budget was modest ($5m), the cast was impressive (Matt Damon and Michael Douglas) but Hollywood simply didn't want to know.

"This was after Brokeback Mountain, by the way. Which is not as funny as this movie. I was stunned. It made no sense to any of us," Soderbergh commented.

By reputation, Hollywood is a liberal and tolerant place. Come election-time fundraising, it's always a fertile place for President Obama. Last May, diners, including host George Clooney, Salma Hayek, Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jnr, paid a reported $40,000 each to attend a special dinner for Obama.

"Obama didn't even need to mention gay marriage to get a vigorous applause," sneered one British newspaper in its coverage of the event.

When The King's Speech won the Best Picture Oscar, its British producer Iain Canning walked up on stage to accept the award from Steven Spielberg. In his speech, after thanking all his collaborators and his parents, he also dedicated the award to his boyfriend, Ben, "who helped me every day do what I do".

The speech received wild applause. No one considered Canning's name checking of his boyfriend incongruous (although, a few years before, when producer Scott Rudin picked up the Best Picture award for the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men, his tribute to his partner, John Barlow, was deleted from some transcriptions of his speech.)

The real issue here, of course, is economics. Gay and lesbian directors, producers, studio heads and supporting actors can be open about their sexuality as long as it doesn't get in the way of the work. It is with the leading players that the omertà code applies most strictly.

Gay British actor Rupert Everett was recently on the BBC's Hard Talk warning that young male actors who were ambitious should not come out if they wanted to play leading roles.

When Rock Hudson died from an Aids-related illness in 1985, commentators bemoaned the intolerance of the old studio system that had compelled him to remain in the closet.

"Forty years ago, the world was a very different place and there were virtually no publicly available gay men or lesbians in any walk of public life," notes Brian Robinson, senior programmer at London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, of the period in which Hudson was working. "Now, lots of things have changed. A whole generation has grown up with an idea of normalcy about gay identity."

Even so, Hollywood is still in the business of making "four quadrant movies" – that's to say ultra-mainstream films appealing to males and females, young and old. When a studio spends $100m on a mainstream movie and an equivalent amount in marketing it at home and abroad, anything that can jeopardise its box-office performance is frowned on. Agents put pressure on their clients not to "come out".

Those who have worked in Hollywood talk about the elaborate culture of deception that still exists. In the heyday of the studio system, publicists and agents used to "arrange" marriages for gay and lesbian stars so as to reassure fans that they were heterosexual. There are still some marriages of convenience today.

One gay writer (who covers the film industry in Hollywood) recalls putting together a list of the most powerful gay and lesbian figures in Hollywood. Once he started his research, he very quickly discovered that "even the ones you know are gay can't be outed". What might have been an open secret in the Hollywood community was still concealed at all costs from the wider public.

Leading directors of action movies couldn't reveal they were gay because it would undermine the image of machismo that their films projected.

As for the big-name stars, "they are making films for Middle America first and foremost... you can't come out. You would ruin your mainstream appeal as a heterosexual red-blooded male."

Often, the stars themselves have little choice over how their images are moulded. "I think these people (the stars) have good intentions but once their agents get their hands on them, they are like 'don't you dare come out!'"

The gay community in America has felt betrayed by stars who've refused to come out. Quite understandably, the stars have argued that their private lives are their own business.

Jodie Foster was a major movie star being paid millions of dollars for performances in films like The Silence of the Lambs and The Accused. If she had "come out" publically her career would almost certainly have been affected. Look through her roles and you will that she has rarely appeared in romantic comedies or dramas. She was cast opposite Richard Gere in Sommersby but the majority of her roles have been as tough, self-reliant single woman. She can hardly be accused of hypocrisy.

One of the ironies about film history is that several of the biggest male idols have, in fact, been gay. Hudson, Ramon Novarro and Ivor Novello (the biggest British male star of the silent era) are some of the names that spring to mind.

There is a memorable account of the funeral of silent star Rudolph Valentino (whose sexuality is still a matter of fierce debate) in John Dos Passos's book USA. As he lay in his casket, women stampeded. Cars were overturned. Female fans were said to have committed suicide.

As Dos Passos noted, there was something very cruel and vindictive in the way the mainstream media had tried to "out" him.

"When the Chicago Tribune called him a pink powderpuff and everybody started wagging their heads over a slavebracelet he wore that he said his wife had given him and his taste for mushy verse of which he published a small volume called Daydreams and the whispers grew about the testimony in his divorce case that he and his first wife had never slept together, it broke his heart."

Sometimes, it appears as if any young actor who played sensitive, neurotic or exotic parts has automatically been presumed to be gay. This had led to the endless and often very prurient speculation about the sexuality of actors from Valentino to James Dean, Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift. There have also been constant rumours about the bisexuality of the biggest female stars, Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck and Marlene Dietrich among them.

In the classical studio era, there were at least films made by so-called "women's directors" like Douglas Sirk, George Cukor and Josef von Sternberg which addressed illicit romance and unfulfilled desire. In Britain, David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945) was said by some to be an allegory about forbidden (gay) love.

In contemporary movies, there is rarely such a subtext. In the 1994 movie Sleep with Me, Quentin Tarantino has a memorable monologue about why Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer, is really a gay film at heart.

"You think it's a story about a bunch of fighter pilots..." Tarantino riffs. "It is a story about a man's struggle with his own homosexuality. It is! That is what Top Gun is about, man. You've got Maverick, all right? He's on the edge, man. He's right on the fucking line, all right? And you've got Iceman, and all his crew. They're gay, they represent the gay man, all right? And they're saying, go, go the gay way, go the gay way."

This is certainly not a reading that would have appealed to the relentlessly macho producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who helped pioneer the "high concept" style of film-making that still so influences modern-day blockbusters. These were films without nuance that could be pitched in a sentence or two.

In new Bond movie, Skyfall, there is a homoerotic scene between villain Javier Bardem and Daniel Craig's Bond. There was a similar scene in Casino Royale in which Bond was tortured by Mads Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre. Arguably, it's only because Bond's heterosexual credentials have been so firmly established in the other movies over the last 50 years that the new films can event venture into this territory. They also do so on the understanding that Bond is always going to get the girl.

Recent Hollywood history presents several examples of straight actors playing gay characters but even this can cause consternation. Notoriously, Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine refused even to see Brokeback Mountain. Curtis complained that a movie about gay cowboys certainly wouldn't appeal to John Wayne. The fact that the film didn't win the Best Picture Oscar (losing out to rank outsider Crash) underlined the depth of opposition to it from conservative elements within the Hollywood community. Gus Van Sant's Milk (2008) may have received positive reviews and won Academy Awards for both Sean Penn and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, but its box-office performance was disappointing.

I Love You Philip Morris (2009), a comedy drama about a con artist (Jim Carrey) who falls in love with another prison inmate (Ewan McGregor), couldn't even secure a mainstream US release in spite of positive reviews.

The stars who do "come out" tend to do so when they are no longer playing leading roles. There are exceptions. Several actresses - among them Angelina Jolie, Anna Paquin and Evan Rachel Wood – have acknowledged their bisexuality without it affecting their careers - or their status as sex symbols for men.

Although there is potentially large amounts of "pink money" to be earned by targeting lesbian and gay audiences, this dwarfs into insignificance by comparison with the box-office receipts that a big action movie or romantic comedy will make.

"The gay audience is still a minority audience. Traditionally, it is one in ten," notes an industry insider. "You are not going to make studio movies for that audience. Arguably, since My Best Friend's Wedding, nothing has changed and there are fewer gay characters than ever before in these films."

Television, this insider notes, is far more "gay friendly" than the film business. When the studios wouldn't back his Liberace film, Soderbergh turned to HBO instead. From Six Feet Under to Sex and the City and Girls, several of the most high-profile TV series of recent years have had major gay characters.

Mainstream US cinema, by contrast, remains resolutely "straight." That's why even an actress as distinguished as Jodie Foster felt such qualms about referring to "coming out".

By the law of averages, the likelihood is that several major stars are gay or bisexual. The sadness now, more than half a century on from the heyday of Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Sal Mineo et al, is that they're no closer to being allowed by the Hollywood system to acknowledge the fact.

Hollywood confidential: Stars who didn't come out

Rock Hudson

The leading man from Giant, the screen partner of Doris Day and the star of Dynasty, kept his homosexuality a secret. Only after he died from an Aids-related illness did the details about his private life really begin to emerge.

Sir Alec Guinness

Charged and arrested for a homosexual act in a public lavatory, Britain's greatest screen character actor never discussed his bisexuality.

Farley Granger

The star of Alfred Hitchcock's Rope and Strangers on a Train was once asked "men or women?" "That really depends on the person," he replied but added that he had spent the greater part of his life with a man.

Ramon Novarro

The dashing 1920s matinee idol died a horrible death, tortured and murdered in 1968 by two young men he had hired for sex.

Tab Hunter

The American actor and singer finally acknowledged his homosexuality in his 2006 autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential.

Tallulah Bankhead

The witty and very mischievous stage and screen actress didn't describe herself as bisexual. "Ambisextrous" was the term she preferred. "My father warned me about men and booze," she once acknowledged. "But he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine."

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