McKellen takes Hollywood to task over gay actors

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The Independent Culture

Brokeback Mountain, the acclaimed film about two gay cowboys, may be poised to sweep the board at the Oscars this year. But according to one of Britain's most eminent actors, Hollywood is still deeply reluctant to publicly embrace homosexuality and lesbianism.

Sir Ian McKellen, who came out in 1988 and is one of most high-profile openly gay actors, has criticised Tinseltown's power brokers for putting unnecessary pressure on homosexual actors to stay in the closet for the sake of their careers.

The actor said he found it distressing that it was still "very, very, very difficult" for an American actor in the movie business to be honest about his or her sexuality. Speaking at the Berlin International Film Festival, where he was receiving a lifetime achievement award, Sir Ian, 66, was guarded about what impact the success of Ang Lee's portrayal of gay love between two ranch hands would have on future film-makers. He said: "The film industry is very old-fashioned in California. It's very distressing to me that that should be the case."

Sir Ian said that coming out need not hamper an actor's progress. Although renowned for his roles in Shakespeare, he has over the past five decades appeared in a wide range of performances on television, theatre and the cinema.

His roles have included commanding performances in plays such as The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter and more recently a flamboyant dame in Aladdin. He will next appear on the big screen in May alongside Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code, an adaptation of the book by Dan Brown.

But Sir Ian emphasised that his own career in mainstream films "really took off" after 1988, when he revealed his sexuality.

He has appeared in celebrated productions including the Oscar-nominated Six Degrees of Separation, before bagging the plum role of Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a co-founder of the gay rights group Stonewall, Sir Ian, who lives in east London, is a leading gay rights activist and was a prominent critic of Section 28 legislation which prevented local authorities promoting same-sex lifestyles.

His sadness at the attitudes of the film industry in Los Angeles has come at a time when many thought the commercial and critical success of Brokeback Mountain could have been a turning-point for gays in Hollywood. The film, which has already won four Golden Globes and secured eight Oscar nominations, was named film of the year at the 26th London Film Critics' Circle Awards last week. The honour for best director also went to Ang Lee.

Based on an E Annie Proulx short story, the film tells the story of Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, two farm-hands in Wyoming, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, who meet while herding sheep one summer in the late Sixties and fall in love. The men both marry, but continue to meet in secret over the course of 20 years.

The latest accolades confirm that the film is on track to be one of the big success stories of the Oscars, where it is nominated for best picture, best actor for Ledger and best supporting actor for Gyllenhaal.