Hollywood's fantasy about sex and the stars

The movie industry assumes one must be bonkable to be bankable. We don't want former rent boys as lust objects, now, do we?
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The Independent Online
There is coming out and coming out. Rupert Everett came out years ago as a homosexual. Now this charming man has come out as a former prostitute, or "rent boy", and Hollywood is nervous that this actor's "new-found bankability", a scene-stealing performance in the Julia Roberts vehicle My Best Friend's Wedding, will be short-lived. Why should this be? Are we really so astonished that someone who performs for a living should have performed sexual favours for money; that someone who makes a living partly through selling their sexuality should have sold some real sex? What has the casting couch been used for over the years - knitting?

Only a few weeks ago we were persuaded to believe that the door of the celluloid closet had creaked open slightly, with the sitcom star Ellen cavorting with Clinton. Whereas lesbian chic is a titillating idea for the mainstream press, "sordid" gay prostitution is something else altogether. It is easier to pretend that the line between happy homosexuality, and a kind of gay lifestyle where it is not unknown for people to drift in and out of prostitution and not be stigmatised, is firmly drawn, just as we like to kid ourselves that the heterosexual men who go to prostitutes are not the men we know. When the contents of Heidi Fleiss's little black book were revealed to include the names of several Hollywood stars, no one was very dismayed. Paying for sex is manly; being paid for it is a sign of emasculation.

What, though, do we pay our stars for, if not to stimulate sexual fantasies? Of course, this is not all that cinema is about, but it sure as hell helps. Acting itself is not prostitution, though most great actors will have done things they are ashamed of; and audiences are not all sleazy punters, though most of us will have paid for a quick thrill and felt cheapened by it. But they are parallel careers in that they both involve the mechanics of arousal, desire and the necessary deferral of gratification that keeps us coming back for more. One cannot, whisper it low in case Gordon Brown hears, remove the selling of sex from the selling of cinema, however many tax subsidies you give to the film industry.

Yet the dream factory itself cannot cope with the demands of its own market-place. Stars are supposed to be available both as fantasies and in real life. Thus the knowledge that a leading man is gay is considered damaging, as the actor will no longer be credible in romantic roles. Whatever happened to the notion of acting? Or to the suspension of disbelief? The assumption that acting is about playing at being someone else? The persistent rumours about the sexuality of a Tom Cruise of a Richard Gere can only be kept in circulation because we know actors are not always what they seem. Indeed, that is their job.

Jimmy Stewart was not what he seemed, as the obituaries this week have shown. As the gulf between the characters he played and his real life was political rather than sexual, no one seemed to mind very much. His appeal was as an "everyman", as someone who wasn't even acting in the first place. "You were looking at a man, not an actor. You could see this man's soul," eulogised the director Frank Capra. Stewart himself was bewildered about what he was doing. "Sometimes I wonder if I am doing a James Stewart impersonation myself." This impersonation often involved playing liberal, easy-going pacifists. In reality Stewart backed Nixon, was a good friend of Reagan and was hawkish about the Vietnam war. Did this detract from his screen presence? Not one iota.

Stewart shared with that other great actor, Robert Mitchum, who also died this week, an approach that meant not letting the "acting show". Gilbert Adair's obituary of him brilliantly describes the "almost imperceptible virtuosity of American movie actors". Mitchum, who shrugged off his career as better than working, and saw himself as a hired hand rather than an artist, was judged to have been "incapable of self-reflection". What a relief that is in the days when actors struggle so often in interviews to conjure up the enormous difficulties of their chosen profession. Mitchum's louche sexual presence, his ability to convey real evil in both The Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear, appear instinctual. When Robert De Niro played the same part in Scorsese's re-make of Cape Fear, he became a method monster, tattooed up, snarling and seductive. This was perceptible virtuosity, but not half as scary as Mitchum's casually psychotic menace.

Nowadays so much screen acting is showy. It is acting about acting; acting that refers to other parts that the actors have played. Look at Pacino and De Niro in Heat, trying so hard that it hurts. If Stewart and Mitchum were, as has been claimed, the last of Hollywood's great leading men in that they could effortlessly embody "authenticity", today's actors have a harder time of it because they are left with merely impersonating the authentic.

The old stars have been replaced with blank boys such as Keanu Reeves and Brad Pitt, edgy over-actors (see above), out-and-out weirdos, Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken, or complete non-starters - the Schwarzeneggers, Stallones and Van Dammes - who don't even pretend that they are acting in the first place. A good man, as opposed to a bad one, or a boy, is hard to find. Until then we have to make do with the decidedly grown-up Harrison Ford, or trying to fit small-screen stars such as George Clooney into big-screen roles and even bigger codpieces.

The star system may accommodate slightly more flexible versions of masculinity; but after several years of Hollywood Babylon revelations, it is still paranoid about male sexuality. In this, as in so many other areas, it underestimates the intelligence of its audience and presumes that fantasy and fact are inseparable.

For stars such as Everett - and Everett is a star if the definition of a star means that when he is on screen you don't want to watch anyone else - the assumption remains that one must be bonkable in order to be bankable. We don't want former rent boys as lust objects, now, do we? Well, yes, as long as we pretend we don't know about it.

The separation of an actor's life from his work is subject to endless speculation and made more complicated by the culture of celebrity, which strives always to deny that such a gulf exists. Yet we must insist on it, otherwise the very notion of acting becomes meaningless. What you see is not always what you get, and that is in fact what we are paying for. Unless we realise this, we might as well throw in our lot with James Stewart, who, in his role in Harvey, once said: "I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, and I'm happy doctor. I finally won out over it."