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The Problem With Celebrating Straight Actors in Gay Roles

Yesterday, CNN and BuzzFeed announced a partnership, and immediately began publishing listicles on the cable news outlet’s website. One of the first to pop up, timed to the HBO biopic Behind the Candelabra, was a list of 20 straight actors who have played gay characters both on film and television. While the intro suggested that the pair of actors in the Liberace biopic, Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, was the impetus for the list (“Here are 20 other actors that successfully pulled off playing a different sexuality on screen,” the author wrote), the list still included them, meaning the author only managed to come up with 18 straight actors who have played gay roles sometime in the last 20 years. (The earliest film on the list was Philadelphia.) That’s not the only issue with the list: it’s indicative of not just the mindset that straight actors who play gay characters should be heralded for their bravery, but also of the poor and limited cinematic depictions of the gay experience.

While there’s little subtext to the list itself — it is merely a quick collection of actors who have gone gay on film, with no particularly surprising choices and little variety — it’s representative of the larger issue in Hollywood: the lack of gay roles on film. There are 20 roles included on the list, but they represent only 12 movies (and two television shows). Multiple actors from the same films are listed, reminding us that roles for LGBT characters tend to be grouped together.

The roles included are also a bit problematic. A few weeks ago, I suggested a gay version of the Bechdel Test: to pass, “a film must include two gay characters who interact in some way, do not offer sassy advice to the protagonist, and are not dead by the end credits.” Of the 12 films included, only four pass (The Birdcage, Capote, I Love You Phillip Morris, and The Kids Are All Right); among those four, only two feature arguably healthy homosexual relationships. In two films mentioned — Monster and The Talented Mr. Ripley — the gay protagonists are murderers. The fact remains: Hollywood doesn’t offer much variety for strong, believable, or sympathetic gay characters — that is, unless they are dead by the end of the film, as in Philadelphia, Milk, Behind the Candelabra, Boys Don’t Cry, and Brokeback Mountain.

Additionally, the list includes, a bit offensively, Hilary Swank’s performance in Boys Don’t Cry. There’s the caveat included right there in the listicle: “while Swank’s character Brandon Teena was transgender, not gay, the role was iconic for many gays and lesbians.” Well, plenty of gay men relate to Little Edie Beale — it’s why Grey Gardens is so popular among gay men, after all — but that doesn’t make Little Edie gay. Just because Brandon Teena was transgender and conveniently falls under the LGBT umbrella doesn’t mean that the catchall term “gay” applies to him, but it’s indicative of a growing trend among straight people to lump all non-heterosexuals together. The movement of behemoth media outlets adding LGBT verticals is demonstrative of the assumption that all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people all care about the same news — news, I suppose, that straight people don’t care about — while being conveniently set aside for specific advertising aimed at these communities.

The biggest offense of the list, however, is what it doesn’t do: put forth any thought or analysis about why there are so many popular, award-winning gay roles for straight actors and so few for gay actors. Sure, these characters might be “three dimensional and believable,” but the notion that it takes “a great actor” (read: our favorite straight actors) to pull these characteristics off is ludicrous. How would the tone of this listicle change if, say, it were called, “20 of our favorite white actors who played non-white characters”? After all, Robert Downey, Jr., Ben Affleck, and Angelina Jolie are all hugely popular, and each played a character of a different race in the last six years. To use the same language — “Whether it’s for television or a feature film, it’s not easy pull off [a non-white] role as a [white] actor. Many have tried, but it takes a great actor to make the role three dimensional and believable” — would be at least as problematic and, I’m guessing, much more incendiary. By contrast, the list here is not just lazy and offensive, but its problems will likely go relatively ignored.

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