Still, let’s call that progress of a sort. Twenty-seven years ago, Cher was nominated for her role as Meryl Streep’s lesbian roommate in Silkwood. She didn’t win, but since then, there has been a growing trend for straight actors and actresses to actually WIN the Oscar for portrayals of gay characters. This year, Colin Firth will likely win the Best Actor award for his performance as the stuttering British monarch, King George VI, in The King‘s Speech. George was straight, but the Academy also hasn’t forgotten Colin’s devastating Oscar-nominated performance last year as a gay suicidal English professor (also named George) in A Single Man. The year before THAT, many people thought Mickey Rourke should win the Best Actor award for his performance as a washed-up former wrestling champ in The Wrestler… but instead the award was nabbed by Sean Penn for portraying Harvey Milk, the openly gay and eventually assassinated San Francisco politician.
And before that, let’s not forget previous Oscar-winning gay roles: Phillip Seymour Hoffman in 2005 for Capote, Hillary Swank in 1999 for Boys Don’t Cry, Tom Hanks in 1993 for Philadelphia….going all the way back to William Hurt in 1985 for Kiss of the Spider Woman. Not to mention the many other gay roles which have earned nominations and other critical acclaim, but not the actual Oscar (Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, anyone?) The 21st century has seen an explosion of Oscar-nominated homosexual roles in mainstream film… all of them played by straight actors, of course.
So I think we can say: Gay roles are the new retards in the Oscar acting stakes. Dustin Hoffman playing an idiot savant in Rain Man? That’s so old school – you’re better off playing a homosexual if you want an Academy Award these days. Wanna up the stakes? Try a combo. As we all know, your chances of winning an Oscar increase if you portray:
a) An ugly person
b) A retard
c) A Nazi, a Nazi sympathizer, a Holocaust survivor, or anyone who had anything to do with the Nazis
d) A redneck or otherwise poor person with a Southern or Western accent
e) A member of the British royalty
f) A gay person!
I’m not quite sure what it says about Hollywood that homosexuals, British royalty, rednecks, Nazis, ugly people, and retards are all in the same boat in terms of Oscar -worthiness. But try combining any of these categories and the Academy will sit up and notice you. It’s like applying for tax exemptions – the more boxes you can tick, the better.
For example, Nicole Kidman hit A and F as Virginia Woolf (ugly-ish, bisexual) in The Hours in 2002. She won an Oscar . A year later, Charlize Theron ticked off A, D, and F when she portrayed Aileen Wuornos (ugly, redneck, and lesbian) in Monster. She also won an Oscar. And it almost worked for Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. (He was D and F – a gay, poor cowboy.) But that year, the Oscar went to Phillip Seymour Hoffman anyway, for Capote.
Unfortunately, Categories C,D, and E appear to be mutually exclusive — unless someone can dream up a character who is simultaneously a Southern redneck, a Holocaust survivor, and a member of the British royalty. (I‘m sure someone in Hollywood is currently working on it.)
But how about… an ugly, retarded, lesbian Nazi? Wait a sec, Kate Winslet already won an Oscar for portraying an ugly-ish, illiterate, sexually deviant Nazi sympathizer in The Reader. Close enough, right? After all, you don’t want to run the risk of going full retard. Illiterate Nazi is good enough. Then how about…. An ugly, retarded, secretly gay member of the British royalty? Oscar GOLD written all over it! And screenwriters probably won’t have to look very far to find inspiration in real life…
Of course, the good thing is that out of all these categories, Annette Bening this year only ticks off E, and Natalie Portman just barely qualifies as E. So maybe Hollywood is learning to appreciate a more subtle approach to gay characters. Or not. You never know with Hollywood.
Some people might point out that the larger issue is not that these gay roles are being written, but that they are still being played by straight actors. After all, won’t there be a day when the gay roles can be played by (openly) gay actors? Mmm… well, yes, that‘s a nice thought. But unfortunately Hollywood’s A-list actors tend not to be openly gay. And you can blame that on a whole variety of factors, one of which might beg the question: Can an actor make it to the Hollywood A-list if he or she is openly gay? (Jodie Foster came out long after she won her two Oscars.)
Then there’s the argument that acting is about convincingly portraying something which you are not. So if you’re actually gay and playing a gay character, then you’re not really acting. This is a rather dumb argument. You might as well say that if you’re black and playing a black character, then you’re not really acting. Ah, but if you’re straight and playing a gay character, that’s gotta be more of a challenge than if you’re a gay playing a gay, right? Um….
My secret, rather silly theory is that the Hollywood establishment is making it difficult for openly gay actors to succeed because otherwise, what kind of juicy roles would be available for straight actors to play and win Oscars for? It’s not politically correct any more to black yourself up and play a different race (although did anyone else notice that the Indian character in The Social Network was played by a white actor?), but thankfully, it is still politically correct to play a different sexual orientation. And therein lies a treasure trove of possible acting Oscars.
But once we draw the line at sexual orientation, IS NOTHING SACRED?! Then you might as well say that only real rednecks can play rednecks, only real retards can play retards, and only real ugly people can play ugly characters. And Hollywood doesn’t allow real ugly people on screen. If you go further and say that only real members of the British royalty can play members of the British royalty, then you might as well pull up a few chairs in front of a wall and ask the public to watch this lovely white paint dry. There’s a reason people pay to see Colin Firth and Helen Mirren portray British royals – because they’re infinitely more interesting to watch than any real-life members of the House of Windsor.
It’s the movies, after all. It’s artifice, but it’s meant to be entertaining and touching and hopefully thought-provoking. So at the moment, let’s just say whomever can deliver the best performance, regardless of sexual orientation, is the right actor for the role (and also has the cache to pull in the rest of the finance and get the project green-lit, but never mind that for the time being…) So I’m not sure where this rant got me. You might say it’s a delicate balance. On one hand, yes, I wish the commercial film industry was more encouraging for actors to be openly gay. On the other hand, I really want to see a movie about an ugly gay retarded Nazi who goes into hiding in the Louisiana swamps only to find out he’s an illegitimate relative of British royalty. And somehow, I don’t think we’ll be able to cast an actual gay, retarded, ugly, Nazi, etc actor for that role. We’ll have to settle for a straight, liberal-minded, A-list actor with Oscar aspirations. Damn.