I’ve been struggling for days now to write about Hollywood’s preference for casting straight actors to play gay roles. For the record, I do NOT believe that all gay roles must be played by gay actors. The craft of acting is built on the understanding that we can empathize with the people other than ourselves. It’s why we do it, it’s why we watch it. Finding the universal in the particular, personal, even the eccentric may be the root of all good art. Certainly the experience of being an outsider is one that most individuals can find a way to relate to. I am firmly in the ‘let ‘em play gay’ camp.
There is something about this that still sticks in my craw, however. Not only are sexual minorities the only marginalized group who are routinely portrayed on film by non-members, in fact a strong attitude still prevails that it is preferable for non-members play us. The reasons why tend to be pretty vague; it’s more of an acting challenge according to some, gay films are risky ventures to begin with, so it’s necessary to involve big name performers to pull in audiences, are just two of the arguments I’ve heard. And in return for this, we are expected not to squawk, but be grateful that our stories are being told at all.
Let’s think about this; if a white man was cast as Ray Charles, if men were cast as Thelma or Louise, because "they were the right actors for the roles" many people would be up in arms, me included. I accept that the glbt experience is not necessarily analogous to that of race or gender, but I’m still not sure why not. Do we HAVE to be portrayed by straight people? Then if we throw in the argument frequently voiced by producers that openly queer performers won’t be accepted as straight characters (at least in romantic roles) it becomes evident that if a gay performer wants to be work in Hollywood, he or she better stay closeted.
Perhaps this is the single biggest difference we have from women and people of color, the closet. Most of us have had to go through a period of self-discovery and identification, then we have to decide if we want to ‘pass’ in the dominant culture. Since we have the option not to rock the boat, or disturb the status quo, there ends up being great pressures both external and internal (yes, our own discomfort can’t be ignored) to stay under the radar.
Yes, I know it’s tricky to talk about Hollywood as if it’s a monolithic entity, with some secret cabal setting casting policy, but we do have some gauges for noting trends. When looking at the situation for actresses and performers of color, we count the roles available for them to begin with, then we examine how well their stories are told. We also look at awards; it is seen (quite rightly, I believe) as noteworthy that we’ve only just had a black actress win a best actress Oscar. These measurements, when applied to the glbt situation reveal similar findings. "The Year of the Queer" notwithstanding, glbt characters are still pretty rare in film, and still primarily presented as jokes and stereotypes. To date there has been exactly one openly gay actor nominated for an Academy Award, and he didn’t win.
I only see one solution at this point, and it’s the one modeled by women and people of color before us; we need to forget about Hollywood, and make our own movies, tell our own stories. Yes, we’ve been doing that, and it’s started to pay off for some people, mostly directors at this point (John Waters, Rose Troche, Gus Van Zant to name a few). The handful of openly gay actors in Hollywood mostly work in (cable) TV, as character actors (often on hiatus from Broadway), or they’re British. God bless ‘em, they’re still making a difference, but I don’t think they’re going to be able to do much more than they have. No, we’re going to have to work on our own, outside the Hollywood system. History has shown us that if good work finds its audience, Hollywood will be gladly step in to take a piece of the action. It may be tapped into the ongoing debates of our culture, but the fact remains it is a business first and foremost, with huge amounts of money at stake. It isn’t interested in taking any risks, or doing us any favors. We’ve got to stop expecting it to. Individuals may have noble agendas, I for one don’t question Ang Lee’s sincerity or support one bit for example, but we’re not doing ourselves any favors if we wait around for acceptance. I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on these matters.