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Somebody, pinch me

This post is a little lengthy and it’s a step away from what I usually talk about, but stick with me. I’m really fired up about this one.

Newsweek ran an article in the May issue of Newsweek by Ramin Setoodeh called “Straight Jackets: Heterosexual actors play gay all the time. Why doesn’t it ever work in reverse?” It’s a bit of a heated argument as you can imagine, but on May 8, Tony-winning actress Kristen Chenoweth’s response to the article really got the fire going.

Setoodeh’s article starts with a review of the Broadway musical Promises Promises in which Sean Hayes (Jack from Will & Grace) plays a straight man opposite his on-stage love interest Kristen Chenoweth. His complaint: “Is it funny because of all the ’60s-era one-liners, or because the woman is so drunk (and clueless) that she agrees to go home with a guy we all know is gay?

While some of his accusations seem a bit hasty and I haven’t seen the show, I agree with him on a couple points. One being: “Most actors would tell you that the biographical details of their lives are beside the point. Except when they’re not. As viewers, we are molded by a society obsessed with dissecting sexuality, starting with the locker-room torture in junior high school.”

When you know an actor is gay, and he/she is playing straight, try as you might not, when Hayes giggles or flips his hand, you’re going to think it’s a slip. Or if Portia de Rossi on Arrested Development, I don’t know, wears a loose-fitting button down shirt, you might think that she isn’t upholding her character. Truth of the matter is, background (of the actor and the audience) is a bias.

I will say, yes, sometimes Cynthia Nixon seemed less believable sleeping with various men on Sex in the City after I found out she is gay. (It might have been the lesbian cliches: short hair cut and power suits.) But when I found out T.R. Knight (George on Grey’s Anatomy) is gay, I was astounded and impressed because there were no giveaways. Then I got angry when he started sleeping with all the girls on the show.

Was his character overcompensating? Should these actors have to make up for their life off-screen when playing a straight character? I don’t think so. While I do think some of Chenoweth’s response veered a little too far on the opposition considering her personal ties to the subject, I will take a line from her rebuttal, “We’re actors first, whether we’re playing prostitutes, baseball players, or the Lion King. Audiences come to theater to go on a journey. It’s a character and it’s called acting.”

The bias of an audience is theirs alone. It’s up to them to judge performances on what they are without the headlines on tabloids. It’s a “what if” question that’s nearly impossible to answer: If I didn’t know ______ was gay, would I see their performance as a straight character differently?

This could hold true for most actors. When Adam Sandler starts talking in a movie, on SNL or in an interview, you expect to laugh. You might even laugh when something isn’t funny because Adam Sandler is saying it. But when Spanglish, Click and Funny People came out, viewers didn’t respond as well because it seemed more false than familiar.

Just like Hayes played the flamboyant Jack and is gay off-camera, Adam Sandler is a comedic icon we recognize from classics like Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison and off-camera he is still the funny Jewish guy who sings the Hanukkah song. So in Spanglish, when he’s a middle-aged guy hating his life and in love with his pretty Latina housekeeper it’s a little harder to sell.

I couldn’t find a consistent statistic on a percentage of people who are homosexual, but we’re dealing in minorities here, people. What is a gay man’s opinion on Gyllenhaal and Ledger’s performances in Brokeback Mountain? I think the public is reacting to their performances from the standpoint of “Wow, look at these fetching straight actors making out on this breathtaking mountain. How did they muster up the courage to do that?” rather than “Are they actually pulling it off?”

It’s much easier for a heterosexual public (which we very much are), to say “He’s not acting straight enough,” than to say “He’s not acting gay enough.”

This “straight jacket” Setoodeh has invented seems to be just that, a figment of his own imagination in the case of Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening, Glee) and Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother). But if anything, his article brought to my attention my own bias in believing actors on screen. Whether it’s laughing too hysterically at Adam Sandler’s occasional mediocre joke or pulling out the fine tooth comb on all things straight when watching Neil Patrick Harris, actors can only do so much on screen to convince a close-minded audience of their character.

It’s called suspension of disbelief. Yes, it was impossible for Will Smith to erase your memory with a blinking stick in1997 as Agent J. No, there is not really a teenage boy with spidey powers. But for 90 minutes, we let those things go–we believed it. Also believe that an actor can have sex with anyone they want off camera/stage and really sell it on stage–if you give them a chance.

If you’re interested, Setoodeh did respond to Chenoweth.


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