This story was first posted on the Web on April 26, 2010.
The reviews for the broadway revival of Promises, Promises were negative enough, even though most of the critics ignored the real problem—the big pink elephant in the room. The leading man of this musical-romantic comedy is supposed to be an advertising peon named Chuck, who is madly in love with a co-worker (Kristin Chenoweth). When the play opened on Broadway in 1968, Jerry Orbach, an actor with enough macho swagger to later fuel years and years of Law & Order, was the star. The revival hands the lead over to Sean Hayes, best known as the queeny Jack on Will & Grace. Hayes is among Hollywood’s best verbal slapstickers, but his sexual orientation is part of who he is, and also part of his charm. (The fact that he came out of the closet only just before Promises was another one of those Ricky Martin “duh” moments.) But frankly, it’s weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, as if he’s trying to hide something, which of course he is. Even the play’s most hilarious scene, when Chuck tries to pick up a drunk woman at a bar, devolves into unintentional camp. 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?
This is no laughing matter, however. For decades, Hollywood has kept gay actors—Tab Hunter, Van Johnson, Richard Chamberlain, Rock Hudson, etc.—in the closet, to their detriment. The fear was, if people knew your sexual orientation, you could never work again. Thankfully, this seems ridiculous in the era of Portia de Rossi and Neil Patrick Harris. But the truth is, openly gay actors still have reason to be scared. While it’s OK for straight actors to play gay (as Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger did in Brokeback Mountain), it’s rare for someone to pull off the trick in reverse. De Rossi and Harris do that on TV, but they also inhabit broad caricatures, not realistic characters like the ones in Up in the Air or even The Proposal. Last year, Rupert Everett caused a ruckus when he told The Guardian that gay actors should stay in the closet. “The fact is,” he said, “that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the?.?.?.?film business.” Is he just bitter or honest? Maybe both.
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. Which is why it’s a little hard to know what to make of the latest fabulous player to join Glee: Jonathan Groff, the openly gay Broadway star. In Spring Awakening, he showed us that he’s a knockout singer and a heartthrob. But on TV, as the shifty glee captain from another school who steals Rachel’s heart, there’s something about his performance that feels off. In half his scenes he scowls—is that a substitute for being straight? When he smiles or giggles, he seems more like your average theater queen, a better romantic match for Kurt than for Rachel. It doesn’t help that he tried to bed his girlfriend while singing (and writhing to) Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” He is so distracting I’m starting to wonder if Groff’s character on the show is supposed to be secretly gay.
This is admittedly a complicated issue for the gay community, though it is not, in fact, a uniquely gay problem. In the 1950s the idea of “colorblind casting” became a reality, and the result is that today there’s nothing to stop Denzel Washington from playing the Walter Matthau role in the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Jack Nicholson, by the force of his charm, makes you forget how he’s entirely too old to win Helen Hunt’s heart in As Good as It Gets. For gay actors, why should sexual orientation limit a gay actor’s choice of roles? The fact is, an actor’s background does affect how we see his or her performance—which is why the Denzels or the Tom Hanks-es of the world guard their privacy carefully.
It’s not just a problem for someone like Hayes, who tips off even your grandmother’s gaydar. For all the beefy bravado that Rock Hudson pro-jects onscreen, Pillow Talk dissolves into a farce when you know the likes of his true bedmates. (Just rewatch the scene where he’s wading around in a bubble bath by himself.) Lesbian actresses might have it easier—since straight men think it’s OK for them to kiss a girl and like it—but how many of them can you name? Cynthia Nixon had a male partner when she originated Miranda on Sex and the City, Kelly McGillis was straight when she steamed up Top Gun’s sheets, and Anne Heche went back to dating men (including her Men in Trees costar); we believed their characters before their sexuality became an issue. If an actor of the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet tomorrow, would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man? It’s hard to say. Or maybe not. Doesn’t it mean something that no openly gay actor like that exists?