Saturday, May 15, 2010

Playing It Straight

I never heard of this guy until he stepped into some deep lavender doodoo last week. His name is Ramin Setoodeh, and he writes for (I don't know if his articles routinely appear in the print edition of the magazine, I let my subscription lapse two years ago, back when the magazine decided the commentary of Karl Rove was worth publishing). He is openly gay, a point about which we might think, so what?, but he's lately been reminding us of the fact at every opportunity.

Last week, he posted an opinion piece (you can read it here) which lamented the "fact" (the quotes are mine, as his facts are NOT mine) that straight actors can successfully portray gay characters, but "it doesn't ever work in reverse." (THOSE quotes are actual. He really wrote that gay people can never play straight roles successfully.) Of course, in his article, he immediately began to qualify that outrageous statement. Two of the most successful out actors in Hollywood, Neil Patrick Harris and Portia de Rossi, play roles which are "broad caricatures, and not realistic characters," according to Setoodeh, so their performances as heterosexuals must be discounted.

He also discounts the success of Cynthia Nixon, suggesting that since her work on Sex and the City occurred before she came out of the closet, her performances of that heterosexual character cannot be judged (he ignores the fact that Nixon has appeared in two Sex and the City movies since coming out, and no one blinks). He goes on to dissect a single scene in the old comedy Pillow Talk, claiming it proves that, now that we know Rock Hudson was gay, he NEVER effectively played a straight character.

And that seems to be the crux of his article (though the author denies it now, more on that in a mo'): once we as the audience are aware of an actor's homosexuality, we are unable to accept him in a heterosexual role. He ignores the fact that Hudson was widely accepted as a masculine leading man throughout his film career; according to this guy, we can not believably accept his work in those roles, now that we know, in hindsight, that he was gay.

Ramin spends a good deal of his article reflecting on what he believes is the failure of Sean Hayes to fulfill the heterosexual requirements of his current role in the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises; he also slams the performance of out actor Jonathan Groff as a straight teen on Glee, claiming the performance seems that of a "theatre queen."

Setoodeh ignored two of the most admired actors working today, Ian McKellen, who is a superstar in the fantasy film genre (Lord of the Rings, X-Men) and who continues to play heterosexual characters to great acclaim (I've got news for you, Ramin: King Lear was straight), and Cherry Jones, who is currently winning Emmy awards playing straight on 24. Those actors don't fit into his thesis, so he overlooks them.

This article has stirred up quite a bit of controversy since it hit the web (it is also in Newsweek's print edition currently on the stands). Sean Hayes is widely known from his many years on Will and Grace, playing a flamboyantly gay character, and the actor himself has recently confirmed that he is gay. Despite the fact that Hayes has won a Tony nomination for his current work, Setoodeh believes the performance is stiff, wooden, and, well, queeny. "He looks like he's hiding something," the author notes, "which of course, he is." Now I don't know if Hayes is believable in his current role or not (the Tony nominators seem to think so), and I am not naive enough to suggest that every actor, gay or straight, is appropriate for every role. Casting Hayes (or me, for that matter) as Stanley Kowalski is asking for trouble. I wouldn't cast Brian Dennehy as Quinton Crisp, either. But Setoodeh's insistence that any faults he found with Sean's performance must be laid squarely at the actor's sexual orientation does every actor, gay or straight, a monstrous injustice.

With some righteous indignation, Sean Hayes's costar in Promises Promises, Kristin Chenoweth, wrote a scathing rebuttal to the article (read it here), and many others have jumped on the bandwagon, calling Setoodeh homophobic and self-hating. At a talkback Off-Broadway this week, both Cheyenne Jackson and Michael Urie called the guy "unconscionable" (they also called him an asshole), and the creator of Glee, Ryan Murphy, is calling for a boycott of Newsweek, even as he invited the offensive writer to watch an episode of his show being produced.

In the last few days, out actor Alan Cumming has blogged his reaction, and has reminded us that the world is full of gay people effectively playing straight, only some of whom are actors. Writer Aaron Sorkin has issued an article which I think places the controversial issue into perspective; he urges that we boycott US Weekly, In Touch, and the red carpet, rather than Newsweek, as those bastions supply the endless personal information we all know about celebrities; he claims, quite rightly, that we don't need to know, and in fact shouldn't know, anything about an actor's private life in order to judge an actor's performance.

Setoodeh himself has been backpedaling furiously since his ridiculous comments ignited the uproar, appearing on MSNBC and on Joy Behar's show to explain that his article was actually about the lack of openly gay leading men in the movies. A re-reading of his original article does not support that spin, otherwise he would not have spent so much time slamming a stage performance (Hayes's) and a TV performance (Groff's). It is the author himself who finds it impossible to ignore the personal life of an actor while watching his performance. I don't know if that is self-hating, but it certainly seems like an issue he should be addressing himself, rather than assuming the whole world feels the same.