Just in time for A Day Without Gays, Richard at Gawker puts out a call for more gay actors to be cast as leading characters in mainstream gay-themed films, not just because they could probably use the work, but so the media can stop badgering straight actors with wink-wink-nudge-nudge questions about “what it was like” to play a gay character. No one is being fooled here, they don’t want to know what it was like to explore the mindset of someone with a different sexuality, they want to know without actually saying it out loud what it was like to kiss and simulate sex with another actor of the same gender. Let’s face it, particularly with gay men, society is focused more on what they do rather than who they are. It’s not being gay that’s so shocking and offensive, it’s gay sex, but only between men. Lesbian sex is always hot, no matter how you feel about homosexuality in and of itself.
James Franco, who plays Harvey Milk’s long-time lover Scott Smith in the very excellent Milk, rather than being asked in interviews about his feelings on the gay rights struggle and the real life story behind the film, has been inundated with inane questions about his intimate scenes with co-star Sean Penn. The ridiculously handsome, charming Franco, who probably gets more panties thrown at him than a Victoria’s Secret cashier, seems to be handling the questions with grace and humor, but one wonders how much patience is required for what is essentially a trap: if he speaks too enthusiastically about it, clearly he’s gay himself, yet if he emphasizes how weird and awkward it was, despite the fact that, it would seem to me at least, simulating sex with someone you’re not attracted to, regardless of their gender, would always be weird and awkward, means he’s homophobic. As it is, blowing off the questions with “I’m an actor, I acted my way through it,” or any other logical answer one might provide to such a boneheaded question, also isn’t correct, as it means that clearly he’s hiding something. This is why Jake Gyllenhaal has been plagued with rumors about his sexuality ever since starring in Brokeback Mountain, which might as well be considered the Gone With the Wind of gay cinema. Gyllenhaal took a neither/or approach to a similar line of questions about playing love scenes with co-star Heath Ledger, not admitting to finding them arousing yet not claiming he had to swallow a gallon of Listerine and grope a cocktail waitress afterwards either, and also stated in an interview with Details that, while he was not attracted to men, he wouldn’t be particularly upset if he suddenly found himself to be, either. Sounds perfectly reasonable, and yet gossip columnists and the paparazzi have ever since been on a mission to out Gyllenhaal as one of those particularly shameful Secret Gays, like Rock Hudson. You’ll note that Ledger did not receive the same treatment, as he met girlfriend and future mother of his child Michelle Williams on the set of Brokeback, not to mention that he had already developed a reputation as a bit of a ladies’ man beforehand, as opposed to Gyllenhaal, who dated Kirsten Dunst for a long time but kept a lower profile. By media standards, his continued reluctance to discuss his personal life (he’s reportedly now dating confirmed female Reese Witherspoon), not to mention that he’s often photographed jogging in public without a shirt on, means that he’s just a few steps away from appearing at San Francisco Pride Day wearing only leather chaps and a pair of nipple rings.
It’s interesting that we assume a straight male actor having to play a love scene with another man grimaces his way with mild to palpable repulsion through it, hoping the whole time that he plays it convincingly enough to win an Oscar nomination, but not so much that he’ll be one of The Advocate‘s gay icons of the year. Meanwhile, when a love scene is filmed with a sexy woman, we assume he jumps into it with lusty abandon, even if they just met that morning. Which requires more “acting”? It’s amusing to note that some of the most famous Hollywood sex scenes featured actors that didn’t even like each other, let alone were sexually attracted. The sex scenes in Basic Instinct were so heavily choreographed, without an ounce of real passion between Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas that Stone famously referred to herself and Douglas as “the horizontal Fred and Ginger of the ’90s,” while Kim Basinger claimed that kissing co-star Mickey Rourke in 9 1/2 Weeks was “like kissing an ashtray.” The love scenes in Milk are not nearly as explicit as those in Basic Instinct or 9 1/2 Weeks, but there’s a sweet, convincing tenderness to them that the other two movies lack, which should be credited to the fine acting skills of both Sean Penn and James Franco. Yet it’s minimized by the suggestion that either Franco wasn’t really acting, or he found the whole experience revolting and just refuses to admit it. No middle ground exists.
It’s not likely that Hollywood suffers from a dearth of gay actors, it would be a huge improvement if they could be cast as something other than asexual gay boyfriends in chick flicks and TV shows like Will & Grace, who spend more time acting gay than actually being gay. If a gay actor is talented enough, he should be as capable of playing a straight character as Heath Ledger was playing a conflicted gay cowboy. Granted, Neil Patrick Harris plays a straight character on TV’s How I Met Your Mother, but I can’t help thinking it’s with a bit of a wink at the audience, as if to say “Isn’t it funny, one of the most famous gay actors in Hollywood playing a womanizer? Oh, the naughty irony!” T.R. Knight, forcibly outed by disgraced former co-star Isaiah Washington, plays a straight character on Grey’s Anatomy, but to absolutely no one’s surprise since being outed his character has been given progressively less to do with each new season; in fact Knight is reportedly trying to get out of his contract in frustration. It’s also interesting to note that Grey’s Anatomy ran into a spot of controversy recently when it abruptly made a female character bisexual, had her get into a sexual relationship with a lesbian doctor that lasted approximately two episodes, then just as abruptly dropped the storyline and the doctor without explanation. Clearly it was nothing more than a cheesy attempt at adding some titillation to a program that is progressively sinking in the ratings. It’s disheartening that in 2008, especially in light of the Prop 8 struggle, female bisexuality and lesbianism is still played in movies and TV as mostly just wank fodder for male audience members, while gay male characters are considered challenging acting stretches for straight actors, just as long as they’re not too convincing about it.