Friday, July 9, 2010

Homosexuality and Hollywood

Earlier this month NBC faced protests from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination (GLAAD) as the wedding contest held on the Today show each year excluded same sex couples. NBC argued that it excluded same sex couples as any couple who wins must be able to legally marry in New York, a state which does not yet recognise same sex unions. In turn, GLAAD argued that New York does recognise same sex unions licensed by other states. As of today, NBC relented its stand and will now allow same sex couples to participate in the annual wedding contest on Today. The fact that NBC will now allow same sex couples to participate in the wedding contest on Today shows how much things have changed in the past several years. The fact that NBC initially excluded same sex couples from the contest shows how little things have changed.

As a heterosexual male, I have never experienced discrimination because of my sexual orientation, but as a pop culture historian I know all too well that such discrimination was the norm for most of the histories of the movie and television industries. In fact, there was a time when homosexuality was considered the kiss of death for any actor, particularly those  frequently cast as romantic leads or action heroes. Although it has often been reported otherwise, many film historians believe that Rock Hudson's marriage to agent Henry Wilson's secretary Phyllis Gates was simply meant to dismiss any possible rumours that Mr. Hudson was gay (which he was). Tab Hunter's alleged romances with Debbie Reynolds and Natalie Wood, with whom he was both close friends, were simply publicity ploys created by Warner Brothers to stave off any talk that Mr. Hunter was gay (which he was). Although it might not seem so today, Messrs. Hudson and Hunter were lucky in that, while they had to be a part of romances that existed only in the minds of studio publicity departments, they were still able to see whomever they wished, even if it was in total secrecy. Tommy Kirk, star of such Disney films as  Old Yeller, The Shaggy Dog, and Swiss Family Robinson, was not so lucky. In 1963 Walt Disney Productions chose not to renew Tommy Kirk's contract after word reached the studio that he was involved in an affair with another boy. Reportedly, it was Walt Disney himself who fired Mr. Kirk. Because of pressure from movie goers, Walt Disney Productions would hire Tommy Kirk to star in the sequel to the enormously successful Monkey's Uncle, The Misadventures of Merlin Jones. It was the last movie he made for the studio. Patsy Kelly was not so lucky. While it is quite likely that much of the reason that her career started to suffer in the Forties was because of her habit of getting tossed out of restaurants and other public venues, it seems more likely that much of the reasons studios began avoiding her was Miss Kelly's habit of announcing, quite loudly, that she was a lesbian.

The simple fact is that during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the studios believed that even an accusation of homosexuality made towards an actor was box office poison. To a large degree it is understandable why the studios would believe this. Laws against sexual relations between members of the same sex existed in the British Colonies even before the United States of America won its independence. Similar laws against sexual relations between members of the same sex existed in nearly every state of the Union well into the Seventies. By the 20th Century homosexuality was not only regarded as immoral and criminal, but as a mental illness as well. Until 1973 The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM for short) included homosexuality as a mental disorder. For much of the 20th Century the United States government regarded homosexuals as security risks. The U.S. State Department even listed them as such in a report issued in 1950. From 1947 to 1950 4,380 people were discharged from the military, 420 government employees were fired, and 1,700 federal job applications were denied due to the simple suspicion of homosexuality. Indeed, at this point in American history homosexuality was taboo. It was rarely mentioned by name and certainly never in polite society. A man or woman even suspected of homosexuality could be denied housing, fired from their jobs, and shunned by nearly everyone. Given the fact that homosexuals were pariahs in the United States for much of the 20th Century, the studios may well have been right in their assumption that a revelation of homosexuality could destroy an actor's career.

Today it would seem that attitudes towards homosexuality in Hollywood and the United States has changed considerably. In 2003 actor Richard Chamerlain revealed that he was a homosexual in his autobiography Shattered Love. The revelation certainly did not hurt his career, as he has acted regularly since then (most recently in an episode of Leverage). Actor Neil Patrick Harris announced that he was gay in 2006. Since then his career as only grown, from hosting the Tony Awards to starring in Joss Whedon's web mini-series Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog to performing the opening to the 82nd Academy Awards to continuing to play the very heterosexual Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother. If there is walking proof that homosexuality is no longer a stigma in the United States, it would seem to be Neil Patrick Harris.

That having been said, I think to some degree homosexuality remains a stigma, both in the United States and Hollywood. The plain truth is that Richard Chamberlain's days as a leading man ended years ago, while Neil Patrick Harris is primarily a comic actor, singer, and dancer. While homosexuality may be accepted in character actors and comic actors, I have to wonder that it would be tolerated in a leading man, particularly a romantic lead or action star. In her excellent overview of the movie Victim (1961) on her blog Discovering Dirk Bogarde, Kate Gabrielle mentions the fact that she has received comments from readers of the blog to the effect that Sir Dirk Bogarde was "such a great actor, it's a shame he was gay." Indeed, one need look no further than Anne Heche's career to see how the revelation of even bisexuality can be very damaging. Prior to Miss Heche's relationship with comedian Ellen Degeneres, which started in 1997, she starred in such feature films as The Juror (1996) and Donnie Brasco (1997), in which she played a wife and mother. Afterwards Miss Heche's career faltered, so that at best she received smaller roles in feature films (such as John Q) and starring roles in TV movies (Silver Bells). The reason Anne Heche's career faltered may have been her relationship with Ellen Degeneres. According to Rebecca Sullivan, a professor in pop culture at the University of Calgary, "People are very resistant to accepting a gay actor in a straight role." Given what happened to Anne Heche's career, one can guess what would happen if a male romantic lead or action star came out of the closet. Audiences would no longer accept him in roles as the lead of romantic comedies or as the lead of action movie. In other words, if Matthew McConaughey announced tomorrow that he was gay, we should probably never again expect to see him as a romantic lead or an action star.

Of course, here it must be pointed out that a double standard exists both among the Hollywood studios and movie goers. While both studios and audiences seem to be unable to accept a homosexual in a straight role, both studios and audiences seem more than willing to accept a straight actor in a gay role. A perfect example of this is Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks is undeniably straight. He has been married to actress Rita Wilson since 1988 and the couple had two sons together. Despite the fact that Tom Hanks is heterosexual, however, audiences accepted him playing a homosexual in the movie Philadelphia (1993). Indeed, he even won the Oscar for Best Actor in the role. Similarly, no one questioned Heath Ledger or Jake Gyllenhaal's performances in Brokeback Mountain, even though both actors were straight. In fact, both actors were nominated for Oscars. At no point did anyone say that they found Tom Hanks, Heath Ledger, or Jake Gyllenhaal unconvincing as straight actors playing gay characters.

The fact that such a double standard exists at all should perhaps be considered ludicrous insofar as many gay actors have convincingly played straight characters over the years. In fact, it must be pointed out that both Sir Dirk Bogarde and Rock Hudson made their livings as both romantic leads and stars in thrillers and action films. Sir Dirk Bogarde played the extremely heterosexual Dr. Simon Sparrow in the highly successful Doctor series of films in the Fifties and Sixties, and starred in many other romantic comedies as well. Rock Hudson played the male lead opposite Doris Day in Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers, three of the greatest Sixties sex comedies of all time. To this day people find their performances in these and other films convincing, despite the fact that both Sir Dirk Bogarde and Rock Hudson were gay. Indeed, it must be pointed out that Rock Hudson and Sir Dirk Bogarde were not alone in their ability to convincingly play straight characters. Tab Hunter, Kerwin Matthews, Peter Wyngarde, and many other gay actors convincingly played straight characters over the years.

Beyond the fact that I believe discrimination based on sexual orientation is wrong, I must also say that acting is called "acting" for a reason. Acting can perhaps most simply be defined as representing a character other than oneself on the stage or screen. Because of this, an actor or actress can play characters who might be nothing like himself or herself in real life. Does anyone believe that Sir Antony Hopkins must regularly kill and eat human beings because he played Hannibal Lector so well? Does anyone beleive that Russell Crowe has actually participated in gladiatorial battles to the death because he played Maximus so well? I rather doubt it. A good actor can assume roles totally unlike himself or herself in real life and be quite convincing in doing so. It was then unnecessary for Sir Dirk Bogarde or Rock Hudson to be straight to play straight roles, just as it is unnecessary for Tom Hanks or Jake Gyllenhaal to be gay to play gay roles. A good actor can play nearly any role offered to him or her, even if the character is not like himself or herself in real life.

Looking at the careers of such actors as Tommy Kirk, Tab Hunter, Sir Dirk Bogarde, and Rock Hudson, I think we can safely say that when it comes to giving good performances, it is talent and not sexual orientation that matters. Indeed, I would say that gay actors should be treated no differently from straight actors because of their sexuality. It seems to me that sexual orientation has no real impact on an individual's talent, which means that it should not be used as a means of casting actors in various roles. While sexuality is a big part of who we are as human beings, it is not this monolithic factor in our lives with an incredible amount of impact on the work we do or the talent we have. In the end, perhaps, we should not discuss gay actors or straight actors, but simply actors, period.

1 comment:

Jim Marquis said...

Great stuff (as usual). It's really amazing how much things have changed in the last fifty years.