Gay Actors To Face Straits?

Billy Crystal 'Soap'In the 29 years since Billy Crystal outraged — and later won over — critics with his mostly sympathetic portrayal of a gay man on the sitcom “Soap,” prime-time audiences have come to accept straight actors playing gay parts, in everything from groundbreaking hits (Eric McCormack in “Will & Grace”) to all-but-forgotten flops (John Goodman in “Normal, Ohio”).
But will viewers prove as welcoming toward gay actors in straight roles, especially — and this is the heart of the issue — as romantic leads? Several high-profile cases in the news lately suggest that we may be about to find out, as Americans continue to grapple with their conflicted and ever-evolving views on gays and lesbians.
Last month, T.R. Knight, who plays the romantically yearning and unquestionably heterosexual Dr. O’Malley on ABC’s smash “Grey’s Anatomy,” came out as gay with a statement to People magazine, adding somewhat forlornly, “I hope the fact that I’m gay isn’t the most interesting part of me.” Knight’s real-life sexual orientation evidently was a factor in a now-notorious on-set altercation; Isaiah Washington, who tussled with costar Patrick Dempsey, reportedly directed an anti-gay epithet at an unnamed actor believed to be Knight. (Washington later apologized.)
Then, two weeks ago, another coming-out message landed on the editor’s desk at People, this one from Neil Patrick Harris, who plays the womanizing cad Barney on CBS’ comedy “How I Met Your Mother.” “I am a very content gay man living my life to the fullest,” Harris wrote, after his publicist at the time initially denied Internet rumors that the actor is gay.
Last week, the Advocate, a gay and lesbian magazine, published an interview with Kristanna Loken of “Terminator 3” and newly of Showtime’s “The L Word.” In it, she talked playfully of her relationship with another actress.
Television industry insiders agree that in just the past few weeks, gay actors in Hollywood have reached a critical new turning point, one that will reveal what restrictions may or may not be placed on their careers if they brave coming out of the closet. Ultimately, what happens next is up to prime-time viewers.
“This is new territory,” said Damon Romine, entertainment media director at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, an advocacy group. Harris and Knight in particular, he said, “are doing something that’s not been done before: Come out when being on a TV series.”
Ron Cowen, executive producer of Showtime’s drama “Queer as Folk,” said Harris, known to millions from his years on “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” is furnishing “a test case” for other gay performers.
“If not a big deal is made out of it, Hollywood will adapt to it,” Cowen added. “But if it turns out it’s not a good thing — if the ratings for ‘How I Met Your Mother’ drop, for instance — people will say, ‘That hurts shows, that hurts the business.’ “
Fear of sexual disclosure is among the most persistent of the terrors that govern Hollywood’s upper echelons. Trying to cover up a gay star’s romantic life has been a frequent obsession of publicists and agents. In one of the most famous examples, Rock Hudson married his agent’s secretary in 1955, when his movie career was rapidly ascending, largely to shield his homosexual affairs from tabloids and the public. The thinking was that mainstream viewers would never accept a gay actor as a romantic lead. As a result, while his sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood, Hudson never confirmed publicly that he was gay, even when he revealed he was dying from AIDS in 1985.
For all the advances that gays and lesbians have made on other fronts, some facts remain unchanged since Hudson’s day.
Sarah Warn, founder and editor of Afterellen.com, a lesbian entertainment site, said she knows of one top Hollywood handler who tells her gay clients never to discuss their sexuality publicly.
“She tried to spin it as ‘It’s nobody’s business,’ ” Warn said. And when rumors crop up, “most publicists deny those kinds of claims without even checking with the client.”
Indeed, while top straight-identified actors have for years received praise and prizes for playing gay characters — Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia,” for example — executives, casting directors and maybe mass audiences still seem to have a block when it comes to gay people in straight parts.
Rupert Everett, who’s been out since 1989 and has played both gay and straight characters in major films, admitted in one interview that viewers may wonder “if a queen like me can butch it up enough to play a convincing straight man.” But several factors are conspiring to change things, albeit more slowly than some activists hoping for A-list gay role models might like.
The legislative and court battles over gay marriage have increased general popular awareness, if not acceptance, of gays and lesbians, much as the initial AIDS crisis did 20 years ago. Then too entertainers such as Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres have come out and watched their careers soar, which may help embolden younger performers.
“You can use it to your advantage in a lot of ways,” said Howard Bragman, an openly gay man and veteran Hollywood publicist who helped former sitcom stars Dick Sargent and Sheila Kuehl when they came out of the closet.
Meanwhile, Internet gossips such as Perez Hilton — whose notoriety depends largely on outing celebrities — have made it tougher for stars such as Harris to keep their private lives under wraps. (Through a spokesman, Harris declined to comment.)
“Celebrity rumors that used to be spread around by phone or tabloid are now online in minutes,” Romine said.
All that leads some to believe that a renaissance in attitudes is underway. When it comes to stars’ sexuality, Bragman said, “It’s a generational thing. Kids do not care.” He predicted that in another decade, gays playing straight characters won’t even be an issue.
Others aren’t so optimistic. Cowen pointed out that in Hollywood, no issue can be separated for long from the core concerns of ratings and box office.
“The question is, how liberal can Hollywood afford to be?” he asked.
from The Los Angeles Times

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