The Playgoer: That Newsweek Gay Actors Controversy

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

That Newsweek Gay Actors Controversy

So I've finally caught up with the now-infamous Newsweek piece by one Ramin Setoodeh that claimed, among other things, that nobody is buying Sean Hayes as heterosexual in the current Promises Promises revival on Broadway.

Setoodeh, an openly gay man himself, is now defending himself against charges of homophobia and insensitivity (and can we throw in lazy theatre criticism?).  And I find him persuasive that he did not mean to slander a whole class of actors.

But when you read the original piece, the flaw in his argument is glaring: everything he says about Hayes is clearly predetermined by his pop-culture knowledge of the actor's offstage life and public persona.  (And it should here be noted, Setoodeh seems to be some kind of pop-culture columnist/blogger at Newsweek, not their theatre critic, thank god.  Then again, they don't even have a theatre critic.)

What Setoodeh is really saying is that once a gay male actor outs himself, audiences will no longer find him credible as a hetero romantic lead.  He even goes as far back as poor Rock Hudson, who did perfectly fine convincing American moviegoers he was straight--until Setoodeh now claims Pillow Talk is absurd because of what we know now.  Is that really fair to Rock's acting?

The unspoken message of Setoodeh's argument seems to me simply that gay male actors should not come out if they ever want to become starring leading men and not be relegated to the ghetto of gay characters and/or gay stories.  In other words, don't come out because popculture watchers like Setoodeh will call you out on it--even though most of the rest of us don't know actors' personal sexual preferences and don't care.

Now despite his attention to Promises Promises, Setoodeh's focus is mostly film and television.  (Jonathan Goff in Glee comes in for ridicule.)  But the experience of gay actors in the theatre business actually disproves his point most effectively.  Odds are we see many, many gay actors on stage playing hetero men than we are aware.  Partly this is because stage actors don't have their private lives under public scrutiny the way their screen counterparts do.  (Anonymity and obscurity have their benefits.)  So without knowing much about them when we walk into the theatre, we are not bothered by this at all.

In short, I think we have plenty of gay actors on the New York stage who "butch it up" quite well, thank you.  And maybe Mr. Setoodeh should meet them.

And why does Setoodeh's argument seem to imply that gay actors have a problem because they're too effeminate?  Many appear quite "butch" in real life, too, Ramin, so why should they have any problem playing straight characters?  And what about the plenty of hetero male characters that are not so butch?

This gets to perhaps the real issue here--differing ideas of "masculinity."  "Butching it up" is exactly what Setoodeh is accusing Sean Hayes of not doing.  But does he pay any attention to the character he's playing?  He contrasts him with Jerry Orbach who originated the role in the 1968 musical.  But one name shockingly missing is that of Jack Lemmon--who created originally originated the role in the source material, the 1963 movie The Apartment.  Is Jack Lemmon anyone's idea of a he-man?  In that movie especially, he was a loveable dweeb, a socially inept nerd who's lack of tangible testosterone encouraged the office women to ignore him and his bosses to exploit him.

Now I haven't seen Sean Hayes' performance--but knowing what I do about the Lemmon performance, I don't immediately rule him out as obvious miscasting in this case.

So let's put the fault where it really is.  Not on fine actors who are doing their job.  But on a media (and an obliging entertainment industry) so obsessed with personal celebrity that it does not allow actors to have private lives separate from their work.  We usually pull that off in the theatre quite well, comparatively.  It's only the poor TV stars who come to town that face such disapproval.


Playgoer said...

Goodness, even Aaron Sorkin has weighed into this:

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Hands-down, the best commentary I've read on this subject yet. Excellent.

PeonInChief said...

Uhhh, Rock Hudson?