As the world gets ready for the 83rd Academy Awards on February 27th, it's worth noting that in those 83 years, not a single openly gay actor has taken home a trophy. In fact, only one, Sir Ian McKellan, has ever been nominated, for Best Actor in 1999's Gods and Monsters. Sure, gay actors like Jane Lynch and Chris Colfer from Glee have won Golden Globes for their TV acting, but Oscar remains astoundingly homophobic.
Ironically, the Academy has a storied history of showering accolades on straight actors for playing gay roles. Tom Hanks won Best Actor in 1993 for Philadelphia, Hilary Swank won Best Actress in 1999 for Boys Don't Cry, Nicole Kidman won Best Actress in 2002 for her portryal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours, Charlize Theron won Best Actress in 2003 for Monster, Philip Seymour Hoffman won in 2005 for Capote, and Sean Penn won Best Actor in 2009 for Milk.
Straight actors nominated for playing gay roles include Jude Law for The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1999, Javier Bardem in 2002 for Before Night Falls and Salma Hayek that same year for Frida, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain, Felicity Huffman the same year for Transamerica, and Judi Dench in 2006 for Notes On A Scandal. The tradition continues this year, with Annette Bening's nomination for Best Actress in The Kids Are Alright, and Natalie Portman for Best Actress, if you count the lesbian scene in Black Swan.
Why the double standard? Aren't gay actors just as capable of playing gay characters as straight actors?
Perhaps the Academy believes a gay actor in a gay role isn't enough of a "stretch", or isn't even acting. But ask any gay actor and they will tell you that playing straight or gay onscreen is basically the same thing. For love scenes, actors are not actually having sex, and they may not even like their co-star. They are surrounded for hours or days by film crews, and the actors' job is making it look good on camera, not making themselves feel good. The angles and lighting have to be just right, the actors' bodies and faces have to be positioned just so, the director usually demands several takes to get the shots he wants. James Franco, who is co-hosting this year's ceremonies and has played several gay roles, said in a recent interview that he had respect for porn actors, because they were really "selling it", and not having sex on camera just for their own pleasure.
So if there really is no difference between a straight actor playing a gay role and a gay actor playing a gay role, there shouldn't be any valid reason for gay actors in gay roles to not get nominated, right? Wrong. If you asked the Academy why that is, the answer you would get is, "Blame Hollywood." And it is correct. Casting agents who work with gay actors frequently tell their clients to keep their sexuality a secret from the public, or risk being blacklisted. Of course, everyone in show business knows who's gay and who isn't, but for actors to publicly announce they are gay is still taboo. The most successful producers and directors look at the bottom line, which is making blockbusters and/or awards season contenders. To do that, they feel they must be risk-averse and stick to a formula. That formula, unfortunately, doesn't include casting a gay person in a gay role, or any role. As a result, gay actors tend to be offered sub-par roles in gay movies by studios that don't have the resources to produce quality work and market their films aggressively enough to be serious Oscar contenders.
Will this ever change? Only if and when the powers that be in Hollywood are bold enough to take the risk that mainstream American audiences will pay to see gay actors in gay roles. Of course, the movie has to be great enough for people to want to see it. For the most part, queer cinema in the United States, for lack of a better word, sucks. In other countries, particularly Italy, France, and Israel, queer cinema is outstanding and booming. Gay-themed movies featuring gay actors get government financing. The plots are well-written, the acting is superb, and the films win awards. Perhaps the state of queer cinema in the U.S. is one reason Hollywood big shots are so risk-averse when it comes to casting gay actors.
Let's hope that the tide changes, attitudes shift, and one day we'll see gay actors standing at the podium on Oscar night, trophy in hand. Until then, enjoy watching straight actors steal our thunder.