Culture Trips

Not only the brave: why straight actors playing gay are no longer automatically acclaimed | Film

In February 1994, Hollywood seemed to change for ever. Tom Hanks – the epitome of the American everyman – won a best actor Oscar for playing the out gay protagonist in a major studio movie.

In retrospect, Philadelphia looks a bit iffy. It is melodramatic, littered with tropes, and gets an awful lot of cathartic mileage out of the tragic martyrdom of its lead. Still, the tide appeared to have turned for good. Hollywood was not merely telling queer stories, it was rewarding them. Gay and lesbian roles were no longer something an agent would immediately bin; they were a fast track to kudos and awards.

Since 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, as many as 35 Oscar-nominated roles have been LGBTQ+. None of those, however, were portrayed by openly LGBTQ+ performers. Playing gay is brave enough to get a medal. Being gay and playing gay? Not so much. (To date, Ian McKellen is the only out gay actor to be Oscar-nominated for a gay role – in Gods and Monsters).

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain. Photograph: Focus Features/Allstar

“After Brokeback,” says Erik Anderson, editor-in-chief of the Hollywood website AwardsWatch, “I think more actors probably did seek out a queer role to pad out their canon and their legacy. Largely because it became very awards-friendly to do so.”

It was alluring for less immediately craven reasons, too. “It stretches their abilities, but also challenged audience perceptions,” says Anderson. Few actors don’t fancy a heavily flagged stretch, or a little mystery in which to wreath their persona.

So you might have been forgiven for predicting glorious awards sweeps for two recent dramas. Francis Lee’s Ammonite and Harry Macqueen’s Supernova both pair well-loved, publicly straight actors in stories explicitly about gay love. In Ammonite, Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet are our clandestine couple in 19th-century Dorset. Supernova follows a tragic road-trip undertaken by a long-term couple: Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci.

Yet both films were snubbed at the Oscars; the kind of acclaim lavished on Firth for his role in Tom Ford’s A Single Man 10 years ago was withheld. “Brave” was not an adjective wheeled out to describe any of the four main actors, unless in association with Winslet’s makeup choices.

Somewhere along the line, playing gay has gone from making you flavour of the month to leaving a strange taste. The Academy Awards two years ago offer a clue as to what has changed. Three of the four performance Oscars were given for queer roles: Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite, and Mahershala Ali’s Don Shirley in Green Book. But as many noted at the time, those characters’ queerness was either incidental, obfuscated or fatal.

In the eyes of his biopic, Mercury’s HIV diagnosis, and eventual, off-screen death, was an inevitable punishment for those of us who transgress heterosexual respectability. Green Book was similarly regressive. “Ali’s character’s sexuality is something to be pitied and rescued by the white lead,” says Anderson. “Which is the old, old, old way of writing gay characters.”

“I think the idea of being ‘brave’ for playing gay is going away,” says the critic Guy Lodge. “With Rami Malek, those who did like his performance were mostly impressed by his mimicry or his physicality. I certainly didn’t hear a lot of people saying: now, isn’t it remarkable that a straight man had the guts to play Freddie Mercury? I think that in itself is seen as fairly unremarkable now.”

The new prudishness that informed the film – and polluted the potential “courage” of its star – means it feels a strikingly different proposition from even, say, Brokeback Mountain. While Bohemian Rhapsody seems to recoil from from graphic intimacy, Brokeback Mountain was more explicit, not least in its key tent scene.

“There was a lot of fuss at the time about two straight actors having the guts to do that on screen,” says Lodge. “I wonder if the bravery narrative was tied more to the physical act of enacting gay sex, rather than just playing gay. Maybe that’s where the gay panic set in.”

The fate of both Ammonite and Supernova also suggests that gay independent cinema does still need a considerable push if it is to compete with studio products. For all its immaculate indie credentials, Nomadland was distributed by Disney. Comparably sized queer titles that found some awards success, such as Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name or Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, were celebrated at film festivals and rode the propulsion for many months after.

Covid kiboshed Ammonite and Supernova’s chances of following a similar trajectory. “People just didn’t seem to engage with the film itself,” suggests Lodge. “Everyone agreed that Kate Winslet was remarkable, and I think it’s one of her best performances, but the film never really got a tailwind of festival momentum.” Supernova, likewise, never really took off following its festival launch last autumn.

But there is also a positive story to the shunning of these queer tales. Voters turning up their noses is perhaps testimony to the shift in the way queer people are perceived since Hanks took to the podium. Even 10 years ago, eyebrows might have been appreciatively raised at the sight of an A-lister actor playing gay in a baity drama; today, nobody bats an eyelid.

“The more gay relationships become normalised in popular culture, the harder it is to build a publicity narrative around them,” says Lodge. “Supernova had to be sold as a universally relatable human drama, which it is, but it’s hard to do.”

Also, far from being surprised they have dared to take the role on lest they queer the pitch of their apparently straight persona, actors now find themselves challenged in the media for taking work away from actual gay performers.

Although key names such as Derek Jacobi have rejected Russell T Davies’s comparison of playing another sexuality as “blacking up”, all four stars of Ammonite and Supernova have been careful to criticise an industry in which, as Winslet put it, LGBTQ+ actors are still fearful of coming out lest they no longer be put up for straight roles.

Firth has gone further, while also deflecting blame to the system. “Taking on a role feels like an insufferable presumption,” he said. “You know nothing about this person’s lived experience and yet you are presuming to take a step into it and convince everybody that this is a deeply felt experience.

“That always feels outrageous to me, but it’s also the job. You just hope it resonates in a way that is somewhat truthful.”

Supernova finally comes out in the UK next month, its release pushed back because of the pandemic and, perhaps, in the persistent hope its posters could boast of all the garlands its leads had received. That a gay film has been overlooked like this feels, strangely, like progress.

Supernova is released in the UK on 25 June; Ammonite is available on DVD and digital download.

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