14 June 2010

Gay Actors

On 26 April, Newsweek.com, the news weekly’s website, published a column by Ramin Setoodeh in which he wrote that “it's OK for straight actors to play gay,” but, he continued, “it's rare for someone to pull off the trick in reverse.” Though Setoodeh, a regular Newsweek contributor, never said so directly in “Straight Jacket,” in a subsequent column, “Out Of Focus” (10 May), he explained his position more succinctly: “It's often hard for us to accept an openly gay actor playing a straight character.” The original essay raised enough hackles that several prominent people published comments, some quite heated, among them, most famously, actress Kristin Chenoweth, co-star of the Broadway musical Promises, Promises, in which she appears opposite Sean Hayes, the butt of Setoodeh’s remarks. Others to respond included producer and writer Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, film; The West Wing, TV; The Farnsworth Invention, Broadway) and Ryan Murphy, writer and creator of the TV shows Nip/Tuck and Glee (which also co-stars Chenoweth and features another openly gay actor, Jonathan Groff, whom Setoodeh singled out as an example). Murphy, himself openly gay (as is Setoodeh as well), even went so far as to call for a boycott of Newsweek until the periodical and the writer apologize.

I’m not sure a Newsweek boycott will have much effect right now. The magazine is in financial trouble anyway, looking for a buyer (the Washington Post, which owns it, is selling) and trying to promote new subscribers by distributing the publication free to a mailing list it seems to have culled from random sources. (My mother’s been getting it for weeks though she’s never taken Newsweek—and, what’s more, the magazine comes addressed to my dad, who’s been dead for 14 years!) I was visiting my mother recently, and I read a couple of issues that arrived while I was there. (I was a Time subscriber for years; I only read Newsweek occasionally, mostly in dentists’ offices, or for research.) As thin as it is now, it’s pretty close to devoid of content these days. Few articles are more than a page (which usually includes a large illustration or a wide title banner or both, so the text’s pretty skimpy), and most are a single page or less. On the basis of the freebies, I wouldn’t bother to pick it up anymore. It looks like the 77-year-old magazine’s in the process of shooting itself in the foot anyway; a boycott would just be redundant.

I do have to wonder why Newsweek would bother running an article like “Straight Jacket.” It’s not that they don’t have the right to, or that Setoodeh should be censored (censured, perhaps, but not censored). The writer has a right to say what he wants and the periodical can print what it pleases. Setoodeh’s entitled to his opinions. But as the saying goes, opinions are like assholes—everybody’s got one. That doesn’t mean the rest of us have to be exposed to them, however. There are some plays of which I say, ‘Yes, I understand. The playwright had to write this in order to move on. But why does he have to inflict it on me?’ Well, that’s what Setoodeh’s essay is: apparently he had to say this for some reason. But it doesn’t enlighten anyone to read it—so why didn’t the eds at Newsweek just thank him for his effort . . . and spike the article? Maybe the foundering publication is desperate for any attention—or maybe no one’s at the wheel. (At least on the ‘Net they didn’t kill trees and make paper waste.)

Now, lets get away from the venue and focus back on the issue raised. To paraphrase Professor Irwin Corey, there are really two points here. The one that should be the main proposition is that it’s hard to believe an actor who’s ill-suited for his or her role. Casting’s tricky under the best of circumstances, but any actor hired for a part ought to be able to handle it convincingly. Right? I mean, that’s a given, isn’t it? That criterion has nothing specifically to do with the actor’s sexual orientation, known, unknown, or suspected. If Sean Hayes can’t do Chuck Baxter in Promises, Promises credibly, his sexuality aside, then a reviewer or a spectator has every right to criticize the director for miscasting the part and the actor. Even if someone else disagrees with the estimation, it’s still a legit area of criticism. (In fact, Ben Brantley said in his Times review of Promises that Chenoweth “was not meant to play Fran, and you sense that she knows it.”) Actors may not like to acknowledge it, but not every one of them can do every role ever written. Back when I was trying to be an actor, I discovered quickly that I was better at Shakespeare, Shaw, and Noel Coward than I was at Neil Simon. We all have limitations, some more obvious than others. It’s just a truth of the business.

But none of that is about sexuality per se. What Setoodeh said was that knowing that an actor is gay (he doesn’t have the same problem with lesbian actors, apparently—just gay men) makes that actor hard to believe as a heterosexual leading man. As the Newsweek writer stated, as long as the actor’s sexuality is in doubt, he can pull off the straight role. It’s only when you know (or strongly suspect) that the actor is gay that the credibility gap occurs. Now, that turns the equation around for me. If an actor actually isn’t suited for a role—say, because of physical appearance, temperament (that’s what Brantley blamed for Chenoweth’s miscasting: she’s too strong for the character), or, ummm, talent—the fault lies with the director, the producer, or even the actor (for accepting a role he can’t handle). But if the problem is that you know something about an actor, something that doesn’t show in his work, isn’t visible in his appearance, isn’t actually part of his stage- or screenwork, then the problem is with you. It’s in your head—and your attitude. It’s petty much like saying, ‘That guy can’t play Hamlet because I don’t like him.’ (An awful lot of nasty people—even ones we knew were nasty—have successfully played good guys and heroes.) It’s just not relevant. You’re bringing into the theater facts, beliefs, and suspicions that don’t belong there. (Aaron Sorkin, in his response to the whole controversy, said that “we know too much about each other and we care too much about what we know.”) A jury isn’t supposed to bring outside knowledge into court; a theatergoer should leave the real world outside during a performance. The theater creates its own universe, but if you bring the real one into the performance, the magic won’t work. That’s what it seems to me Setoodeh did: he allowed real-world facts to impinge on the created world of a play.

I don’t have any idea what Setoodeh’s motives were. Commentators of all sorts, from those who sounded off on Newsweek.com to those with platforms of their own, inferred reasons for the writer’s opinion of Hayes’s performance and the conclusions he extrapolated from it. Maybe his reasons were venal, maybe they were ignorant, but why he ever came to feel the way he did, it’s still all up in his head. It’s not real and it’s not universal. (In a separate fallacy, one with which I’ve taken exception before in reviews, Setoodeh imputed his own response to Hayes’s performance to all viewers, as if he knows somehow what “we” all think. Aside from the fact that I think he’s wrong anyway, this is arrogance of the first order.) As far as I can tell, he may even be one of a very few who ended up feeling that way either about Hayes or gay actors in general. I can say with assurance that such considerations don’t mean anything to me when I see a show. Unless you’re very, very good at compartmentalization, you can’t wall off sexuality as a evaluative criterion and not also include other aspects of an actor’s background. I can tell you that, even though I know that F. Murray Abraham isn’t Jewish, when I saw him do both Shylock and Barabas in rep a few years ago, I was thrilled with his portrayals of the two highest-profile Jewish characters in theater lit. I wouldn’t even try to describe my delight as a child when I saw Mary Martin do Peter Pan, even though I knew she was neither male nor a teenager. (When you’re 13 or so and Mary Martin sings “I Gotta Crow,” believe me, you don’t care! I still don’t—it’s a cherished memory.) Audiences knew damned well that Godfrey Cambridge wasn’t a white actor when he played a white bigot in Watermelon Man (not even in heavy make-up) but we all believed it so that the movie would work. And we all knew that Cicely Tyson was not 110 years old when she played Miss Jane Pittman on TV, but the performance remains transcendent. The fact is, you gotta take a little of Tinker Bell’s magic with you into a performance: What you know has little bearing on what you believe! All Hollywood knew that Charles Laughton was gay, but he played the most aggressively heterosexual monarch in history in a high-rated performance.

It’s not just that Setoodeh might be homophobic (or self-hating, as some of his recent correspondents decided). That’s almost irrelevant here—at least in my estimation of the situation. It’s a free country, as they say; you can hate whomever you want! No, my complaint about Setoodeh’s essay is that he based his evaluation of a performance on elements that aren’t part of the art. Michelangelo was supposed to have been gay, too—but no one judges his paintings, frescoes, or sculptures on that fact. It’s an irrelevancy—the art is just magnificent under any circumstances. (Michelangelo’s marbles are my absolute favorite sculptures in the world. I love his Moses above any other piece of stone on this planet. And I swear the David moves when I see it live. That marble has a pulse, by God!) I don’t give a damn whom he slept with or what his political beliefs were—I don’t even care if he was the vilest man in 16th-century Italy. I only care that he made unparalleled art. The same is true of van Gogh, my favorite painter in the world. He was probably schizophrenic and had aural hallucinations—and he liked whores. So what. The man’s moral failings and health problems aren’t really my business (not that I’m not compassionate). It’s mostly irrelevant to the art he created, which is stunning, even astonishing. That’s the only measure of his art I need to consider. El Greco may have been astigmatic and that may account for the elongated appearance of his figures—but that’s only a curiosity in the end. The spirituality expressed in his paintings is elevating and inspiring. That’s what matters. I see no difference with respect to Sean Hayes’s sexuality—or any actors’—when evaluating his work on stage. Either he nails the role or he doesn’t, but whether he’s gay or straight and whether he’s said so or not is outside the parameters of evaluation unless he’s making open passes at all the guys on stage and down in the pit. Okay, if he’s doing Macbeth and he prances around the stage like a faun, that’s cause for caustic criticism. Then you criticize the actor for what he did, but if he just puts his arm around Chenoweth’s Fran like any intimidated shy guy, but you don’t buy it just because you think you know he’s gay—well, that’s out of bounds. You’re judging his work for who (or what) he is, not what he did. (There’s a word for that—it’s called prejudice.) You’re applying inappropriate standards. It’s as if you decided beforehand that no redhead can be a light comedian, so any actor with red hair just fails in that kind of play. You’ve rigged the game, queered (if you’ll pardon the term) the pitch, poisoned the well. You’re not playing fair.

By the way, Setoodeh makes a point of saying that the original Chuck Baxter was played by the late, beloved Jerry Orbach, “an actor with enough macho swagger to later fuel years and years of Law and Order,” but lets remember that in the 1960 movie on which the musical was based, the character (then called C. C. Baxter) was played by Jack Lemmon, a somewhat less macho actor. (Let’s face it, Lemmon’s Baxter was a schnook.) There are apparently many problems with the revival of Promises, and Hayes’s performance got a lot of negative criticism from reviewers, but let’s allow that his and director Rob Ashford’s idea may have been to return to that less self-assured character. That doesn’t mean Hayes worked out right (although he was nominated for a best-actor Tony), but perhaps, despite Setoodeh’s fixation on Jerry Orbach, who played roles like El Gallo (The Fantasticks), Sky Masterson (Guys and Dolls), Billy Flynn (42nd Street), and Julian Marsh (Chicago)—all roles of bravado and confidence—before he finished up with Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order, director Ashford had someone of less machismo in mind for his production and Hayes’s Chuck wasn’t marred by what Setoodeh determined is the actor’s sexual preference but predicated on a different prototype. (Lemmon appeared in several movies written by Neil Simon, the book writer for Promises, Promises. It’s certainly possible that Lemmon was the model for Ashford’s idea of Chuck rather than Orbach, who, for the record, did play a self-effacing, shy character on Broadway: Paul Berthalet, the puppeteer in Carnival!.)

In 1989, after New York magazine reviewer John Simon wrote that black actors shouldn’t perform roles written for white actors, I sent an open letter to New York City publications arguing essentially this same point but from a racial standpoint. Three years later, in response to a disapproving essay in the arch-conservative publication The World & I (published by the Moonie-owned Washington Times), I wrote a letter to the editor explaining and defending non-traditional casting. I’ve mentioned and quoted from both these letters before on ROT, principally “Non-Traditional Casting” (20 December 2009) with some mention in “The Art of Writing Reviews by Kirk Woodward, Part 3” (11 November 2009). Setoodeh’s benighted position is not unlike those of Simon and David H. Ehrlich, the author of the World & I essay. All three writers appear to come into the theater with preformed ideas about what characters must look like and how they should behave. In all three cases, it seems to me, the men base those ideas on what has always been done before, what they’ve always seen, and what they know. Artists holding different or new thoughts need not apply.

After Chenoweth’s 7 May reply to “Straight Jacket” on Newsweek.com (so you don’t have to search for it there like I did, it’s in two parts on page 14 of the comments section), Setoodeh came back with a defense. He said he was trying to start a dialogue, though I’m not altogether sure about what exactly, but all he managed to start was a shouting match. (He said he was shocked, shocked that he got such vituperative responses. What planet does he live on, for Pete’s sake?) I mean, if he wants to talk about why out gay actors aren’t credible playing straight characters, I don’t see the point, since it’s a mistaken premise to start with. I say it’s not actually so, at least among the vast majority of theatergoers, including reviewers. Discussing it would be like trying to have a debate on why the sky is green. It’s not, so why talk about it? Anyone who thinks there’s an actual issue here, aside from Setoodeh’s error, is plain wrong-headed. They may, as Linda Richman, Mike Meyers’s SNL character, might suggest, talk among themselves. I won’t bother to argue with Setoodeh’s statements because others, especially Chenoweth, have taken care of that excellently. (The actress’s remarks are also republished elsewhere on the web, including Broadway.com and PerezHilton.com. Other responses are Aaron Sorkin’s on Huffingtonpost.com and Ryan Murphy’s on EW.com.) I’ll sum up my point, however, by quoting Chenoweth: “Audiences aren’t giving a darn about [an actor’s] personal life.” In other words, No one cares. It’s meaningless. Then she reminds people like Setoodeh: “It’s called acting.” That’s all that counts. Anything else is Quatsch. Quatsch mit Soße.

[In addition to having been nominated for a Tony for his performance in Promises, Promises, Sean Hayes was invited to host the 64th Annual Tony Awards ceremony last night. (Hayes didn’t win the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical; it went to Douglas Hodge for La Cage aux Folles.)]

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