In the past decade and a half or so, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of gay characters to portray. Gay roles likely appeal to actors because they allow them to portray some of the most compelling characters around, not to mention the fact that the Academy thinks they're swell. They are often outsiders wanting to be accepted, with a history of societal disregard, harboring secrets, struggling to inhabit the truest version of themselves despite so many forces acting against them. Gay love stories are immensely intimate, but rife with fear and inherent danger. These characters offer actors a chance to embody strength and vulnerability, self-discovery and repression, joy, self-hatred — an actor's dream.
And if gay characters are this deep, this emotional, this complex, just imagine what real live gays must be like. So actors who are gay must have, by definition, an especially deep well of emotions which they can tap into in order to portray whatever character.
What if these actors, as complex beings, simply bring more depth to characters than some of their straight counterparts? With all the continuing brouhaha, rigmarole and general hubbub surrounding Ramin Setoodeh's Newsweek article, I thought, what if what Ramin interpreted as some sort of lurking gayness is simply complexity of performance?
Let's look at his examples. Rock Hudson's performance in Pillow Talk feels like a farce, Ramin, because Pillow Talk is a farce. And that "bubble bath scene" where he flirts and flits on the phone in split screen with Doris Day, in her respective bathtub, is successful because Rex Stetson (Hudson's character) is so hyper-masculine, so confident, such a womanizer that plopping him in a bubble bath is hilarious. It's funny because it's ironic, and it's ironic because no one would have ever thought to find that character in a bubble bath, not because the actor portraying him turned out to be gay. You saw gay where you could have seen high comedy. That's your fault, not Rock Hudson's.
Let's look at glee. Pat yourself on the back, Ramin, you got one thing right. Something in Jesse St. James (Jonathan Groff's character) is disconnected, disingenuous and insincere. It feels like he's harboring a secret because he is, but it's not that he's gay. It's because he falsely wooed a female nemesis in order to connect her with her biological mother and may or may not be feeling a little bit guilty about it while trying to secure a great solo for this year's sectionals. He has levels of secrecy not seen since Cheney left office. The problem is, Ramin, that you were so obsessed with Jonathan Groff's own sexuality, you saw "guy with insincere feelings toward a girl" and went straight for the gay card. And because of that, you're missing out on a great performance.
Ramin showed his hand. As Aaron Sorkin so brilliantly pointed out in his response, he couldn't see the character, he could only see the actor. And that's not fair to any actor, gay or straight. Because the truth is, there are gay actors who can't play the leading man or woman, but there are straight actors who can't either.
So to answer Ramin's question, "can gay actors play straight?" the simple answer is, duh, of course they can. They play them with depth and sincerity and honesty, just like any great actor plays any role. Maybe gay actors are just bringing more than you expect. And they are playing straight characters very convincingly (both on the screen and off, for many).
But the question itself is also the problem. As soon as we label anyone a "gay actor," we've literally put their sexual orientation before their craft. An actor is an actor is an actor, and each one brings a different set of skills to the stage. Maybe if we can concentrate on the character, and the story, and the emotional arc, which is what we're supposed to do, then it won't matter if someone is out or not. It will just matter if they're good.