Exile from mainstream
Gay films are currently all the rage in Tinseltown – as long as they’re not too gay. Brian Finnegan looks at how homosexuals are faring in Hollywood and asks if an openly gay actor will ever get to be the leading man
T MIGHT JUST be the most important film in the history of gay representations in Hollywood.” So said one gushing review of the Jim Carrey/Ewan McGregor comedy which opens in Ireland this week. The nearest thing to a mainstream gay rom-com, it features unapologetic characters and a smattering of full-on sex between its lead and several men, but this film’s journey, from its premiere at Sundance more than a year ago to its theatrical release, tells a less positive story about the gay state of play in Tinseltown. A tale as packed with double standards as it is with paranoia, it reveals a glass ceiling that no one seems to be able to crack.
In recent decades, there have been a number of films hailed as changing the face of gay representations. The first of these, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993), tackled Aids and homophobia and won a best actor Oscar for its star Tom Hanks. The gravity with which it was greeted, along with Hanks’s Oscar speech, in which he thanked a gay teacher for inspiring him to be an actor, pointed to a new era for the industry in which executives might greenlight films with sympathetic, leading gay characters on the basis that middle-American audiences might actually pay to see them. Influential critic Roger Ebert called it “a righteous first step”.
However, that era never materialised. It took another 12 years before Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain had everyone singing about a brave new gay Hollywood once more.
In the meantime, the very po-faced Philadelphia ironically ushered in the decade of the GBF, or the “gay best friend”, a time when lovable characters came out of the closet to support the female leads of romantic comedies. The apotheosis of these movies, My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), a Julia Roberts vehicle in which the GBF was played by Rupert Everett, an actual gay man, briefly proclaimed the dawn of a time when openly gay actors might become A-list stars.
But Everett never made it past the GBF stakes in Hollywood, except to play the standard villain with a British accent in the risible Inspector Gadget two years later. More recently, Everett went on record to say that gay actors should stay in the closet. “The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business,” he told the Guardian last December, adding that, more than ever, Hollywood today is “very, very right wing”.
Almost 10 years after coming out killed Everett's Hollywood career, Brokeback Mountain created the current “gay for pay” phenomenon, where heterosexual actors line up to play homosexuals with statuettes in mind. The late, straight Heath Ledger cleaned up during the 2006 awards season for his performance in Brokeback, although notably he failed to deliver on his Oscar nomination and the film lost out to the forgettable racism drama Crash in the best film category. Dubbed “the gay cowboy movie”, Brokeback Mountain dared to tell the story of a star-cross’d man-on-man