As starved as LGBTQ+ people have been, historically, for authentic LGBTQ+ stories on screen, they don’t necessarily need to see their own stories to be delighted…
By Paul Gallant
Remember the metrosexual? That type of man who became a media sensation in the aughts for his taste in grooming products and fashion, who didn’t care if people thought he was gay or flaunting himself for gay attention. The metrosexual was personified by UK soccer star David Beckham, husband of the former Posh Spice, who underwear-modelled and spritzed his tattooed body to the delight of gay men around the world. (That affection should come to an abrupt end in light of Beckham’s $248-million ambassadorship for World Cup 2022, hosted by the virulently homophobic Qatari government. David, baby, even a whole bottle of your Beyond cologne is not going to cover up that stink.)
These days we live in the influencer age, which makes “metrosexual” a moot term. Every savvy man with his eye on fame and followers now details his eyebrows and has his regular manicures – it’s barely worth commenting on. In mainstream media culture, nobody cares if somebody is mistaken for gay. In fact, many straight celebrities go out of their way to be not-quite-straight. Daniel Craig says he prefers going to gay bars. Harry Styles told Rolling Stone, “Everyone, including myself, has your own journey with figuring out sexuality and getting more comfortable with it.” And Andrew “I Have an Openness to Impulses” Garfield is as gay-thirsty as they come.
Craig, Styles and Garfield are likely sincere, but are also being very strategic, considering how contemporary Hollywood is starting to look at casting choices. All three need to soften us up about their playing gay. There’s been increased pressure for filmmakers to cast LGBTQ+ characters in LGBTQ+ roles (and Latinx actors in Latinx roles, disabled actors in disabled roles, etc.). There are more and more of these roles, and some of them are coveted. Whereas back in 1993 Tom Hanks playing an HIV-positive gay man in Philadelphia was seen as a brave, perhaps career-damaging, decision, nowadays having something queer on your resumé gives you cachet. When Hanks was cast in that part, there were only a tiny number of out actors – even Nathan Lane, for God’s sake, waited till 1999 to come out. But now there are lots of openly LGBTQ+ actors looking for work, and it makes sense that they would want first dibs on roles that better match their life experiences.
Fair enough. But that’s mostly a labour problem – making sure a worker is an excellent and deserving match for the job. And I certainly want Jane Lynch, Murray Bartlett, Laverne Cox, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Paulson, Kristen Stewart, Yasmin Finney and Ben Whishaw to get all the work they can get. And films like Fire Island, which cast all the queer roles with queer actors, have a special magic.
But having straight characters play LGBTQ+ characters, if they do a good job, is not a customer service problem. There’s a delight in watching actors push themselves, move outside their comfort zones, invent reactions to things they’ve never lived through.
The contemporary record holder for queering it up onscreen must be Ewan McGregor. As an Iggy Pop/Lou Reed type in 1998’s Velvet Goldmine, he got it on with a journalist played by Christian Bale. In 2009’s critically panned prison-comedy-drama I Love You Phillip Morris, he plays a soft-spoken love interest of, yikes, Jim Carrey. McGregor was naked for a good chunk of 1996’s art-house film-poem The Pillow Book and played iconic 1970s fashion designer Roy Halston in Netflix’s 2021 Halston. In defence of taking the Halston role, McGregor told The Hollywood Reporter: “If it had been a story about Halston’s sexuality more, then maybe it’s right that gay actors should play that role. But in this case – and I don’t want to sound like I’m worming out of this, because it’s something I did think a lot about – I suppose ultimately I felt like it was just one part of who he was.”
That’s a hoot of an answer, considering how much blunt-force queen-ness McGregor brings every moment he’s on screen as Halston. He’s a straight guy mincing it up to eleventy stupid. By some standards, it’s appalling, but sometimes it’s the only fun thing about that movie.
Hugh Grant is another repeat offender, at the beginning of his illustrious career appearing in the 1987 Merchant-Ivory period drama Maurice (what’s the male version of a bodice ripper? A suspenders snapper?) as the aristocratic love interest of the title character. His cameo in last year’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery had him as the domestic partner of Benoit Blanc, played by the aforementioned Craig. And Grant’s British parliamentarian had an affair with Whishaw’s character in 2018’s A Very English Scandal.
Rupert Everett, one of the first major out actors of his generation, complained that the lead role in Tom Ford’s A Single Man, from 2009, should have gone to him, not Colin Firth. “Well, thanks, Colin,” Everett told Piers Morgan just last year (the man can carry a grudge for a long time), “that’s the end of my career. Because, you know, that role really should have been mine.” Firth also played the more supportive half of a gay couple with also-straight Stanley “Devil Wears Prada” Tucci in 2020’s weepy Supernova.
Firth has never made any claims to be a little-bit-just-kinda-sorta gayish. Instead, he seems both sheepish and unapologetic. “It’s something I take really seriously and I gave it a lot of thought before doing this,” Firth told Attitude magazine in 2020 upon the release of Supernova. Yet… “anybody should be able to play any role that they want to play – that’s the whole point of acting.”
Firth is a buttoned-down performer, and that subdued anti-cliché approach is the way many straight guys play gay these days. That seemed to the memo, anyway, for Trevante Rhodes playing Chiron/Black in 2016’s Moonlight, Mahershala Ali’s lovely turn in the 2018 Oscar-winning ugh-fest The Green Book and Timothée Chalamet, who was pure dude except for all the crying at the end, in 2017’s Call Me by Your Name.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, by contrast, pressed the “Camp” button hard when he played drag footwear consultant Lola in 2006’s uplifting Kinky Boots. Taron Egerton as Elton John in 2019’s Rocketman came down somewhere in the middle between outrageous and relatable. And while Rami Malek was charismatic as Freddy Mercury in 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, the script’s queasiness with Mercury’s homosexuality got in his way.
Some of these gay roles, like Ali in Green Book and Firth in Supernova, seem designed for straight audiences, which is part of the complaint people like Everett have against “gay for pay”: it’s straight people using borrowed gay narratives to evoke feelings from straight audiences. It’s true, if you’re going to exploit our twinkle and our trauma, we should be there making coin or at least having a good time while you’re doing it. A performance that’s not flattering to our community, particularly if it’s an actor who’s not swoon-worthy is, fairly or not, when we really lose our temper. Look how vehemently James Corden was criticized for his swishy performance in 2020’s The Prom.
As starved as LGBTQ+ people have been, historically, for authentic LGBTQ+ stories on screen, they don’t necessarily need to see their own stories to be delighted. The coming-out story was the least entertaining thing about Everything Everywhere All at Once; its silliness was, as RuPaul categorizes certain kinds of camp, completely stupid. Gay men are particularly susceptible to eye candy, which is part of the reason why Craig, in his run as James “Look at me in these trunks” Bond, developed a gay fan base that needs care and attention.
Straight British actor Theo James, who might be playing George Michael in a forthcoming biopic of the WHAM! frontman, has become an object of many gay obsessions for his penchant for disrobing onscreen. Okay, he was pretty square in the Divergentseries, but he was naked most of the time in HBO’s otherwise-terrible Time Traveler’s Wife. The entire second season of The White Lotus seemed to be built around the Aubrey Plaza character catching a glimpse of his character Cameron’s dick. Viewers know Cameron is not sincere when, crashing in bed next to his friend Ethan (Will Sharpe), he says, “I love you. I just wanna be inside you. I wanna do stuff to you. I wanna make you feel good.” But Cameron’s seductive abilities – which are James’s – get us fired up even if we know it will never happen.
If straight actors are pandering to LGBTQ+ audiences, baring their junk and talking dirty to us, bring it on. Gaybaiting? If you’re hot, just keep dangling that line.
PAUL GALLANT is a Toronto-based writer and editor who writes about travel, innovation, city building, social issues (particularly LGBT issues) and business for a variety of national and international publications. He’s done time as lead editor at the loop magazine in Vancouver as well as Xtra and fab in Toronto. His debut novel, Still More Stubborn Stars, published by Acorn Press, is out now.