The Curious Case of Gayface

Should straight actors play gay roles?

Michael Douglas, Zach Galifianakis, Heath Ledger and Sean Penn
Michael Douglas, Zach Galifianakis, Heath Ledger and Sean Penn

Courtesy of HBO (Douglas), Warner Brothers (Galifianakis), Kimberly French/Focus Features (Ledger), Focus Features (Penn)

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the strange position of seeing both The Hangover Part III and HBO’s Behind the Candelabra over the course of the same evening. Talk about tonal whiplash: The first film is a study in bro humor that almost hypnotizes with its minimalist development of the twin themes “holy shit, man!” and “aw, crap,” while the latter is a delightfully light-loafered jaunt through Liberace’s kitschy glass closet. But looking back, the couple actually doesn’t seem so odd—each depends heavily on gayness for its appeal and, more specifically, on straight actors playing gay or crypto-gay men to produce it.

Before I’m accused of comparing vertical stripes to rhinestones, let me be clear that these versions of gay-for-pay are not identical. Indeed, very little has been made of the gay role-playing in The Hangover, for reasons I’ll get to shortly. On the other hand, the Liberace biopic inspired a CNN/BuzzFeed list of the 20 best straight-to-gay drag numbers of all time and, more to the point, a fair amount of pushback to the praise that straight actors regularly get for taking on such “brave” and “challenging” roles. The most cogent rebuttal was Tyler Coates’ Flavorwire post, in which he used the listicle’s premise to perform a thought experiment:

“How would the tone of this listicle change if, say, it were called, ‘20 of our favorite white actors who played non-white characters’? After all, Robert Downey, Jr., Ben Affleck, and Angelina Jolie are all hugely popular, and each played a character of a different race in the last six years. To use the same language — ‘Whether it’s for television or a feature film, it’s not easy pull off [a non-white] role as a [white] actor. Many have tried, but it takes a great actor to make the role three dimensional and believable’ — would be at least as problematic and, I’m guessing, much more incendiary.”

It’s true that such a race-based list would at least raise eyebrows, if not inspire outright anger, due to the ever-present specter of blackface. But does this provocative comparison really hold up? Does “gayface” really deserve to be placed in the same awful category as racial impersonation, and if not, what makes it different?

Let’s look at the movies in question. In The Hangover Part III, Zach Galifianakis reprises his usual effete-man-child persona, but this time surpasses vague swishiness with a handful of clear come-ons to his more manly co-stars (in particular a depressed-behind-the-aviators Bradley Cooper). And then there is the conniving Chinaman caricature Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong), who uses homosex as both a weapon of disgust and a bargaining chip, like when he tries to negotiate his way out a tight spot by asking Ed Helms, “Want Chow to blow your dick?”

Given that both characters are eventually seen gesturing toward something like desire for female humans, I think we’re supposed to conclude that they’re not actually gay, but let’s ignore that cognitive tap dance and take them the way they’re clearly meant to be understood: the familiar gay figure whose performance of masculinity and icky sexual desires are presented as items comedic in and of themselves, or at least congruent to comedy. This trope is so very tired (not really even worth a call to the PC police), and worse, represents a whimper of an ending to a series of films that initially held a thimble’s worth more promise.

In Behind the Candelabra, we again have straights gaying it up, this time two A-list actors—Michael Douglas as the piano man and Matt Damon as his young lover Scott Thorson—enacting the exchange of various goods that that has gone on between old queens and spring chickens since the beginning of time. Distinct from the milquetoast gay minstrelsy lazily tossed off in Hangover, this kind of casting choice is not an entirely new phenomenon: Some discussion of gayface has flared up in the past around films like Brokeback Mountain and Milk, with critics wondering why straight men and women were being given important gay/lesbian parts that underrepresented and underemployed openly gay actors both need and would, so the argument goes, be better at performing. But compared with black- or yellowface (which regularly and rightly bring out angry mobs whenever they appear), gayface has inspired relatively little backlash.

Part of the gay community’s patience with gayface has to do with a kind of representational pragmatism: Many gays are so happy to see a story like Harvey Milk’s told at all that they’re willing to cede the role to Sean Penn, especially considering that without a big name like his attached, the project would almost certainly have never happened. (Big names, so far, are always straight.) But that on its own cannot account for how gayface is a treated differently from other touchy identity-based performances. What makes gayface a special case?

I recently posed the question to a group of gay friends in one of the gayest places I could think of—Central Park on Memorial Day. After we’d clarified that I wasn’t talking about gayface as a physical trait (that, incidentally, we all agreed is real), it became clear that straight dudes snatching gay roles didn’t really bother any of us. But why? As I gazed out at the diversity of gay male subspecies before me—gym bunnies, eyebrow sculptors, schlumpy comedians, screaming exhibitionists and more—I realized that the answer has something to do with what we mean when we say “gay” in the first place.

If we define the term as the Chelsea public health clinic does, it simply means you’re a person who has sex with (and perhaps loves) someone of the same sex. But, in terms of acting, we’re really talking about a set of behavioral traits, interests, or “mannerisms”—the stuff that’s meant to set off a well-tuned gaydar. But that’s not a great definition either, because there are plenty of gay people who pass for straight, could pass for straight if they wanted to, and/or reject the so-called stereotype. And then there’s the somewhat controversial argument (which I espouse) that “gay” is really a specific cultural attitude that one must study and ultimately choose to wear atop one’s innate homosexuality. So that’s three definitions of gay, and there are plenty of others—I do not envy the straight actor who is asked to sort them out for himself.  

The nature of the competing definitions, however, makes the difference between gayface and, say, blackface quite clear. You cannot simply paint your face gay. It is impossible to play gay without resorting to some kind of special performance, whether sexual or cultural. Of course, blackface depends on stereotypical tics as well, but even if a white person could somehow pull off an “accurate” or nuanced performance of a black person in terms of looks and behavior, the unavoidable appeal to racist physical stereotypes makes it unconscionable. But gayface is pure performance—strictly speaking, no physical parody required—so if done well enough and for nobler reasons than Hangover-style boorish humor, could it be justifiable?

I think so. Particularly because, strange as it may sound, the notion of gayness as performance applies to actual gay people as much as it applies to actors and actresses who may play them. You really don’t know that someone is gay (in terms of biological response) until you’re in bed with him, which is probably why gay people are virtuosic taxonomists, classifying each other into easily legible, performance-based categories like butch and femme, bear and twink, camp and gaybro, lipstick and AG. A sort of cultural elaboration on biological same-sex desire, gayness is really a full-time acting gig, and we are all professional critics of ourselves and each other. If you’re a straight actor getting paid to do it, you’re simply subjecting yourself to the same critical gaze.

This is why gayface doesn’t faze me all that much: If Matt Damon wants to try to do me better than me, I wish him luck—just so long as he does me justice. In his review of Behind the Candelabra, Washington Post critic Hank Stuever lamented the film’s use of straight actors and argued that it needed “a gay sensibility and probably a gayer cast. Start with Nathan Lane or David Hyde Pierce; call Neil Patrick Harris; audition Lance Bass for one of the bit parts; ask Andrew Rannells if he’s game. This list is long in 2013.” In other words, for Stuever, the inclusion of openly gay actors would have somehow imparted Candelabra with the gay spark that he found it lacking.

I don’t buy it. Leaving aside the important issue of homophobia at the level of casting, there is nothing essential about a gay actor that would necessarily make him better at a particular gay role, or, as has been debated elsewhere, worse at playing a straight one.  More interesting than the question of whether straight actors should play gay roles is the issue of what kinds of gay roles are being written for anyone to play in the first place. Gay representations on mainstream screens are still so limited, mainly a series of variations  on “the nance” (which, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy), the (often AIDS) tragedy case, or the “post-gay” type  who is boringly histrionic in his own “I’m conflicted about gay culture” way. And this dearth is all the more problematic because it encourages the sense that each gay character must serve as a Commentary on the Entire LGBT Community. Though I’m not the type to need to see myself reflected perfectly back at me in the media, it would be nice to see more complex gay roles, if only to lower the stakes and allow for gay characters—including wonderfully awful ones like Douglas’ Liberace—who can be more individual than symbol.

Indeed, as Emily Nussbaum noted in her New Yorker review, part of what made Candelabra great is that it wasn’t concerned with presenting a GLADD-approved “good role model” or an apologia for all of gaydom. Though I did chafe a bit when Nussbaum addressed the gayface issue by observing how fun it was for her to see Douglas “freed from his trademark macho sulk” in the role of a swish—as if playing gay is some kind of stress-releasing spa treatment—she’s right overall that the actor did well by Liberace. In Douglas’ performance, we have a ridiculous, serious queen who is both hot mess and skilled entertainer, creepy letch and consummate charmer, ruthless businessman and bossy bottom. In other words, a real gay man. Who are we to judge if the actor playing him happens to be straight?