Playing Gay

The Academy Doesn’t Mind You Playing Gay…If

· Updated on October 4, 2023

We are heading into the final stretch of the 2022-23 award season and with our sights firmly set on the Oscars, thoughts are fixated on who may be adding a trophy to their mantlepiece when the winners are announced on March 12th. What’s particularly refreshing about the 95th Academy Awards is the knowledge that so many of these races are being hard-fought and hotly contested, and some are, even at this late juncture, still without a clear favorite. 

Two industry titans with very different track records race toward the finish line in the Best Actress sprint. Michelle Yeoh received her first nomination for Best Picture frontrunner Everything Everywhere All At Once, and is positioned as the underdog with more than a fighting chance of securing a victory on the night—but the slight edge goes to Cate Blanchett who is suspected to pick up her third win of eight nominations for her dramatic turn in Tár.

Best Actor has three main contenders vying for gold: Austin Butler, Colin Farrell and Brendan Fraser. On the back of BAFTA and Golden Globe successes, Butler is coming up on the inside after captivating the world with his performance as Elvis Presley in Elvis, while Farrell similarly has a Golden Globe trophy and more than a handful of accolades over the past few months that boost his chances. Both would have to fight off Fraser though, whose work in The Whale is a physically-demanding and transformative effort that has positioned the once-shunned star and all-around good guy as the one to beat all season long.

While they may be competing in different categories, one thing unites frontrunners Blanchett and Fraser: they are straight actors playing gay roles. Blanchett plays the fictional Lydia Tár, a renowned conductor accused of sexual abuse by one of her female students, with a commanding presence and layered complexity you no doubt expect from one of the industry’s most decorated performers. Meanwhile, Fraser’s work as Charlie, an obese man attempting to mend his connection to the family he left in order to pursue a relationship with one of his male students, is unrecognizable, delivering a lauded performance in a heavily (rightly) criticized film.

It is so easy to see why both actors were attracted to these meaty roles and thorny characters, brimming with opportunities to delve into the psyche of these composite individuals. Tár is a timely exploration of cancel culture and the #MeToo movement, exploring where gender and sexuality intersect in the abuse of power and how interlinked the art is with the artist; meanwhile, The Whale grapples with the meaning of our own existence, considering themes such as family, relationships and legacy. 

While they are able to receive roles across the spectrum of sexuality, it’s rare to see gay actors (particularly men more flamboyant and open with their sexuality) cast in a straight role – or indeed one that isn’t defined almost solely by orientation.

Blanchett herself has waded into the debate of straight actors playing gay roles in recent weeks. Speaking of her roles in both Tár and Carol – and the presumably the queer-coded Ocean’s Eight reboot – Blanchett admitted that she doesn’t understand the “obsession with labels”, noting that she “doesn’t think about [her] gender or [her] sexuality” when choosing roles. Elsewhere, the criticism of The Whale has been particularly prevalent in gay news publications, with actor Daniel Franzese speaking out against the casting of heterosexual Fraser by suggesting: “who knows more about being an obese queer man than an obese queer man?” Rather similar to the usage of the f-slur in a popular Christmas song, this is one debate that inspires heated opinions – exacerbated by these nominations.

It is far from the first time that this exact conversation has caused social media to stir in recent months. Young “Heartstopper” actor Kit Connor was forced to come out as bisexual after speculation over his sexuality was caused by the online criticism of casting a “heterosexual” male in an LGBT role. While these commentators were, for the most part, attempting to create a positive change within the industry and bring awareness to a frustrating notion, it adversely caused Connor to issue a coming out post, clearly before he was ready to have such a conversation, publicly or privately.

We would be doing ourselves a disservice to demand that actors play within their “box” to play only the sexuality they identify with. Actors literally make a living by embodying people other than themselves and the most talented among them are able to do it faultlessly, and we are lucky enough as viewers to take something away from the unique insight afforded to them by the individual stepping into their shoes. That said, the frustration of LGBTQ+ actors towards straight-identifying peers is justified. While they are able to receive roles across the spectrum of sexuality, it’s rare to see gay actors (particularly men more flamboyant and open with their sexuality) cast in a straight role – or indeed one that isn’t defined almost solely by orientation.

What Blanchett fails to understand is that the same privilege – “anyone can play anyone” – should be afforded across the board. Right now, it isn’t. Queer actors do not have the luxury of circumventing the labels Blanchett herself has dismissed when searching for roles – because society refuses to. Queer people are often perceived by Hollywood (and much of the world) in a certain way that ties us almost exclusively to our sexual orientation, in turn limiting the opportunities presented to them that would otherwise showcase their range and versatility – that they too can step into someone else shoes. That they too can overcome the “obsession with labels”.

No matter the sexuality of the upcoming Academy Award winners, there’s work to be done in Hollywood regarding the roles LGBTQ+ actors are receiving, and the ones that are receiving the top accolades—which can be seen across a number of minorities once again this year (#OscarsSoWhite anyone?). Since the turn of the millennium, the leading actor and actress Oscars have all been received by “straight” (or straight-presenting, if we’re to be careful and respectful in our own labeling) the supporting categories have Ariana DeBose to thank for queer representation, although it is similarly slim pickings for winning representation. 

There’s work to be done and there are queers to hire, Hollywood – just give them a chance!♦

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