Graham Reid | | 5 min read
Think back on Hollywood hunk Val Kilmer’s career. It began with the spy-spoof movie Top Secret! where he was an Elvis-lite heartthrob who had girls swooning.
Then he was in Top Gun; played brooding rock poet-cum-sex god Jim Morrison in The Doors; a testosterone-fuelled if troubled Batman; the well-hung porn star John Holmes in Wonderland; and Philip of Macedonia in Alexander, a part originally offered to that icon of manhood Sean Connery.
These are all hefty male roles, and for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005 he was a tough detective, as quick with a quip as he is with a gun. And a cellphone which plays I Will Survive. His hard-boiled character is gay.
Kilmer -- once married to the glistening Joanne Whalley -- is a straight man happy to play a gay part.
“I just think I should stick with being the straight gay guy,” he joked recently. “There’s a certain amount of stress in this business in not knowing where you are going, so just to settle down and be the straight gay guy . . . I’m looking forward to it.
“It’ll be in my contract. I’ll say, ‘It’s fine, except for that thing with Angelina Jolie. We’re just going to have to just be friends.’ “
Big name straight actors in gay roles are increasingly common, although it could be some time before Tom Cruise signs up as someone playing for the other team. But so many gay and gender-bending roles are coming to a multiplex near you some observers suggest it cannot be a coincidence.
Sam Neill plays a bisexual character and Hugo Weaving a gay man in Little Fish; Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were gay cowboys in Brokeback Mountain (directed by Ang Lee from a short story by E. Annie Proulx), Breakfast on Pluto (Cillian Murphy playing a cross-dressing prostitute), The Dying Gaul with Peter Sarsgaard as a gay Hollywood screenwriter, TransAmerica (Desperate Housewives’ Felicity Huffman as a trans-gender character), and Ralph Fiennes as a gay butler to Susan Sarandon in Bernard and Doris.
Oh, and Guys and Balls, a German arthouse gay soccer flick where banging one home takes on a new meaning.
Then there was the acclaimed bio-pic Capote in which Philip Seymour Hoffman played the gifted, beautiful, narcissistic and homosexual writer Truman Capote.
For character actors like Hoffman -- who played a gay crew member in Boogie Nights and a drag queen in Flawless opposite Robert De Niro -- taking on a gay role like the fey Capote is a challenge of their craft. And heterosexual Hoffman, who has a partner and a child, didn’t take the job home.
“I had to keep a certain sense of the voice and quality and these things because if I let it go, it was just too much energy to get it back up again. Once the day is over, I can go home and be me. I needed to do that. I needed to rest. It's really that simple.”
When Hoffman was tipped as an Oscar nominee on the film's release it fuelled cynicism that “acting gay” might be a smart career move.
In a widely quoted snippet from Ricky (The Office) Gervais’ comedy series Extras, Kate Winslet -- playing a hilariously snippy version of herself -- slags off Daniel Day Lewis’ My Left Foot and Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man: “Seriously, you are guaranteed an Oscar if you play a mental.”
As New York Times writer Caryn James noted, “this season she might have added: playing gay”.
Not that “playing gay” is without precedent. The mid 90s saw a flourish of gay characters: Terence Stamp in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Patrick Swayze and Wesley Snipes in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar; Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (although critics noted his partner, played by Antonio Banderas, and lifestyle were carefully marginalised); and Robin Williams going all a-flutter in The Birdcage.
In recent years the small screen -- via programmes such as Will and Grace, and Queer Eye For the Straight Guy -- has mainstreamed gay characters. But the difference now has been in audiences accepting big screen -- and straight -- actors such as Kilmer, Ledger and Fiennes in gay parts. And the actors themselves undertaking the roles.
While Hollywood pragmatism is for films which coin in the cash and many of these movies are untried at the box office the question stands: is “gay” the new “mental” and a fast track to the awards podium?
“That might be drawing a long bow,” says Nick Grant, editor of New Zealand’s Onfilm magazine who concedes Hanks’ Oscar winning Philadelphia was a turning point, “but it had a double whammy, someone dying, and was seen through the prism of the homophobic lawyer who came to idea that homosexuals are people too.”
“Has there been a repeat of someone ‘mainstream’ playing a gay character other than Hanks? I can’t think of any.
“The cynical view of the Oscars that you have to play someone disabled, dying or of a marginalised group is a fair comment in some way. But these kinds of roles show an actor’s chops more starkly, so arguably playing a different sexuality gives them more opportunity to shine and show how they are creating themselves anew.”
A reason for the current spate of such roles -- when Middle America is concerned with moral issues -- might be a bit of nose-thumbing and conservative baiting, “but films take years to get on screen so that may not be the case“.
“And younger actors have grown up in societies more accepting of sexual difference so it’s not such a huge deal for them. They are comfortable in their sexuality, whatever that may be.”
Graham Dunster, Auckland agent for Karl Urban and Lucy Lawless, thinks Hollywood may consider gay roles a new frontier and vehicles in which actors can push boundaries, “because there are not a lot of areas left where someone hasn’t already done it.”
He says television programmes -- whether they have gay roles, or are shows like The Sopranos or Deadwood -- have made it harder to shock audiences but easier to create parts which would previously have been controversial. Filmmakers have moved their goalposts accordingly.
"Having a character be gay in a movie just isn't shocking anymore," Shane Black, writer-director of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang told the Seattle Times.
" Will and Grace and My Best Friend's Wedding [which starred gay actor Rupert Everett as a gay man] have softened us up with regards to the funny gay character. We still haven't seen the heroic gay character that, when the chips are down, kicks down the door, shoots everybody and saves your butt."
Which is where macho man Kilmer as Gay Perry comes crashing in.
But how much gay is too much?
Colin Farrell -- the bisexual Alexander the Great and a gay character in A Home at the End of the World -- was advised to avoid such parts for a while.
"If I took a third, I think my agent could kill me," he told Britain’s Sunday Mirror. "I'm sure he would start to think it was a bit dangerous careerwise."
Three strikes and you are outed?
And Farrell dismisses the attention a straight actor in a gay role gets. After all, it’s only acting.
"If you can say to someone, 'Put your hands on your head,' with an M-16 in your hands, you should be able to kiss a dude."