Sun, Jun

Are Straight Actors in Gay Roles the New Blackface?

BEHIND THE LIBERACE CASTING - “Behind the Candelabra” was troubling from the start.

First came the wearisome sight of Michael Douglas congratulating his heterosexual costar Matt Damon for having the “courage” to play a gay role.

Then followed the repeated assurances from director Steven Soderbergh: In crafting this biopic about the flamboyant pianist Liberace (Douglas) and his decade-long relationship with Scott Thorson (Damon), he claimed to be “very conscious of trying to not look at it through any sort of political lens.”    As if such political content or relevancy to the ongoing debates about marriage equality might somehow diminish the purity of his vision. 

But worst of all has been the way this shrill, deeply unconvincing movie has been praised by critics for its “universality.” On NPR’s “Fresh Air,” David Bianculli talked about screenwriter Richard LaGravenese’s decision to “underscore the similarities between gay and straight relationships, not the differences.” (Bianculli went on to say that “nothing in “Behind the Candelabra” feels gratuitous” – “gratuitous,” apparently, being a synonym for “too gay.”) 

And in the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum read the film as a portrait of “a typical Hollywood marriage: a powerful star spots a young blonde, drapes her in jewelry, foots the bill for plastic surgery to suit his fetishes, and makes promises of security that ping all her daddy issues … The difference, of course, was that, because they were two men, Liberace never called Scott his husband.” 

“Behind the Candelabra” and its reception open up an entire can of worms about the whole notion of straight-created, gay-themed entertainment. Why aren’t we looking upon Douglas’ and Damon’s performances with the same queasiness we now regard the blackface performances of Laurence Olivier in “Othello” or Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer”? (Like Douglas and Damon, Olivier and Jolson didn’t set out to mock an entire category of people – but they ended up there anyway.) 

For that matter, why aren’t Steven Soderbergh and Richard LaGravanese being raked over the cultural coals the way director Tate Taylor and author Kathryn Stockett were with “The Help” – a movie widely derided for sentimentalizing and diminishing the black civil rights era experience? 

Short of praising straight artists for their “courage” in tackling gay material, is it now time to say thanks but no thanks – and demand that gay artists tell these stories instead? (Read the rest here.)




Vol 11 Issue 48

Pub: June 14, 2013