Can Queer Actors Even Play Queer Roles, Bro?

Awards trophy
Awards trophy

The diversity reports get more comprehensive and even more damning as Academy Awards are set to take place later this week. For LGBT viewers, both Carol and The Danish Girl have managed to pick up a few nominations apiece. That's great right? Well, mostly yes because it's nice to see queer and trans* stories explored in highly visible art forms but it's also virtually impossible to ignore that all of the plaudits are going to heterosexual and cisgender actors for playing these roles.

"Well they're actors! They're supposed to act!" one might say, as they read over the latest diversity report only to feel personally attacked by it. So, yes, yes. Acting is about being able to step into another skin, conveying emotions, exploring experiences and externalizing truths from an internally discovered situation.

However, we also know that this defense is also a flimsy deflection of inviting a deeper discussion about the status-quo of being an out professional creative, not only in Hollywood but at all levels of the entire entertainment industry, the media industry and beyond.

The Comprehensive Annenberg report has found that only 2 percent of characters written for Film and TV are LGBT-identified and straight actors do appear to get vastly more rewarded for playing these precious few gay roles that gay actors don't even seem to be considered for.

Out actress, Ellen Page even admitted her displeasure at hearing about straight actors being labelled as "brave" for playing gay, which is an indeed irksome adjective in context. It is at best condescending; at worst homophobic. I've never been called "brave" for brewing my morning coffee in a gay way (just imagine) or looking like a homosexual in my weekly yoga class for example.

Whichever way you might have taken up her speech at the recent BAFTA Awards, Australian funny woman Rebel Wilson did at least make a similar point about transgender roles going to cis actors when she quipped about how she had been "practising her transgendered face" so she could win an award one day. Well, I laughed (and yes, I do see how the joke was both crude and clumsy) because Wilson rather wryly punched up at a rather baffling roll-call of statistics on straight and cis actors being highly lauded for LGBT performances, despite the fact that LGBT actors do actually exist:

The roll-call: Tom Hanks won for Philadelphia. Charlize Theron won in Monster. Hillary Swank for Boys Don't Cry. Sean Penn for Milk. Jared Leto won for Dallas Buyers Club. Phillip Seymour Hoffman for Capote, Christopher Plummer for Beginners, Nicole Kidman in The Hours, *possibly* Natalie Portman in Black Swan ("possibly" because I honestly don't know if darkly psychosexual, fatalist obsession counts as Netflix and Chill-type same-sex attraction).

Notably, this "LGBT winners" list only goes back as far as 1993, when Philadelphia was marked as "groundbreaking" due to Tom Hanks' gay role winning an Oscar.

Jodie Foster has two wins for Best Actress, but they both occurred over two decades before she publicly came out. Officially, LGBT actors have nada. Zilch. Nothing.

This isn't to say that they are not capable of turning in compelling performances of gay and queer characters though. To celebrate that elusive fact, I made a tiny list of some examples, although there didn't seem to be many to pick from.

Of these performances by LGBT actors in LGBT roles, only one was even nominated for an Academy Award and -- aside from Linda Hunt in 1982 -- not one single (out at the time) LGBT actor has ever won one for playing either a gay or straight character.

Nigel Hawthorne (The Object of My Affection)
Nigel Hawthorne, who played a small supporting role in the 1998 romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd, was involuntarily outed in 1995 during his Academy Award campaign for The Madness of King George, for which he had been nominated for Best Actor. In The Object of My Affection, Hawthorne is marvellous as an older gay man in love with a younger man who doesn't return his affections but poignantly isn't made to feel excluded either. The rest of the movie, however, is essentially as similarly sexless as Hawthorne's scene-stealing Rodney.

Ian McKellan (Gods and Monsters)
Ian McKellan has gone on to be considered box-office gold from playing Gandalf in The Lord of The Rings Trilogy and Magneto in X-Men. He first came to wider attention for his Oscar nominated role in Gods and Monsters, playing James Whale. He followed up with Bryan Singer's Apt Pupil before the aforementioned franchises landed in his lap. A veteran stage actor, McKellan has been out since 1988.

Rupert Everett (My Best Friend's Wedding)
Rupert Everett played Julia Robert's gay colleague in My Best Friend's Wedding, which launched him in Hollywood into the role of Madonna's new best friend, prompting their collaboration on The Next Best Thing. In My Best Friend's Wedding, Everett played a typically fun but unsubstantial gay role, which nonetheless entertained and delighted audiences, leading him to bigger and better parts for a time, including Oliver Parker's adaptation of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband. In recent years, he played school headmistress, Camilla Fritton in two St. Trinians movies.

Lily Tomlin (Grandma)
Lily Tomlin plays Elle, a lesbian poet coming to terms with the death of her partner when her eighteen-year-old grand-daughter arrives on her doorstep looking for $600 so she can terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Grandma was Tomlin's first leading role since Big Business in 1988 and was tentatively touted as a contender for an Academy Award nomination this year. She also played one of the lead roles in last year's new Netflix comedy series Grace and Frankie.

Ben Whishaw (Lilting)
Visually inspired by Wong Kar-Wai's In The Mood for Love, Lilting is the story of a mother coming to terms with her son's death and sharing the experience with the son's lover. Whishaw plays Richard, a bereft young man getting to know his late-partner's mother, despite immense language barriers. Whishaw also played various parts in the Wachowski's Cloud Atlas and appeared as Cary Mulligan's nasty husband in last year's Suffragette.

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