It’s likely that Ramin Setoodeh is the most hated gay man in the US this week. He’s the Newsweek journalist who posted this article about gay actors. Have you read it? Then read Kristin Chenoweth’s letter to Newsweek in response. Then read Setoodeh’s response to Kristin Chenoweth and to all the others on the internet who are commenting on his piece. Now maybe your head is spinning like mine.
Right up front I will say that I think gay actors can and do play straight characters successfully. They always have. Many gay actors are “in the closet” while playing straight parts on TV, in movies, and on Broadway without anyone guessing their sexual orientation.
What Setoodeh is saying, if I’m reading him correctly, is that once an actor comes out in public as gay, he (or she) is no longer convincing in a straight role. If Setoodeh is saying that our perceptions are colored by this knowledge, causing us to see homosexual traits where we didn’t before, then that’s an intriguing idea. I don’t think he’s saying that, though. He’s laying the blame on the actors and their abilities. Look again at what he says about Sean Hayes in Promises, Promises: “But frankly, it’s weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, like he’s trying to hide something, which of course he is.” Or this about Jonathan Groff on Glee: “But on TV, as the shifty glee captain from another school who steals Rachel’s heart, there’s something about his performance that feels off. In half his scenes, he scowls—is that a substitute for being straight? When he smiles or giggles, he seems more like your average theater queen, a better romantic match for Kurt than Rachel.”
So is Setoodeh saying that gay actors are better at playing straight roles as long as they don’t come out? That their acting skills somehow decline as soon as they let the world know their sexual orientation? Or is he saying that the only actors who bother to come out are the ones who realize that they’re not fooling anybody? (I’m definitely not in agreement with any of this.)
Setoodeh attempts to clarify his position in his response to Chenoweth’s letter: “…my essay’s point: if an actor of the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet today, would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man?” If this is the point he’s trying to make, then he hasn’t made it very well.
Part of what makes this issue a muddle is that few people agree on what exactly ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ characteristics are. How can you tell a lesbian from a straight woman? How can you tell a gay man from a straight one? What about all the people who fall in the middle of the Kinsey scale because sexual orientation isn’t always black or white, gay or straight? One person may be thoroughly convinced by a portrayal of a straight person onstage. That same performance may not meet another’s expectations.
As long as questions are being asked, I have to wonder if this article would have been approved and published by Newsweek if Setoodeh wasn’t gay himself. Should it matter? I don’t have any answers, just a lot of questions.