Tuesday, September 22, 2009

SAVING EMMY?

I know I'm in the minority here, if not completely alone, but I wasn't totally loving Neil Patrick Harris as the host of the 2009 Emmys on Sunday night. Ratings were up one million viewers from last year, and that is certainly partly to NPH's credit, as the drama and comedy series Emmy winners were pretty much foregone conclusions. I think he's an extremely likable guy and a solid improvement over last year's revolving roster of reality-host hosts, but despite a few cool gags, I found him to be more serviceable than spectacular, and at times, he seemed to be as bored as I was.

Both Jon Stewart, who knows a thing or two about being a killer awards-show host, and Jeff Probst, who does not, gave him props from the stage. I can't help but think that some of the raves come from accumulated good will toward the actor. Those of us who are a certain age remember him as a teen doc on the 1989-1993 prime-time series Doogie Howser, M.D., which I never actually saw. (It was on the air during those late-college/early NYC years when I never watched TV.) Younger folks crack up over his womanizer antics as Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, which I must also admit to never having seen. And of course, in liberal Hollywood, how can you not root for the gay guy? Jon and Jeff almost made it seem like NPH was some wet-behind-the-ears rookie in desperate need of a confidence boost when this year alone, he hosted both the TV Land Awards and the Tony Awards.

Which brings me to my most interesting realization after watching last night's show. Might Neil Patrick Harris actually become Hollywood's first A-list out-of-the-closet actor with a thriving career off Broadway (as in, in TV and films, not only in stage musicals )? Despite persistent racism in the U.S., the country was ready for its first black president last November. Maybe now it's ready for its first openly gay Hollywood star, too.

It doesn't hurt that NPH is good at what he does. I never completely bought T.R. Knight as lovesick for Katherine Heigl's Izzie on Grey's Anatomy, but by all accounts, NPH makes an excellent ladies man on HIMYM. He's not the first gay guy to convincingly play straight. Hollywood is full of closeted gay actors doing just that. And before My Best Friend's Wedding, the filmography of Rupert Everett, who has been out his entire career, included numerous straight roles in films like Dance With A Stranger and The Madness Of King George, all convincingly played. Interestingly, it was his role as Julia Robert's gay best friend in My Best Friend's Wedding that brought him his greatest fame. He reprised the gay bit in The Next Best Thing, which featured Madonna as his straight best friend and, yes, Neil Patrick Harris as his gay best friend.

I wonder how things would have turned out for NPH had he come out of the closet before landing the role on HIMYM. I wonder if he would have landed the role at all. I also wonder how accepting of him the public would have been if he had been playing a gay character at the time or doing a Broadway musical and not a TV series. The U.S. remains an extremely homophobic place, and I think NPH's success as a working gay actor has a lot to do with timing. By watching him play the field (with women) on HIMYM, middle America can enter denial mode and pretend he is who he plays. And those who don't read People magazine might not even know. After all, NPH's coming out was not exactly the international breaking news that, mmm, George Clooney's would be (yes, a boy can dream).

I remember years ago, I went to see the musical Jekyll & Hyde on Broadway, with Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach in the lead role. Afterwards, we went back stage to hang out with Sebastian, and in walked NPH unannounced. "It's Doogie Howsier!" Sebastian started screaming as if he'd just met his ultimate idol. Come to think of it, Sebastian never called NPH by his real name that night. At the time, NPH was still in that transitory phase, trying to make the flying leap from child to adult star. After the Emmys, I suspect that everyone will get the name right.
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