Thursday, August 16, 2012

Could This Guy Pass for Straight?

Does it rhyme with bomber, or does it sound like boner?

Oh, never mind. Right now Matt Bomer is facing a far more pressing question. It's the one posed in the headline of an August 15 analysis piece on the entertainment website Celebuzz!: "Could Matt Bomer Become Hollywood's First Openly Gay Actor to Play a Straight Romantic Big-Screen Lead?"

The movie in question is the film version of E.L. James's 2011 bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey, and Bomer has been mentioned as one possible candidate to play its main character, Christian Grey. I haven't read the book, but apparently, this Christian Grey doesn't exactly live up to his name: He's quite the colorful heterosexual horndog. Could an actor whose longtime companion is a man do him justice?

According to novelist Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, Less Than Zero), who has expressed interest in churning out a screenplay, hell, no! Ellis has made all the typical, expected arguments (naturally, via Twitter): Hollywood is still an incredibly homophobic place. Audiences won't be able to buy what's happening onscreen -- Grey engaging in lots of kinky sex with Anastasia Steele -- if they know the actor portraying him sleeps with a man off-screen. Blah, blah blah. "Fifty Shades of Grey demands an actor that is genuinely into women," Ellis insisted. "Get it?!?”

I can understand where Ellis is coming from. Sort of. TV, as the Celebuzz! article points out, is an entirely different beast than film. Half of the supposedly straight male actors I see on TV these days set off my gaydar as much, if not more, than Bomer or Neil Patrick Harris, an openly gay vet who is so thoroughly convincing as man whore Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother -- from the entire male cast of Whitney to Justin Bartha, an actor who was finally cast as the gay man he seems to have been born to play in the upcoming fall sitcom The New Normal. (Sorry, folks, I'm just calling them like I see them.)

With comedy, audience expectations are different. People don't necessarily expect to lose themselves in a story. They just want to be entertained for 20 or 40 minutes. It's easier to put aside what we know about the real lives of actors when we're watching them on a small screen as opposed to the big one. It's pretty much the only reason that Charlie Sheen remains employable at this point.

Image matters so much more in film, and it's the reason actors are far less likely to come out when they work primarily in movies. When Bomer came out in February, he was best known as a the B-list star of the USA Network's B-list drama White Collar (he also played Blaine's brother on Glee). If Magic Mike, the Steven Soderberg-directed hit in which Bomer plays one of a group of straight strippers, had come out one year ago and made him a big-screen contender, say, in 2011, I wonder if he would have come out publicly at all.

Yes, despite all the bleeding-heart liberals running around town, Hollywood still can be an extremely homophobic place. But what about the rest of the world, particularly the main demo that the producers of movies with male romantic leads cater to: Women 18-49? Despite the rampant homophobia that blemishes the world outside of Hollywood, in some ways, women of that certain age comprise the most open-minded of demos, one that's often more accepting of gay men than gay men are of each other and themselves. They were instrumental to the success of the book Fifty Shades of Grey and would no doubt be a huge part of the movie's target audience.

I think casting agents, producers, directors and Ellis himself need to remember what women -- straight women -- really want. When they flock to the Twilight films and swoon over Robert Pattinson, they are not so much enthralled by the actor (if they were, they'd flock to his other movies, too) as they are by Edward, the character he represents. If they were overly concerned with whom he was sleeping with in real life, back when it was his onscreen Bella (Kristen Stewart), they wouldn't have turned the Twilight series into one of the biggest franchises ever.

Chances are that Pattinson and Stewart's stormy real-life uncoupling won't disrupt the ability of the female moviegoers who make up a considerable chunk of the Twilight audience to still see the love in Edward's eyes when he looks at Bella onscreen when the next Twilight film, Breaking Dawn Part 2, is released on November 16. What makes us think they wouldn't extend that same suspension of disbelief if Edward were played by an openly gay actor -- or for a new film series that began its life as Twilight fan fiction (that would be Fifty Shades of Grey, which, incidentally was written by a woman in her late 40s)? Not to cover them with a blanket stereotype, but women want romantic fantasy, and more than perhaps any other group, they are willing to put aside prejudices and preconceptions in order to go there.

I know this from personal experience. I've never been butch by any stretch of the imagination, but I can't go out to a gay bar without encountering at least one woman who just has to know, "Are you gay or straight?" They must already know the answer to the question, or else they wouldn't bother to ask, but they're still willing to completely pretend that I might be straight for the sake of fantasy. I once went to a straight bar in Buenos Aires with my straight friend Nico, and a group of women who'd never even considered that I might be anything other than straight, made me kiss Nico in order to prove that I wasn't.

I'm not sure if they would have bought tickets to see me as the romantic lead in a movie after witnessing that kiss, but it's not like Bomer is driving down Sunset with the top rolled down, making out with his boyfriend. (At least I don't think he's doing that.) The real-life sexuality of actors probably matters less to the average moviegoer than it does to Hollywood executives. There will always be some straight people who discriminate against gays, but Hollywood decision makers need to stop hiding behind what they see as nearly all-encompassing homophobia in society and the assumption that when we are watching a film, including the sex scenes, we're thinking about the sex lives of the actors involved.

But since we're on the subject of sex lives, how does anyone know who is and isn't "genuinely into women"? Although there are scenes of the main character having sex with a man in the movie Shame, it's doubtful that an openly gay actor ever would have been cast in that film, but how do we know for sure that Michael Fassbender is genuinely into women? Or that Channing Tatum or Zac Efron are? Who knows for sure what Batman or the new Spider-Man or the faux Jason Bourne (to name three recent box-office heroes) get up to off-screen?

Christian Bale (maybe) aside, there's nothing quintessentially "straight" about any of them, not in the way that someone like Sean Penn is. And look at how convincing he was in that scene in Milk where he and James Franco made out in the subway entrance. It probably ranks as the most realistic two-gay-guys-meet-cute scene I've ever seen committed to celluloid. A good actor can pull off anything, whether openly gay or openly straight, regardless of whom he actually wants to sleep with. For years, Rock Hudson epitomized the Hollywood romantic lead. It's what made him legendary, as Barney Stinson would say. But he couldn't have been less "genuinely into women." Don't think for a moment that we don't have plenty of modern-day Rock Hudsons roaming around Hollywood.

Of course, when an actor's sexuality becomes public knowledge, it inevitably changes the perception of him if he happens to be gay. But to what extent? And to what extent does it effect ticket sales, especially if he's at Bomer's level of fame? There are only a handful of actors and actresses who consistently bring people into theaters. Ryan Gosling is a popular actor and an openly straight one, too, but he's still not a box-office draw. Neither is Robert Pattinson, also openly straight, outside of the Twilight films. So casting one them in Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn't necessarily give it more commercial potential than casting Bomer, or any openly gay actor.

All that said, I'll be honest: Even before he came out, Bomer set off my gaydar. But the slight nuances that make my gaydar ring would probably be imperceptible to the general population. In fact, in this era of metrosexual straight men and gay men with big muscles and bigger tattoos (once oh-so-straight, body art now adorns so many, too many, gay guys, including me!), desperately trying to pass for "straight acting," who doesn't set off my gaydar? Unless you're a drag queen or over-the-top camp, the line between, as Ellis put it, who "comes off totally gay" and who doesn't is so blurred that it's practically meaningless.

If Bomer had a decent screenplay and an Anastasia Steele who is capable of generating more heterosexual heat than Katherine Heigl, the movie would be fine. And it's not like Bomer is Tom Cruise. One can't assume that the average moviegoer knows anything about him, including that he's gay, unless they frequent websites like Celebuzz!.

As long as his acting holds up, and he can kiss a girl more convincingly than your average gay guy (that would include me), there's no reason why moviegoers can't turn off their gaydar, suspend their disbelief for 90 minutes or so and just enjoy the show.

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