Thursday, August 2, 2012

So You Wanna Be a Star? Can Coming Out Too Soon Be Career Suicide?

Yesterday I read a 2009 interview with the actor Rupert Everett in which he made a rather surprising claim.

"I would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out....

"The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business. It just doesn't work, and you're going to hit a brick wall at some point. You're going to manage to make it roll for a certain amount of time, but at the first sign of failure, they'll cut you right off. And I'm sick of saying, 'Yes, it's probably my own fault.' Because I've always tried to make it work, and when it stops working somewhere, I try to make it work somewhere else. But the fact of the matter is, and I don't care who disagrees, it doesn't work if you're gay."

Much has been written, said and assumed over the years about the low box-office potential for out gay actors in Hollywood. It's probably the No. 1 reason why we've yet to see an A-list star come out of the closet in his professional prime. Yes, it would do wonders for the self-esteem of young gay boys everywhere, but what about the actor's career?

If you look at Everett's from a certain angle, coming out in his twenties might not have been such a terrible career move. For several years there, being out and gay was something of a good-luck charm for him. It's probably why Everett, now 53, was cast in the two roles for which he's best known in the United States, as Julia Roberts' GBFF (gay best friend forever) in 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding, for which he was Golden Globe-nominated, and as Madonna's GBFBD (gay best friend/baby daddy) in 2000's The Next Best Thing, in which he was actually the best thing.

But I see what he's getting at. Everett wanted more for himself than playing the gay mate of top Hollywood divas. He wanted to be the romantic lead. The first time I ever saw him, he was just that, playing the romantic antihero opposite Miranda Richardson in 1985's Dance with a Stranger. He was already out of the closet by then, and despite his excellent performance in that movie, in the years that followed, he was relegated to mainly supporting roles, some of them in significant films like The Madness of King George and Shakespeare in Love.

To be fair, it hasn't been that much different for many straight British actors who aren't named Jude Law or who aren't playing a superhero or James Bond -- particularly Everett's fellow Ruperts, Graves and Friend. Colin Farrell has done fairly well, and Ewan McGregor is a solid indie darling, but despite a valiant effort, Hollywood hasn't been able to turn someone with as much star potential as James McAvoy into a major leading man.

Everett might say that Hollywood would have stopped trying a long time ago if McAvoy were gay, and he'd probably be correct. But it's still an uphill climb in Hollywood for many deserving British thespians angling to be romantic leads or non-Bond/non-superhero action stars as opposed to strictly character actors, regardless of their sexuality.

Even Colin Firth (Everett's costar in 1998's Shakespeare in Love and 2002's The Importance of Being Earnest). Despite being a quite popular Mr. Darcy in the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, he did not become a true Hollywood leading man until he was pushing 50. And although he was a convincing romantic lead opposite Renee Zellweger in both Bridget Jones films (a thankless job, if ever there was one), he's still not often cast as one. Indeed he won his Oscar last year for playing King George VI in The King's Speech, one of those leading-man roles for actors who don't regularly take the lead (see Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote).

The great irony of Firth's career is that the role that made him a true above-the-title star was one in which he played a gay man, 2009's A Single Man. (He also played Meryl Streep's gay baby daddy in the 2008 film version of Mamma Mia!) As convincing as he was as a gay man grieving the death of his lover in A Single Man (it's the film for which I think he should have won his Oscar, and possibly my favorite onscreen characterization of homosexuality ever), I wonder what an openly gay actor like Everett would have done with the part. Tom Ford, the director of A Single Man, is openly gay, and it's not like Firth, despite being openly straight, was a bigger box-office guarantee at the time than Everett, so one would presume that Firth was cast strictly because of talent, not drawing power.

Only Ford knows for sure, but who can solve the mystery of what happened with Everett's career? Some might argue that his own personal foibles -- a reportedly confrontational nature on set, too much Botox, etc. -- have held him back. Historical evidence may suggest that coming out of the closet is not the smartest Hollywood move for an ambitious young actor, but if the stars aligned just right, perhaps we will see an out gay acting superstar yet. Or maybe not. At the moment, the most visible out actors are working in supporting film roles, in sitcoms, on Broadway, or on Glee -- none are Will Smith-caliber or likely to challenge him anytime soon.

In music, the tide might be turning slowly. Coming out didn't hurt the career of Elton John, and any damage that has been done to George Michael's has been done by his own erratic behavior. But both John and Michael, like the most successful openly gay actors and TV personalities (Glee's Chris Colfer aside), were already well-established by the time they came out. With Adam Lambert, who came out near the beginning of his rise to power, it could go both ways. On one hand, being out made him visible in a way that he might not have been otherwise, but it also may have limited his appeal in Middle America.

Then there is Frank Ocean. To be completely honest, I had never even heard of him when he "came out" several weeks ago, and I'm pretty certain I'm not alone. Now he's been endorsed and branded a hero by much of the hip-hop community, and his debut album, Channel Orange, recently sold 131,000 copies in its first week, which was good enough for a No. 2 debut on Billboard's Top 200 album chart. Would he have done so well had he not revealed that he once fell for a guy?

Whether Ocean actually came out at all is debatable. In his open message to the public, he spoke of his unrequited love for a man years ago, but he never actually used the words "gay" or "bisexual" to describe himself. The first time I fell in love it was with a woman. Does that make me straight, or bisexual? If I were to write a blog post about it, would anyone assume that were the case if I didn't come out and say it? Katy Perry can kiss a girl, and no one questions her heterosexuality, but when two guys are involved, the rules change. In the eyes of much of the viewing and listening public, a gay man who slips up and sleeps with a woman is still gay, but a straight guy who explores his gay side is automatically no longer straight.

Regardless of what Ocean would label himself, I wonder how fans and the hip-hop community would have reacted had he come out (pun intended) and said, "I'm gay," and showed up on the red carpet holding his boyfriend's hand the week of the album's release. Would his album have sold as well as it did? I recently saw an episode of Drop Dead Diva that featured both Lance Bass and Clay Aiken in guest-starring bits (as well as Wanda Sykes and Amanda Bearse, which must have made it the gayest guest-starring cast ever), and I wondered, Is this what it's come to for out gay actors/singers? Would "Livin' La Vida Loca" have ever happened if Ricky Martin had come out at the beginning of his career? Now that he's out, will he ever again have another major hit?

I just finished writing a book about my experiences as a gay, black expat living on three different continents over the last six years, and I'm in the process of pitching it to publishers. A month or two ago, I showed my proposal to a friend who recently signed a book deal. He advised me to delete the words "gay" and "black" from my letter. No major publisher wants to publish a gay, black book, he reasoned. Why? In their clouded-by-$$$ eyes, it won't sell.

His advice: Pitch it as the male version of How Stella Got Her Groove Back. People would eat that up.

But then, it wouldn't exactly be a memoir, would it? It would be a work of fiction, and if I wanted to go that route (easier sell, easier money), I'd just write a young-adult novel and call it a night. I'm a gay, black man, so any memoir I write will have to cast a gay, black man in the central role.

A good writer, particularly one of non-fiction, writes what he knows (a golden rule I learned on the first day of Journalism 101). A good actor need not live and work under such strict limitations. For straight ones like Sean Penn, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Plummer, it's recently worked in their Oscar-winning favor (in Milk, Capote and Beginners, respectively), while Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right) and Firth (A Single Man) got nominations for playing what they don't know.

May out gay actors one day get their shot at doing the same.
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