The rise of Gay-for-Pay actors in Hollywood

By Charmaine Quizon

Credits: Google

“Entrenched by discrimination, gay-for-pay actors dominate the queer cinema.”

Over the history of motion picture, heterosexuality hegemonized the film industry while homosexuality on the screen is atypical (Richardson, 2011). Ancient stereotyped gay roles induce laughter, pity, and terror from the spectator, (Russo, 1981) thus are often in distress over their sexuality causing suicidal tendencies. The Children’s Hour (1961) of William Wyler is a movie that exemplifies self-hatred sentiment of homosexual characters over their sexual identity which led to suicidal. It is observed that the number of gay characters on the screen is very few the last couple of decades (Michaud, 2013) particularly in 1960’s, and 1970’s. Yet, a glimpse of change came in 1990’s, when an absolute rise in number of gay characters filled the cinema (Baker, 2015) which gave heterosexual spectators the opportunity to reshape the perception they have towards homosexuals.

However, in recent years there’s a decrease in quantity of homosexual representation from Hollywood films which is reflective to Gay Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLADD), a non-governmental media monitoring organization based in USA, report from 18.4 percent gay characters in 2016 to 12.8 percent in 2017 yet the diversity of their roles is also noteworthy. The non-standard sexual orientation is termed as Queer. Queer theory encompasses the study of non-straight gender identities of lesbian, gay, and bisexual. Moreover, it is also the relationship between film spectatorship and gender which suggests to co-exist with heteronormative reading (Doty, 1998). New Queer Cinema, gay’s purchasing power as termed as “Pink dollar”, and AIDS Campaign contributed to the modification of gay’s characterization in motion pictures (Streitmatter, 2009) from the common stereotypes mentioned above to a more diverse and complex characteristic. The nomenclature “New Queer Cinema” was coined in 1992 by Ruby Rich to instigate an altered perception and impression of gays along with the stereotypes whether good or bad and shift towards an extensive discovery of LGBT’s true identity without discrimination in films (Kuhn & Westwell, 2012). New Queer Cinema became a scheme to promote and sell independent films about mostly white middle-class men (Smyth, 1992) which’s category is avant-garde.

In Vito Russo’s book “Celluloid of Closet” which depicts history of homosexuals in film, he scrutinizingly investigated more than 300 movies within 80 years in mainstream to identify clear-cut and ambiguous signals of homosexuality on films. He rigorously analyzed the characters’ outfit, actions, and manner of speaking and came up with three essences: the homosexuals’ exposure in the cinema, their survival till the end of the film, and association to the plot (Russo, 1981). Russo states that gay and lesbian characters are often limited to their sexual orientation thus having less or no opportunity to depict a representational development of their characters. The book aims to strip off the colored notion that lesbians and gay men do not exist and the idea that people’s homophobic tendencies is the major reason for homosexuals to reluctantly locked up in the closet (Walters, 2001). Among the stereotypes mentioned by Russo are lunatic gay, effeminate gays, lonely young man, erotic androgyne, unwomanly, and the “lesbian vampire” (Smelik, 2000). While Russo seeks to find real depiction of homosexuals, author Ellis Hanson (1999) argues that Russo pays no attention on cinematic aesthetics and that gay characters on film play the role of huge population thus making it difficult to give a precise representation for each homosexual (Hanson, 1999).

While Gay-for-pay (g4p) is a term used to describe cisgender actors playing homosexual characters for economic reason in gay pornographic industry (Escoffier, 2003), such is also used to define straight actors playing gay roles and get accolades for their performance (Kirst, 2017). According to GLADD report, in 2013 film production companies are disinclined in casting LGBT characters in mainstream films while minor roles are given to these non-straight actors. Moreover, Hollywood’s partiality to recognize straight actors playing gay roles in award-giving bodies is noticeable. In the span of 25 years, no Oscar awards was given to openly gay actors while a remarkable number of straight actors were credited on their execution such as: Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, 1994), Charlize Theron (Monster, 2004), Phillip Seymour (Capote, 2006), and Sean Penn (Milk, 2009). And this year 2019, more queer characters played by straight actors emerged: Olivia Colman won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 2019 for her role as Queen Anne of England in the movie The Favourite, Mahershala Ali won his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Dr. Don Shirley in the film Green Book, Darren Criss received a Golden Globe in 2019 in his role as a gay, Filipino-American serial killer in FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, and Rami Malek who won the Oscar for Best Actor in 2019 after doing a biopic Bohemian Rhapsody playing as bisexual rock icon and Queen front man Freddie Mercury. A major cause on this situation is big studios’ prejudice on casting heterosexuals for LGB roles. Openly gay English actor Sir Ian McKellen commented that homophobia is a bigger problem of Hollywood than xenophobia after being nominated twice in Oscars but never won (Brown, 2016). The national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign Sarah McBride and the director of entertainment research at GLAAD Megan Townsend claim there are plenty of both exceptional LGBTQ actors and portrayal opportunities for them. While on TV, GLAAD’s 2018 “Where We Are On TV” report says there are 75 LGBTQ from the the 857 regular characters from primetime series. The actual percentage is 8.8 percent which is considered to be the highest in the last 23 years (Carlin, 2018).

The beginning of the 21st century marked the rise and a more blatant presentation of gays in the cinema (Gomillion & Giuliano, 2011). In 2010, an unembellished film which practically shows a non-traditional family life of same-sex couple raising their two teenagers which are product of artificial insemination opened in the cinema. “The kids are all right” is an American comedy-drama under the direction of Lisa Cholodenko and was written by herself and Stuart Blumberg. The two began on working on the script in 2004 but was only materialized in 2006 but Cholodenko delayed the project due to her pregnancy through artificial insemination, the idea which plays a center role in the film thus reflects the director’s life starting their family with the help of a sperm donor. Cholodenko is an openly gay with a partner, the American musician Wendy Melvoin. The plot of “The kids are all right” centers on the seemingly smooth relationship of a sapphic obstetrician Nic (played by Annette Bening) and bisexual housewife with a landscape business Jules (played by Julianne Moore) living in Los Angeles with their two children Joni (Mia Wasikowska), 18, and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), 15; but engulfed with tension since the two teenagers clandestinely contacted their biological father Paul (played by Mark Ruffalo) or the sperm donor. Paul warmly received the two and undeniable connection was built. Nic and Jules learned about it and were surprised. Paul enthusiastically comes into the family and slowly intrudes each one’s life except Nic’s. Nic’s unhealthy alcohol drinking behaviors became an issue for the couple. Jules was offered to work in Paul’s back garden although Nic is reluctant, Jules who thinks Nic does not support her continued it. Paul appreciates and commends Jules’ work and the two start to have an affair which started from a hasty kiss turned to passionate make out which the two repeatedly did. When Nic finally opened her door to Nic, she discovered the affair of the two which enraged her and the two children. Paul tries to convince Jules to choose him and they can be a family with the kids but Jules firmly says she’s gay. Jules sobbingly acknowledges her mistake and asks for the family’s forgiveness. Joni is off to college and they all hugs each other sending Joni away. The story ends with Nic and Jules smiling at each other.

Credits: Google
Credits: Google
Credits: Google

Nic or Annette Bening in real life is a veteran in film industry. She has been doing this craft literally half of her life- 31 years which made her a four-time Oscar nominee, a BAFTA winner in 1999, and two times a Golden Globe recipient (one for The Kids Are All Right). She has portrayed different kinds of women in films from an actress (Bugsy, 1991), lobbyist (The American President, 1995), an aging stage actress (Being Julia, 2004), to a socialite turned murderer (Mrs. Harris, 2005), and many more. She is a cisgender, married twice with actor J. Steven White from 1984-1991 and filmmaker Warren Beatty in 1992 up to present and have four wonderful children. In an interview, director Lisa Cholodenko described Bening as the sole person who could play Nic’s role and she’s fortunate to have Bening agree on the project. Next is Julianne Moore, dubbed as a gay icon after doing several queer roles in films (Besanvalle, 2017), one of which is as Jules in “The kids are all right.” Moreover, her strong advocacy on marriage equality and activism in prevalent social problem in HIV/AIDS adds more justice to her as a queer icon. In the movie, she plays as a bisexual mother of two and partner of lesbian Nic in the film. Moore is married to an American film director Bartholomew Freundlich and they have two children. Moore got nominated in Oscars for her performance as Laura Brown in The Hours (2002) and as Jules in “The Kids Are All Right” for BAFTA Award for Best Actress. In an interview with Moore with the Advocate, she said what delights her are the stories and sexuality is never an issue (Voss, 2010). Both lead actors are pragmatically cisgender but able to put a good performance as lesbian and bisexual respectively.

The film has gained attention about its objective on centering and presenting same-sex couple particularly lesbians to the spectators rearing two teenagers trying to live a traditional family life (Bendix, 2015). Although the movie’s theme is about a lesbian couple and their family, more affectionate or sexual scenes between male and female than same-sex were shown. During the first few minutes of the film, Nic and Jules kiss while in the dining table then goes to a more intimate scene in the bedroom then shares another kiss the night before they would meet Paul the first time, and then the last one is in the bathroom before Jules soaks herself in the bathtub, thus a total of four scenes. On the other hand, Paul and Tanya had their make out seen within the first 10 minutes of the film. The next scenes include Jules and Paul which initiates more scenes of infidelity. It started with an impulsive kiss followed by three sexual acts. Also, Joni had his scene at the latter part when she kissed her special friend during the party, thus a total of six sexy scenes. The scenes between male and female actors are more daring than the former.

People in film industry believe that another cause of discrimination between out gay actors is the ideology that straight actors are more marketable than gays (Kirst, 2017). The existing discrimination is backed up by the study made by the University of California in Los Angeles’ LGBTQ+ think tank William Institute in 2013. “A Single Man” cisgender lead actor Colin Firth said in 2010 that straight guys playing gay roles get recognized but gays who wish to play either straight or queer are disregarded. This trend consequently increases gay-for-pay actors in Hollywood which implies discrimination.

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Streitmatter, R. (2009). Perverts to Fab Five: The Media’s Changing Depiction of Gay Men and  Lesbians. New York. Routledge.

The Associated Press (May 22, 2018). LGBTQ representation in film fell in 2017, according to GLAAD study. USA TODAY. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2018/05/22/lgbtq-representation-film-2017-glaad-study/633573002/

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Walters, D.  (2001).  All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America,  Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press.

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