February 17, 2019

Are Gay Roles Just for Gay Actors?

“It is 1992. A young actor named Will Smith, already a famous rapper and sitcom star, is nervous about his first big film role, as a gay con artist in Six Degrees of Separation. It’s a part that requires him to kiss a man, so he calls his friend Denzel Washington, who tells him: “If you don’t feel comfortable about it, don’t do it.” (That’s Washington’s recollection. Less charitable reports have him telling Smith squarely: “Don’t you be kissing no man.”) In the finished film, there is no kiss – at least not in full view of the camera – and Smith later says he regrets not giving his all for fear that it would harm his career.

How times change. Now a successful heterosexual actor can swear off gay roles for an entirely different and apparently noble reason. Last weekend, Darren Criss took home a Golden Globe for his performance as the gay serial killer Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace. When he bagged an Emmy for the same part last year, he announced it would be his last gay role. Far from being homophobic, this was his attempt to open up opportunities for colleagues. Having played several LGBT characters, he was keen “to make sure I won’t be another straight boy taking a gay man’s role”.

His decision comes at a time when there is a groundswell of opinion proposing that such parts should be given only to actors who identify as LGBT. Some voices in the debate, understandably agitated by the news that Jack Whitehall has been cast as a camp gay man in Disney’s Jungle Cruise, have even used the term “gayface” to describe straight actors going gay for pay, echoing the “blackface” of Laurence Olivier in Othello or Alec Guinness in A Passage to India.”

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