Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ramin Setoodeh Steps in It Again, Refuses to Retract Thesis re: Gay Actors Playing Straight

Journalist Ramin Setoodeh is taking heat again for . . . well,  it's difficult to figure out precisely what Setoodeh wants to say in his latest statements about the debacle that ensued last April, when he published a Newsweek essay attacking gay actors who try to play straight, and proposing that the more aware we are that a gay male actor is gay, the less convinced we'll be when he plays a heterosexual romantic lead.  Not only does Setoodeh refuse to retract that thesis, he has now reiterated it in a follow-up essay in which he seeks to claim that Hollywood is responsible for the problem by shutting out openly gay actors.  And that he has been spectacularly misunderstood.

And I'll confess that I myself still don't understand Setoodeh's point, not even after listening to him hold forth on the Joy Behar show.  In that interview, I do, however, hear something that I found troubling in his initial essay about Sean Hayes's inability to play convincingly a straight man involved in a heterosexual relationship:.  And this is telling, in my view: as he talks to Behar, Setoodeh talks about what "we" expect to see and hear on the stage or on television, as if there is some monolithic theater or media audience whose tastes and presuppositions are roughly the same everywhere.  As if we are all, when it comes to our normative gazes, essentially heterosexual.  And therefore troubled when a gay man tries unsuccessfully to gull us into thinking he is straight, as he plays a romantic part with a leading lady.

Since I tend to aim at a willing suspension of disbelief when I watch a performance, I am not in the habit, myself, of imagining that an actor's personal life or sexual orientation is somehow mirrored in her performance.  The very point of suspending disbelief--of entering a world of fantasy--is that anything is possible, once the curtain goes up and the fantasy world of the stage reveals itself.

Why people--why so many people in the U.S., to be precise--should worry about whether an actor is gay, straight, blue, yellow, or red, is beyond me.  There seems to be a certain . . . well, cultural immaturity . . . in our peculiar American fixation on the sexual orientation of an actor and our need to correlate that orientation to her (or, far more commonly, his) acting performance.  When this cultural penchant is placed beside the almost absolute lack of a similar penchant among, say, our British cousins as they go to the theater or watch television, one can only conclude that, as a younger culture with a stronger Puritan overcast, we are excessively troubled about distinctions that matter not a whit to our cousins across the Atlantic as they happily watch, say, a partnered gay man like Derek Jacobi play a presumably heterosexual king in "King Lear."  With never a peep of protest about Jacobi's inability to play straight.

We need to grow up.

And I'm not at all sure that Ramin Setoodeh is part of the growing up process we need--particularly not with his previous stinky Newsweek essay that sought to excuse Lawrence King's killer and implicitly to blame young King for his own murder, an essay that lies behind much of the outrage of the gay community as Setoodeh then turns his attack to gay actors whose masculinity he regards as less than convincing on the stage.  

I'm not sure that I am among the "we" for whom Mr. Setoodeh speaks.  Or that I want to be among those "we."

I've been thinking through these issues in the past week as I watch William Wyler's classic 1956 film "Friendly Persuasion" while I slog away daily on my treadmill.  It has been years since I have read the Jessamyn West book on which the movie is based, or have seen the movie itself.  

And what strikes me now, as I watch "Friendly Persuasion" in this post-Rock Hudson era in which the glass closets of many gay actors have been shattered by media coverage and the AIDS crisis, is how ludicrous some of the gender shenanigans of the American theater and cinema appear, now that we know.  Now that we know that Rock Hudson was a gay man merely playing a role (imagine!) when he wooed sweet, wholesome Doris Day to the delight of millions of American viewers in the innocent days before we knew better.  Or that Cary Grant may have had more catholic erotic tastes than most of us imagined as we watched him seduce the siren du jour on our movie or television screens.

Or that poor, hapless Tony Perkins may well have been doing more than acting when, in "Friendly Persuasion," he cringes in terror as Ma Hudspeth sics her three voracious daughters Ruby, Pearl, and Opal ("Gems ever' one of 'em, Mr. Birdwell!") on young Friend Perkins/Joshua Birdwell.  Knowing what we know now, the shenanigans that follow as the gems try, each one, to capture Josh for herself, bedecking herself in beyond-outrĂ© frills and furbelows, producing pipes and jugs of corn liquor, harping and fiddling and singing to beat the band "Marry me, marry me, do!": knowing what we know now, I say, the humor of this frank, hungry pursuit of an inexperienced young Quaker boy by three manly gems more accustomed to chopping wood than wearing bonnets is doubled and redoubled.

Because we know Perkins is gay.  And perhaps shrinking from Ruby, Pearl, and Opal because he has not the slightest interest in wedding and then bedding (or vice versa--whatever it takes, from Ma Hudspeth's point of view) any one of these jewels.  Not a female one.

I'm not at all sure that this subtext was apparent to many American viewers of this film in the 1950s.  But now that the circumstances of history have made it apparent, it adds immensely to the wry humor of a scene already made hilarious due to the clash of the Quaker code according to which young Friend Birdwell lives with the bawdy and dubiously moral code according to which the Hudspeth women live.  

The point of that aside being, it didn't seem to matter at all to American audiences in the past that Tony Perkins played straight in movies like "Friendly Persuasion."  And our knowledge today that he (and Hudson, and who knows about Grant?) had affairs with men only adds spice to our viewing of scenes that we know full well are all about fantasy and not about the ability of a film to mirror real life.  We're watching the movie for precisely the opposite reason, for pete's sake.  As my brother has long said, I go to movies to escape: if I want to hear arguing, ranting, and raving, I can stay at home.

We Americans need to grow up.  We need to understand that fantasy is fantasy, and that in the world of make-believe, not all of our crude Puritanical moral assumptions about fitting tab A into slot B may or need be perfectly mirrored.  And that's precisely the point of fantasy.  And that it can even add a certain invigorating humor to many theatrical situations, when we know that the part someone is playing is at a huge variance from the life he or she leads in real time.

And so I continue to think that Mr. Setoodeh's fixation on the bona fide masculinity of gay actors playing straight--or on who plays whom--is spectacularly misplaced.  Unless he wants to argue that Hollywood reflects and reinforces the immaturity of American culture in seeking to shield us from the knowledge that some human beings are gay, and that gay actors can play straight roles with every bit as much power and conviction that straight actors exhibit in playing those roles.

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