Period Films Celebrate Homosexuality—As Long as the Leads Are Played by Straight Actors

The question of gay roles belonging exclusively to gay actors is a long and tortured one—for no real reason, because honestly? There are no gay actors who are as talented or right for a role as a straight performer? And we need to retire the old rebuttal of, “Well, are you saying that only a divorced person can star in a movie about divorce?” or whatever insulting life experience is equated with growing up ashamed and embarrassed by whom one is attracted to. A divorce, a miscarriage, a cancer diagnosis do not shape and mold a person as early and as intrinsically as their sexuality.

And of course this conversation is  happening all over again now that Oscar season is, inexplicably, the one part of the year that has not been canceled by COVID-19. While people die and the election looms ever closer, we still get awards season pundits excitedly handicapping the race as each new movie, trailer, poster, synopsis is released. And this week we have a bumper crop of Oscar bait with three new trailers for movies about gay men and women living and loving at a time when they had to do so somewhat under the radar—with nary a gay lead in sight, in a real meta move!

For those who like your straight-washed awards contender with a side of legitimate theatre… Watch Viola Davis play out and proud Ma Rainey in the Netflix adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, co-starring Chadwick Boseman in his last role!

For fans of sepia-tinted and family-oriented gay fare… Try Paul Bettany, a straight actor playing gay in the 1973-set Uncle Frank!

Love a period drama about forbidden love based on a true story (except the woman being given the biopic treatment left no indication of her sexuality)? You’ll love Ammonite, starring non-lesbian performers Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan!

All fine actors, presumably all fine movies. And at least Ma Rainey director George C. Wolfe and Uncle Frank writer-director Alan Ball are both out gay men. But at what point do gay actors get to tell their stories on film and on stage? Or are they all trapped in the Ryan Murphy ghetto, relegated to camp and tragedy like the heroines of a Douglas Sirk melodrama? Say what you will about Ratched, but seeing out lesbians Sarah Paulson and Cynthia Nixon play a couple was the most audacious part of a series that included a beheading, being boiled alive, and Sharon Stone with a monkey. And that’s the best and most heartbreaking gay tragedy you’ll see this awards season.

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About Mark Durane More Articles
When he was a little boy, Mark's mother set the house on fire. (She was like that.) He'll never forget the look on his father's face as he gathered him up in his arms and raced through the burning building onto the pavement below. And he stood there, shivering in his pajamas, and watched the whole world go up in flames. And when it was all over, he said to himself, "Is that all there is to a fire?"

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