Seven years ago, I sat across from an actor and discussed dialects. “It’s like gay voice,” she said, gesturing vaguely at me before going on to claim something along the lines of, “Gay men invented a specific way of speaking so they could identify one another in public.”
Perhaps she and James Corden have the same dialect coach, because that’s the only thing that could explain his embarrassing performance in Netflix’s The Prom. One that has inexplicably been nominated for a Golden Globe Award.
Yes! This is yet another installment in “why are straight actors playing gay roles?” because when being punished for being a proctologist is punishable by death in some countries, then we can have the “why can’t proctologist characters be played by real proctologists?” conversation.
But here we have Corden as Barry, one half of the Broadway star duo who travel with more yeoman colleagues to Indiana to ride a wave of publicity as they fight to restore a high school prom after it was canceled to prevent a teen lesbian from attending with her girlfriend.
And let’s be clear: Brooks Ashmanskas’ performance in the Broadway original bordered on gay minstrelsy. Every hand gesture was limp, every sentence had sibilance. The larger-than-life performance got away with it for two reasons: A prancing queen in a musical about over-the-top Broadway stars works on stage, and Ashmanskas himself is gay.
Watching that same bray-it-to-the-last-row energy on film (especially as directed by Ryan Murphy, who I swear puts the camera on a lazy susan and just spins it during most scenes) from a straight man is enervating at best and infuriating at worst. Because from the moment Corden opens his mouth, he is playing gay with a capital Liza With a Z. He is not playing a Broadway actor lost in the recesses of his own narcissism. He is playing a loud gay man, who works on Broadway.
Worse, the moments between Barry and young lesbian Emma, in which he commiserates with her about being rejected by their parents for being gay, ring false in the movie. There’s a difference between watching the alchemy that happens when real life and acting converge, when the performer’s known back story (or endless press junket interviews on the topic) inform the scene that we are witnessing unfold—and seeing a straight man act it.
That is our modern-day version of seeing a star riff on their persona in a film. With fewer and fewer stars around, we yearn for that connection between actor and role in a fresh way. And that’s why it’s so vital that we keep calling for more gay roles to be played by gay performers. To watch James Corden as Barry point to his life as proof that it gets better is watching a ham overplay emotion. To see a gay man claim the same, both as Barry and as a gay actor starring in a Netflix musical? That would have meant something.
Tune in to the Golden Globes February 28 to see if Corden takes home the gold or if saner minds prevail.
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