Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

Paul Berge
Q Syndicate
May 19, 2010

There is a phenomenon in editorial cartooning known as "Newsweekification," refering to cartoons which seem to have been drawn with the goal of getting printed on Newsweek's Periscope page. Newsweekified cartoons generally are about a widely discussed topic and are more focussed on setting up and delivering a gag rather than making a serious point.

My cartoon this week takes Newsweekification one step further by referencing an actual Newsweek column -- from the on-line version of the magazine at least -- by Ramin Setoodeh. Setoodeh, who is himself gay, wrote that he found Sean Hayes performance in the Broadway production of "Promises, Promises"
"wooden and insincere, like he's trying to hide something, which of course he is. Even the play's most hilarious scene, when Chuck tries to pick up a drunk woman at a bar, devolves into unintentional camp. Is it funny because of all the '60s-era one-liners, or because the woman is so drunk (and clueless) that she agrees to go home with a guy we all know is gay?"

Setoodeh proceeds from there to generalize that all out gay actors are unconvincing playing straight romantic leads, essentially because the audience knows the actor can't possibly have any romantic interest in the actress playing his romantic interest. Broadway and Hollywood have responded by denouncing Setoodeh as a self-hating homophobe; for an summary of the flap, see The Week.

Setoodeh does have a point that audiences seem to resist accepting openly gay actors in straight roles. Nathan Lane had a short-lived sitcom in the '90's whose short life may have had something to do with viewers not identifying with his skirt-chasing character, for example. Who knows how many times excellent gay actors have lost leading roles to mediocre straight actors because casting directors decided that the audiences wouldn't accept the gay actor in the role?

Heterosexual audiences seem much more inclined to accept openly heterosexual actors playing gay -- Robin Williams in "Birdcage"; Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo in "To Wong Foo"; Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain" -- perhaps because the heterosexual viewer has no vicarious interest in getting sexually involved with the character. Maybe a heterosexual audience mounts defenses against gay actors playing straight romantic leads because they expect the relationship to end in betrayal sooner or later. Certainly the straight audience has less emotional interest in a gay character's love interest than they do in that of a straight character, and therefore a lower standard of what they are willing to accept as believable portrayal of a gay character.

It's an interesting facet of a larger question, really. It fits alongside the controversy over whether white actors can play non-white characters -- even whether it's ethical for a non-handicapped actor to play a handicapped character.

Can Laurence Fishburne play Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"? Could Jackie Mason pull off the role of Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons"? Would audiences accept Aziz Ansari as Tony in "West Side Story"? Or would they rather watch Hayden Christensen as Othello?

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