Playing it straight

Furor erupts over Newsweek article on openly gay actors

May 13, 2010
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The storm started when Newsweek critic Ramin Setoodeh opined that "an actor's background does effect how we see his or her performance." He was talking specifically about his trouble --and, he concludes, audiences' trouble--accepting "out" actors Sean Hayes in a heterosexual role in Broadway's "Promises, Promises" and Jonathan Groff as a straight teen on "Glee." Read the whole piece here.

The response was quick. Actress Kristen Chenowith, Hayes' co-star in the show, fired back, calling the piece "horrendously homophobic."

"We’re actors first," says Chenowith, "whether we’re playing prostitutes, baseball players, or the Lion King. Audiences come to theater to go on a journey. It’s a character and it’s called acting...No one needs to see a bigoted, factually inaccurate article that tells people who deviate from heterosexual norms that they can’t be open about who they are and still achieve their dreams."

Ryan Murphy, creator of "Glee," called for a Newsweek boycott.

Then writer Aaron Sorkin chimed in with a semi-defense of Setoodeh.  He and others believe that Setoodeh's piece is being misrepresented. He puts the blame not on Newsweek and its story but on celebrity journalism, which has pushed the private lives of performers too far to the front, where it gets in the way of the work itself. "I can't hum a single John Mayer song but I can name five women he's slept with," he writes. "Sean, for Setoodeh, the show began before you even showed up to the theater that night."

There's no question that we bring baggage into the theater with us. And when it comes to celebrity performers, that baggage may influence our experience of the performance in some way.

But I've seen many, many strong performances by honest people playing criminals, by southerners playing northerners, by monogamous actors playing adulterers, by Americans playing Brits, by women playing men (anyone see "The Year of Living Dangerously"?), by humans playing animals, and, yes, by gay actors playing straight (and vice versa). And, I don't believe most audiences have trouble getting past the real world and entering the world of a play or film.

Setoodeh was talking about two performances and I can't comment on those since I haven't seen Hayes in "Promises, Promises" and my recent viewing of "Glee" has been spotty (although I bought Groff completely in Broadway's "Spring Awakening").  I don't know if those specific actors in those specific works create credible characters. But I don't think that whether they work or not should be pinned on the fact that the actors are gay.

Of course, there have been times when I didn't feel like two supposed lovers on stage are really interested and/or attracted to another. That's an acting problem, not a sexual orientation issue.

Your thoughts?


  • Acting is Just Acting
    All acting involves the audience participating in the willing suspension of disbelief. When we view a movie where an actor plays a vicious psychotic killer, we logically know that the actor is not really murdering his fellow actors, but we still feel frightened by the murder scenes. When we watch actors depict a love scene, we logically know they are not having sex, but we still get turned on. I don't think our knowledge of an actor's personal life interferes with this process of suspending our disbelief. We know that many famous actors are faithfully married, and yet we still believe the on screen romance they share with their costars. Similarly, knowing the real-life sexual orientation of an actor is different from the character they play does not impact are ability to believe their character. Neil Patrick Harris came out as gay, albeit later in his career, and yet millions of t.v. viewers still believe his straight womanizing character in How I Met Your Mother, and they didn't all turn off their tv in disbelief after finding out he was gay. Also, several well-known straight actors have successfully portrayed gay characters without the audience shouting, "Hey, how can he play a gay guy? He's straight!" Mr. Setoodeh may be gay, but he is well-known for making offensive and self-hating comments about gay people. His recent Newsweek column is just par for the course. Mr. Setoodeh obviously has problems with his own sexuality, but TV, movie and theater audiences generally have no problem with gay actors playing straight characters and vice-versa.
  • Absolutely Agree - it's all acting
    I absolutely agree that acting is simply acting. If the situation was reversed, do we have a problem with it? Many straight actors have played characters who are gay and we, as the audience, accept it. Why should we have any trouble accepting a gay actor portraying a straight person? That isn't saying a lot about the audience.
  • Invalid arguments
    I think the problem issue has nothing to do with homosexuality. It's more of a typecasting issue. Hayes is so well known for his portrayal of Jack that it will shadow the rest of his career. Just as it shaded the career of several other actors.
    Setoodeh probably was mistaken about the reason for his trouble believing the performance. It would have been sufficient to say it did not work. But controversy sells and this one is certainly kicking up a storm of publicity. I support the boycott of the entire product. The editors knew exactly what they were doing when they printed that piece and they should be punished for their hubris.
  • Bad Writing
    I think this is simply an issue of bad writing on the part of Mr. Setoodeh. Or else, after the backlash, he tried to make out that his article had a different premise than its original intent.

    If you read the original essay, the lead says that the reason Sean Hayes is no good in the role is that he's too gay. Then attacks Jonathan Groff (who I never knew -- or cared was gay) for being "too gay" on Glee -- a statement with which I disagree.

    Then suddenly, in defending his article (and I'm sure the attacks that he got were scary, and might give one pause) in the "response to Chenoweth" that's linked to his essay, he now claims, "I wrote an essay in the May 10 issue of NEWSWEEK called "Straight Jacket" examining why, as a society, it's often hard for us to accept an openly gay actor playing a straight character."

    Really? That's what his essay was about? Because he didn't really even scratch the surface of that point until after one LOOOOONGG paragraph attacking Sean Hayes's performance, then getting distracted about Groff. And his point of whether or not we'd still think of George Clooney as a leading man if he were to "come out" appeared the LAST SENTENCE.

    Look - this is a tempest in a teapot. Straight, middle-class, white people (like me) are beginning to tire of every misquote, slip-of-the-tongue and stupid thing said by an idiot (or bad writer) igniting a firestorm for the insulted minority group. I know. It's easy for me to say. But you'll play to a larger audience if you don't freak out, and simply call it what it is -- a poorly contructed essay that had unintended consequences for the author.

    I'll also add that I've been involved in local theatre for a long, long time. And I've seen many, many, many professional and amateur shows, too. And yes -- some men playing straight roles are obviously gay (or at least overtly feminine) and unfortunately miscast. Perhaps this is the case with Sean Hayes. He does flit a bit, right? But I've read more about Kristin Chenoweth being miscast in the reviews I've seenof Promises, Promises. I buy that, too. It's really hard to see the same girl who's wowed us in her dynamite, tough, petite girl roles playing the milquetoast and ultimately suicidal Fran Kubelik. (I understand this. I played the role many, many moons ago. It's a toughy to make Fran loveable and respectable when she's flinging with a married jerk -- especially in 2010.)

    So rather than trying to use Sean Hayes's performance in PP as some sort of declarative statement on this issue (actually, Chuck Baxter is not what I would consider the most "Butch" role ever written in musical theatre, BTW, and Jerry Orbach was a 98-lb weakling when he played it.), let's just agree that there was probably a lot of unfortunate miscasting that happened here, in an effort to sell tickets, and move on.
    • One more thing . . .
      I also wanted to add that I've seen plenty of men that I know are gay be wonderful, "butch" and highly convincing in portraying straight characters -- even romantic leads!! Oh - and I played a lesbian myself, once FWIW. Hope I sold it.
    • and further...
      ...which also begs the question: Does a straight leading man character have to be "butch"?

      There's a great big world of people out there. An actor like Michael Cera, for example, is unlikely to be the most macho guy in the room. But audiences don't seem to have trouble accepting him as a straight guy in movies like Nick and Nora's Infinate Playlist or Juno.

      • Good point, Lou
        Agree with you, Lou. And Michael Cera is a really good example. And while I know most folks who read here probably don't know "Promises, Promises," I think that the role that Sean Hayes is playing is sort of that non-butch, Michael Cera, nerdy type. I mean, c'mon. His character's name is Chuck Baxter. Doesn't that sorta scream nerdy suck-up who can never get the girl?

        Thus once again proving why Sean Hayes in Promises Promises is a bad example for Sedooteh to make his (so-called) point.
      • It matters
        The point here arising is that "an actor's background does effect how we see his or her performance."
        The answer is yes because people expect as its background. if a gay actor plays a straight then it would not as effective as it can be in a gay role.

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