This weekend viewers and critics fell head over heels for Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as make-believe lovers. But what if their gay romance had been portrayed by actual gay actors? Would it be a different, less-seen story?
Here's the deal: the ratings are in, and the much buzzed-about Liberace movie Behind the Candelabra is a big winner. The biopic nabbed 2.4 million viewers, HBO's highest ratings for an original movie in nearly a decade. It's not entirely surprising. You had A-list actors doing plenty of promo. You had a juicy story: a look at the loving but difficult relationship between a dramatic showman and his younger lover. And the Twitter-verse was tiring of talking about the new Daft Punk album, so the options were basically to gorge on the new Netflix-produced season of Arrested Development or watch Candelabra and come up with clever hashtags like #GoodWillManhunting. (I just made that up! RT IF U LIKEY!)
The success must have been vindicating for director Steven Soderbegh, who took his blockbuster-made cast to HBO after movie studios balked that the film was "too gay." The record-setting ratings (and even a cursory glance at social media) confirm that lots of straight eyeballs wanted to see the flick - so "too gay" it was not. But could it have been?
Watching noted heterosexuals Michael Douglas and Matt Damon playact being a couple is one thing. But what if these gay roles were played by actors who are actually gay? Would 2 million people still be willing to watch them smooch? That seems worth asking, before we become too self-congratulatory about living in an age where a movie like Candelabra can be a success.
Not to digress by a couple decades, but I somehow found myself reminded of a scene from the '80s movie Heathers, which starred Winona Ryder and Christian Slater as a Bonnie & Clyde-esque high school couple. (Life would be grand if all roads led back to that movie.) They accidentally kill two sexist football jocks, then stage it to look like a double-suicide brought on by tortured gay love. At the funeral, a mourning father comically wails, "I love my dead gay son!"
Christian Slater's character snickers to Winona's: "Wonder how he'd react if his son had a limp wrist with a pulse?"
It's a savvy, knowing remark. Plenty of people can be cheerleaders for minorities when they're a distant, abstract concept. (Supposedly Enlightened Person: "Black people? Oh, yeah. I'm cool with black people. I think one lives in my neighborhood.") But it's how you respond to real, breathing people that reveals whether prejudices have truly been cast away. (Same Person: "Are we lost? Are we the only white people in this neighborhood? Roll up your window!")
Maybe it says something that, most of the time, mainstream movies use straight actors to play LGBT romantic leads. Brokeback Mountain had Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. Boys Don't Cry had Chloe Sevigny and Hilary Swank. Milk had Sean Penn and James Franco. These actors were all great in their roles - even if Brokeback Mountain, and I'm offering an unpopular opinion here, was a bad movie. Douglas and Damon were great too, and deserve the rave reviews they've received.
But I'm not wondering whether gay actors would have been better. I'm wondering whether general audiences would have reacted differently, and whether these movies could have been as successful. When straight actors play gay, they are often lauded for their "bravery." As though playing a gay person (as opposed to a less polarizing person, like maybe a serial killer) is the courageous mark of truly going the distance for their craft. Sure, Hollywood Hunk A and B are kissing, but it's just for The Art of It All. Audiences can pretend that when the director yells "cut!" they rinse their mouths out with Listerine and trot back to a trailer where their starlet spouse awaits to congratulate them on doing an amazing-awesome-sweet-regal thing to advance the rights of people like her hairdresser. And then they have sex. In the trailer. Straight sex, everybody.
But what if it was two actors that everyone knew were actually gay? What if they locked eyes in a mainstream movie, kissed, and looked in love? Would viewers react differently if they were undistracted by straight celebrities, and focused solely on the fact that to some people - real people, these people - love looks like this?
Would they still watch? I don't know. There are no major examples to look to. And maybe that void, in a way, answers the question.
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