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Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes take their curtain call at the Broadway Opening of Promises, Promises Broadway Theatre on April 25, 2010.
Look, I'm not here to argue the motives of Ramin Satoodeh, who recently wrote the lightning-rod column that started with a critique of Sean Hayes in Promises, Promises and somehow arrived at the idea that it never really works when out gay actors try to play straight romantic leads. I don't know what's in the guy's head; I think that's a pretty complex soup to sort out. And it's kind of none of my business.
But I know how to read an argument and determine whether it has any internal logic to it, and this one just ... doesn't.
I'll tell you what: let's work backwards from what he now says was his point: "If an actor of the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet today, would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man?"
This is not a particularly fresh question, but it's a fair one. To address it, we have to first establish that because the hypothetical relies on the actor's coming out, it has nothing whatever to do with the actor's ability to act. Instead it has to do with a change in the audience's perceptions of exactly the same guy doing exactly the same work, based on the audience's receipt of new information.
Satoodeh posits that this would present a major problem for Hypothetically Gay George Clooney Guy. We'll call him HGGCG. (Please note — this does not refer to George Clooney, but to Satoodeh's "actor of the stature of George Clooney.")
Now, making this argument presents several logical challenges. The first, of course, is that audiences accept actors playing characters who are unlike the actor all the time. Audiences watch onscreen couples make out all the time, and believe it even when the performers are known to dislike each other. They watch Meryl Streep pretend to be Julia Child. It would require fairly good evidence to explain why, exactly, this would be the one case where what we know about the actor prevents us from believing a character who's different from the actor. Dustin Hoffman as Rain Man? No problem! But HGGCG making out with women? At this, we (Satoodeh believes) melt down and cannot accept it.
It would also be a feat to explain why this would only work in one direction — why audiences with preconceptions about sexuality would be more likely to enjoy and accept Tom Hanks or Sean Penn as a gay person than they would be to accept Hypothetically Gay George Clooney Guy as a straight person? That seems counterintuitive.
But of course, counterintuitive isn't the same thing as wrong, so let's persevere in trying to get this argument to make sense.
The other problem with the article's being framed as a question about HGGCG and his fortunes in Hollywood, however, is that that question has absolutely nothing to do with Sean Hayes in Promises, Promises, an anecdote about which forms the basis for the entire piece.
In fact, when Setoodeh came back to explain more, or possibly dig the hole deeper (it was hard to tell), he pleaded his case this way: "I was sharing my honest impression about a play that I saw."
So if HGGCG is the point, why does the original piece start by saying this about Sean Hayes?
[F]rankly, it's weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, like he's trying to hide something, which of course he is.
Well ... yes. He is. He's an actor, and therefore, he is technically trying to hide the fact that he is Sean Hayes, the actor, and not the character in the show. In precisely this sense, all actors are trying to "hide something."
Let's get more specific — presumably, the accusation is that Hayes is hiding the fact that he's not really attracted to Kristin Chenoweth? Agreed! I am assuming, however, that a lot of men who have played opposite Kristin Chenoweth — the gay ones and the straight ones both — have not actually been in love with her, and have not needed to be. They have merely been acting like they are. (I would stand to be corrected by any available thespians, but until then I will continue to suspect that this is where the word "acting" comes from.)
Actually being attracted to the person you are in a scene with does not seem, in my experience, to be a requirement for audience buy-in. And in fact, knowing that you are not actually in a romantic situation with this person — knowing that you are, for instance, in love with someone else, such as your actual wife — does not create a problem either.
Furthermore, if indeed Hayes "comes off as wooden and insincere," doesn't it seem possible that this is just a performance in a play that Setoodeh didn't particularly like? Perhaps it was flawed acting. Perhaps it was one of those ineffable things that happens where you just don't buy a person in a particular role.
I mean, I'm not sure I would buy Sean Hayes as Don Corleone, but it's not because he's gay, you know? I don't think I would buy Tom Arnold as Don Corleone, either. Not every actor works in every part.
Here's the other problem, if the idea is to cast Sean Hayes as the HGGCG of this piece: Sean Hayes has not spent the last 10 years being George Clooney. He has spent the last 10 years being Sean Hayes, and Sean Hayes was on television for many years playing a very particular, very broadly drawn gay character, and not doing a whole lot of other high-profile work. Not being able to immediately buy into the idea of Sean Hayes as a buttoned-down heterosexual is partly the result of the same kind of hard-to-break association with a particular iconic role that haunts ... well, practically everyone who plays a particular iconic role for many, many years and then wants to do something very different. That is an uphill climb. A very steep uphill climb.
In other words: To turn Sean Hayes into a convincing test of a possible HGGCG, you have to imagine that in addition to being known to be Hypothetically Gay when not on the clock, George Clooney Guy spent eight seasons on network television playing a very famous gay character. If indeed it seems like a hard shift to get people to think of him as a heterosexual lothario, which is more likely to be the problem — what we watched for eight seasons on television? Or what we know about his home life?
(I would note here that conflating actor and character works in a variety of strange ways. After Will & Grace ended, the first few times I saw Eric McCormack — who is straight — play straight guys, it took me a second to remind myself that he wasn't Will Truman anymore, and it sometimes jolted me when I saw him with women.)
But where the piece really collapses logically is where the discussion of Rock Hudson comes in. Setoodeh says:
For all the beefy bravado that Rock Hudson projects on-screen, Pillow Talk dissolves into a farce when you know the likes of his true bedmates. (Just rewatch the scene where he's wading around in a bubble bath by himself.)
You don't even have to watch Pillow Talk to know this is senseless. If an actor projects beefy bravado on-screen, but you can't deal with him taking a bubble bath because your brain is setting off some kind of WHOOP-WHOOP-WHOOP gay-person alarm that is specifically stimulated by bubbles — and if the only reason that alarm goes off is that you're waiting for it to go off because you already know he's gay — then I would venture to say that is not Rock Hudson's problem.
And if you could watch the same scene five minutes before you found out Rock Hudson was Not Hypothetically Gay and see entirely different subtext in it — a subversion of and a tweak of machismo through the taking of a bubble bath, for instance, rather than GAY GAY GAY — then there's absolutely no reason you can't continue to see it that way five minutes later. Unless you choose not to.
Setoodeh's efforts to discount existing gay actors who currently play straight characters — actors whose success would seem to knock every possible leg out from this already rickety hypothesis — include writing off Neil Patrick Harris, because the womanizer he plays on How I Met Your Mother is a caricature. Well, sure. At times. At other times, Harris has been a pure romantic lead on that show, and he's played convincing and rather touching romantic scenes with a woman.
Wait, I have to stop here to pay tribute to this line:
[Portia deRossi and Neil Patrick Harris] inhabit broad caricatures, not realistic characters likes the ones in Up in the Air or even The Proposal.
Best. Proposal. Mention. Ever.
At any rate, the weirdest argument is the one about Jonathan Groff, who's recently been seen as Lea Michele's love interest on Glee. About Groff, Setoodeh says:
In Spring Awakening, he showed us that he was a knockout singer and a heartthrob. But on TV, as the shifty glee captain from another school who steals Rachel's heart, there's something about his performance that feels off. In half his scenes, he scowls—is that a substitute for being straight? When he smiles or giggles, he seems more like your average theater queen, a better romantic match for Kurt than Rachel. It doesn't help that he tried to bed his girlfriend while singing (and writhing to) Madonna's Like a Virgin. He is so distracting, I'm starting to wonder if Groff's character on the show is supposed to be secretly gay.
1. I watch this show, I watch Jonathan Groff on this show, and I had no idea he was gay, and I thought he was sexy, and I still think he's sexy, so perhaps he only "seems more like your average theater queen" if you're looking for it.
2. Does this suggest that it would make the character seem less distractingly maybe-gay if the character were singing "Like A Virgin" and writhing around on a bed, but Groff hadn't come out?
3. Do gay men not scowl? If repeated scowling is a problem here because it means he's trying to appear straight, then what accounts for the repeated scowling on almost every other overwrought drama on television? I think under this definition, everyone on Law & Order must be trying to appear straight. There is also a lot of scowling on Lost, come to think of it. I've never thought of it as sexuality-related. Should I?
The bottom line is this: Sean Hayes, Jonathan Groff, and, yes, HGGCG are not responsible for any baggage the audience brings to the piece. If you want to tell them that you simply will not have it, that you will not put aside your preconceptions, that you will always see a "theater queen," then that's perfectly okay. Say that, and stand by it.
But it simply doesn't hold water as a critique of anyone's performance, and can't logically be explained as something that coming out does to a person's ability to act.
We all live with our limitations as audience members; with how engaged we are, with how flexible we are, and with how open-minded we are. It's possible to suggest that mainstream audiences have work to do in making sure they can read all performances fairly without pushing it off on the proposed inadequacy of the performance itself.