INVISIBLE

What Is Hollywood’s Big Gay Problem? Money and a Cowardly Lack of Imagination

As the ripple effects of #OscarsSoWhite continue, Sir Ian McKellen called out the Oscars for homophobia. Is true Hollywood diversity a pipedream?

01.27.16 5:01 AM ET

How will Hollywood’s finest behave on Oscars night? Self-flagellating? Serious? Wry and ironic? Will they say all the right things? Boycott the red carpet? Use the traditional frock and tux parade for political and cultural sloganeering?

Will there be rhetorical fireworks on stage, or will this year’s great diversity debate be made safe and neutralized?

First, this year’s Oscars were rightly skewered for having a race problem—no black actors or movies depicting black stories nominated, an embarrassing, damning sea of white.

Now, Sir Ian McKellen has given the ceremony another sound and justifiable kicking for its lack of LGBT representation and awareness. No openly gay actor has ever won an Oscar, he said.

Straight actors playing gay roles—like Tom Hanks (Philadelphia), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) and Sean Penn (Milk)—have fared more successfully.

“I have great sympathy for any group that feels under-represented in their industry,” said McKellen to Sky News of the impact of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.

Black people, who had been “ill-treated and under-estimated,” women, and LGBTs all had a legitimate reason to complain, said McKellen.

“I wonder if that is prejudice or chance,” McKellen said to the Guardian of the lack of an openly gay actor winning the Best Actor award—the unspoken inference was that it was the former.

“How clever, how clever,” said McKellen of the success of straight actors playing gay. “What about giving me one for playing a straight man?‬”

McKellen has been nominated twice—for playing James Whale in Gods and Monsters and Gandalf in Lord of the Rings.

“My speech has been in two jackets,” McKellen noted, reciting a key line from the speech, “‘I’m proud to be the first openly gay man to win the Oscar.’ I’ve had to put it back in my pocket twice.”

It shouldn’t be necessary for McKellen to remind Hollywood of its homophobia, but he rightly did.

As Kevin O’Keeffe wrote in Mic, crunching the numbers of Oscar-nominated films and actors over the last decade reveals a shocking paucity of LGBT-themed films in the best picture category, as well as a total lack, as McKellen said, of out-gay artists in the acting categories.

Of the 78 films nominated for best picture since 2007, only 5 percent had an LGBTQ protagonist, 95 percent had a heterosexual protagonist.

The presence of out performers like Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris obscures the continued dearth of out A-list actors. The names you can name are individuals, one-offs—Zachary Quinto—not part of a large or commanding group.

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Why this is, and why there are so few gay-themed movies getting made and rewarded, is part of a vicious circle that takes in both money and simple cowardice.

Television, not film, is where we go now to see black and LGBT characters of variety and nuance; mainstream film’s view of the world seems pallid, anachronistic, very white and very straight in comparison.

Movie-making Hollywood is an industry and likes films to make money, and the feeling is, simply, that gay-themed movies, with gay lead characters—and, the statistics would seem to imply, gay lead actors—will not make money. The audience will be nervous of them and, thus, reject them. If the audience does not go to a movie, that film will not make money.

And so, Hollywood—a place not exactly empty of LGBT people—fights shy of doing right by LGBTs. Being complicit in this odd circle of silence and ignorance surely must be strange for LGBT people working in Hollywood, unless their venality and ambition cancel out their entire sense of political and cultural engagement.

Of course, from time to time, an odd big-screen success—preferably of a vintage style, involving people fighting to assert their same-sex identities and desires in different times (Brokeback Mountain, Carol)—breaks through. Hollywood pats itself on the back. However, these exceptions prove a negative rule.

Milk, about Harvey Milk, was a true, wonderful rarity: the examination of a true gay hero’s life, public and private, and not drawn to elicit sympathy. But, of course, Milk’s heroism is underscored by his assassination and his minting as a gay rights martyr.

Other LGBT movies are made, and attain their own status, independently—like the brilliant, vibrant, frisky Tangerine.

But, rather like the institutionalized racism the lack of black Oscar nominations revealed, the lack of openly gay actors and gay-themed films shows Hollywood’s institutionalized homophobia—an institutionalized homophobia that gay men and women preside over themselves to turn a profit.

The outrage over the last few weeks has been centered on the Oscars themselves; but the Oscars are the shiny, obvious window-dressing on deeper prejudices, deficiencies, and absences.

When I spoke to Quinto for Attitude magazine recently about being one of the few out A-list actors, he said closeted gay celebrities had come to him for advice.

“I just share my experience, and say, ‘This is how it went down for me, this is how I feel.’ I tell them, ‘Trust that even if it means you’re not as famous, or even if it means it’s not exactly what you thought it would be, it’s still more valuable when you’re assessing your life at the end of that.’”

On being out, he said, “If you’re an actor who’s afraid of it, or think there’s something you’re not going to be able to achieve or accomplish [if you come out] then I have to disagree with you,” he said. “If you don’t want it to be part of the public conversation, I respect that. I do feel I am plowing a lonely road, but I’m just trying to do something.”

Quinto, star of action movies like Agent 47, told me he had worked in a more “consistent and diverse” way since coming out.

“I think it’s going to continue to evolve. I think we’ll all look back at this time and say how lucky we were to be a part of the evolution. I have no interest in dragging people out. If people are conditioned to live their lives based on what other people think of them, that’s a really heavy way to live.

“On some level, it’s really dark and unsatisfying to me. I just know I’m happy. I’m thrilled with the life I get to live. I wake up in the morning and look at this man I love, and I just feel so grateful.”

But Quinto shouldn’t be one of very few out A-listers, and—similarly, in its fiction-producing universe—Hollywood should feature black and LGBT stories in a consistent and diverse stream.

There should be black and LGBT heroes and villains; there should be black and LGBT lead characters, secondary characters—and, when possible, black- and LGBT-focused stories themselves. There should be openly gay actors playing straight, and straight playing gay.

Hollywood will nod along vigorously, return to their offices, and ask: How can we make these films if no one will come to watch them? But audiences will, if the stories are compellingly told.

And if Hollywood again ducks its head to say it is only responding to audience demand, and audiences simply do not want this—they would rather have CGI robots indulging in witty repartee, and half-werewolves and action heroes—then one would have to ask how this cycle of demand and expectation is being produced and perpetuated.

Of course, it is all Hollywood’s whacko code machine: it both propagates and consumes a unitary diet. The beast creates, eats, then regurgitates its own cinematic bonemeal.

It matters that the Academy says it will change the composition and complexion of Oscar voters. But for what will they be voting?

As the debate over diversity continues to bubble—and as actors asked this year’s urgent “diversity” question and try to answer without alienating their own paymasters—it was an optimistic sign, indeed, that Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation set a Sundance purchasing record.

But will Parker’s stunning-looking film and Carol and the “next big gay movie” and “next big black movie” after them be stand-alone totems to offset the criticism leveled at Hollywood for their lack of diversity? Or will, in the best way, their success filter down into the filmmaking mainstream, and encourage stories not just set in tortured historical times (important as they are to dramatize), but in the modern era?

A lack of black and openly gay faces on awards’ stages is blatantly wrong and depressing; but that lack is the manifestation of a more fundamental lack of investment in black and gay talent and storytelling.

In Hollywood, racism and homophobia have become inextricably, insidiously intertwined with balance sheets. Challenge that, and challenge it imaginatively, and Hollywood can not only improve itself, it can improve film and film-going for us all.