A Glimpse Outside the Closet

Richard Natale is a regular contributor to Calendar

In today's Hollywood, is it safe for actors to publicly acknowledge they are gay? It depends on the kind of career they want to have.

That's the consistent refrain from producers and industry insiders when asked about whether coming out of the closet would hurt an actor's career in film and TV. That's a polite way of saying that an openly gay actor can have a successful career as long as he or she doesn't aim too high.

Stardom, however, is another matter entirely. The recent lawsuit that megastar Tom Cruise threatened against a porn star who claimed he'd had an affair with the actor (the porn star has denied he ever made such statements) demonstrates that even the suggestion that a major actor might be gay is still regarded as anathema. There is widespread agreement in Hollywood that if an actor aspires to the kind of visibility and clout currently enjoyed by Cruise or Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts in movies, or Oprah Winfrey on television, he or she had better stay in the closet--at least for now. The reasons vary from the purely commercial to the ephemeral to practical questions of privacy and safety.

Scott Seomin, entertainment media director for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, notes, "When actors come out, no matter how matter-of-factly, the decision follows them for the rest of their lives."

Actors who do come out risk having the sobriquet "gay actor" preceding their names in perpetuity. "They'll continually be asked about it at every press junket," Seomin says, "and whether they like it or not, they'll become gay poster children, unwilling activists asked about their opinions about civil union law in Vermont and other issues."

Maintaining a neutral posture on sexuality is still considered the more pragmatic decision in movies and television, which, unlike theater, travel around the world, to countries where homosexuality may still not be accepted or may even be illegal. "With a gun to his head, an actor is always going to choose the more conservative decision," says producer Steve Tisch ("Forrest Gump"), "especially in a business like entertainment, which is totally fear-driven. It's a question of job security. You can't lose your job by saying no."

Producer Michael Pressman ("Lake Placid") believes that "coming out is not the hard part--it's what the media does with it." Indeed, the ubiquitous glare of the media has made a celebrity's every personal act--divorce, starting a family, substance abuse treatment--a highly public undertaking. Recently, the media intensely scrutinized, and in some cases disapproved of, the recent Meg Ryan-Russell Crowe affair, and published rumors of Arnold Schwarzenegger's alleged infidelities and Robert Downey Jr.'s drug problems.

It isn't just Hollywood. The American public, while more openly discussing these subjects, at the same time demonstrates a stubborn puritanical streak, especially when it comes to matters of sexuality.

"We're getting there," says producer-writer Kevin Williamson ("Dawson's Creek," "Scream"). "Character actors are having an easier time of it. But if you're a young, hot leading man, you don't want to rock the boat. Coming out is such a personal thing. Who wants to do it in the spotlight?" R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe told Time magazine recently that he had remained closeted for many years because he was made to feel unsafe about declaring his homosexuality.

Still, there have been tremendous strides in the entertainment industry over the past decade toward, if not the acceptance, then at least the tolerance of homosexuality. Several actors, musicians, directors and writers have come out and endured little or no damage to their careers. Television programs such as "Will & Grace," "Ellen" and "Queer as Folk," and films such as "Philadelphia," "As Good as It Gets" and "Boys Don't Cry" have been cited for their depictions of gay characters and done well in the ratings and at the box office.

"The subject itself is no longer verboten, " says David Ehrenstein, author of "Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000." In fact, he says, when Ellen DeGeneres declared herself a lesbian or when actor Nathan Lane decided to come out following the Matthew Shepard murder, both were viewed as positive steps by Hollywood and the mainstream media.

Stipe notwithstanding, the music industry is somewhat ahead of this curve. When Elton John came out in the early '80s, it did have a negative effect on his career, but only temporarily. Like Stipe, he was helped by having a body of significant work behind him. Performers such as Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang also have survived the coming-out process.

The more open discussion of homosexuality in the media has not eliminated ingrained prejudices based on often sincere moral and religious convictions. The portrayals of gays on TV and in films are largely asexual, nonthreatening.

And they are often enacted by performers who make a big deal about their heterosexuality off-screen. While it used to be considered the kiss of death to play a homosexual on-screen, it's now a demonstration of his versatility. Oscars are awarded for it--Hanks in "Philadelphia," Hilary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry."

Gay actors still don't enjoy the same crossover privileges. British actor Rupert Everett ("My Best Friend's Wedding") is out, but his heterosexual roles to date have been limited to the stage and British films. When actress Anne Heche declared she was having a relationship with DeGeneres, there was great attention to her romantic co-starring role with Harrison Ford in the big-budget film "Six Days, Seven Nights." The presence or absence of chemistry between the two actors cropped up in many reviews and was endlessly discussed on infotainment shows. It is still unclear whether Heche, who is now in a heterosexual relationship, will regain leading-lady status.

Ten years ago when publicist Howard Bragman handled the coming-out announcement of Dick Sargent, co-star of the classic TV sitcom "Bewitched," it was fraught with land mines. But since then, he says, it's gotten easier.

"We've made remarkable progress," Bragman says. Still, he notes that outside New York and Los Angeles, the bias largely remains. "It's both generational and geographical."

"We like to think because there's more talk about homosexuality and it's more openly depicted, that people throughout the country are more tolerant," says producer Laurence Mark ("Finding Forrester"). "But reports of hate crimes show that's not the case. Tolerance doesn't mean acceptance. Even the word tolerate is demeaning. That a gay actor would have to be 'tolerated' is ridiculous."

Mixed messages, both from the public and the media, have made the decision to come out even dicier than before. "That's because there are other forces at work," Ehrenstein says. "The fact is that, by and large, the American public still does not embrace or celebrate differences. Remember, the great American novel is 'The Scarlet Letter.' There's something in our national character that pulls us in two directions at once and we haven't gotten past that yet."

A recent article in New York magazine chided (legitimate) journalists for applying a double standard to performers who are not out but are seen in public with same-sex partners. Why do the media report with impunity about the Meg Ryan/Russell Crowe affair and yet turn a blind eye to gay couples, the story asked.

The reason the mainstream media continue to be reticent about outing actors "is that they risk being sued and blackballed by the star's publicist from other clients," Seomin says. "Even the gay media largely stays away from outing, which gives permission to the mainstream press not to push the issue."Studio executives, agents and casting directors who make the casting decisions in Hollywood largely refused to address the subject of coming out. One studio casting executive who agreed to speak but not for attribution says the situation is analogous to the current military stance of "don't ask, don't tell."

Few agents or executives are unaware of the sexual orientation of actors, and most simply don't care--providing the individual doesn't take a public stance. As long as the appearance of heterosexuality is maintained, "it doesn't come up in casting sessions," says the casting agent. "It's all about getting a job," says Scott Zimmerman, an executive with Untitled Entertainment, a management firm. "It's that simple. To get a job in this business is at the very best a very difficult proposition. Only 10 to 20 actors working today have their pick. Why make it harder?"

There are many variables that explain why one actor gets a job and another doesn't. "This is a town where people are always looking for a reason to say no," publicist Bragman says. "In the casting process, an actor can be too old, too ethnic, not ethnic enough. [To get hired,] actors prefer to be as amorphous as a politician."

As for an actor's sexual persona, the question of chemistry is a serious casting consideration. Both women and men are judged on their sex appeal. Married couples often are rejected by the public because they're deemed less of an attraction in romantic movies, Mark believes. For instance, Cruise and Nicole Kidman's amorous pairings on-screen in "Far and Away" and in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" were among their least successful films.

Anything that "takes you out of the movie" is a negative to the studio marketing machine, according to former Disney marketing head Chris Pula. "Consumers are now aware of a star's salary, his marital history, even whether his child has autism. We're all a databank of information."

An actor's--and especially a star's--private sex life continues to color perceptions of him in the industry and with the public. "The problem with being a star is that your public life becomes part of your aura," Williamson says. "It all becomes about fantasy and denial."

"A character actor can discuss his sexuality, a star cannot," says entertainment attorney David Colden, because character actors are rarely asked to play romantic roles. "Though American society has become more open-minded in the past 30 years, that's largely limited to major metropolitan areas," Colden adds. "And even within that, open-minded people have a difficulty suspending disbelief that a person who in real life is gay can pretend to be heterosexual [on-screen]. That unwillingness to suspend disbelief even extends to the gay community."

There are other pragmatic reasons for actors to remain closeted. An actor is nurtured and promoted by agents, managers, publicists, all of whom depend on him for their livelihoods. The decision to come out affects all of these people. The bigger the star's salary, the more potentially damaging adverse or unwanted publicity can be. Then there is the question of safety, Seomin says. "There are many celebrities that we know are gay, and so does most of America. And even though they haven't come out, they still get hate mail and threats."

The problem is compounded when performers decide to start a family. Many who are tolerant of homosexuality still draw the line at gay marriage and parenting. "It's one thing to be closeted. It's another thing to be closeted and start a family," Seomin says. "You have to consider the effect it's going to have on your children."

There are other ripple effects when a celebrity decides to come out. Before Williamson went public with his homosexuality, he discussed it with his parents. They were initially uncomfortable but eventually backed him, he says. Because he works behind the camera, the process was relatively smooth for him. Not so for his parents. "Suddenly the preacher at my mother's church no longer came over to her house for dinner. Eventually she had to find another church. And I felt responsible."

While many don't see much hope for change in the status quo, especially in the current conservative political climate, they admit they didn't foresee the progress of the past decade either. "My theory is that there is somebody who is studying acting now who is out and has never been in," Ehrenstein says. "And that person will become a star. Because it won't be new information about someone we already know, it won't be a cataclysmic event."

Williamson has another idea: "I think two big stars should get together and come out at the press conference to end all press conferences. Because I think we live in a dishonest society, if someone has the courage to be honest, we applaud them."

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