Last week, the online publication Salon took a break from its usual sophisticated political analysis (“Let’s hope the Boston Marathon bomber is a white American,” the magazine brayed on April 16) to raise a pressing civil rights issue: “Are straight actors in gay roles the new blackface?”
The Scrapbook would have been happy to answer the question—nope!—and be done with it. But Salon was decidedly more thorough. It ran a 1,000-plus-word piece on the topic, suggesting that Michael Douglas’s recent turn as Liberace in the HBO movie Behind the Candelabra should be considered just as offensive as Al Jolson’s blackface routine in 1927’s Jazz Singer.
Regarding movies with gay themes that are populated by straight actors, Salon asks if it is now time to “demand that gay artists tell these stories instead.” But why? Citing some well-known performances of gay parts by straight actors (Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, for example), the author laments that they “capture the looks, sounds and movements of their gay characters, but barely seem to scratch the surface of the depths of [the characters],” a criticism that could just as easily be made of Meryl Streep’s recent—and much lauded—impersonations of such figures as Julia Child, Margaret Thatcher, and Anna Wintour. In other words, there’s nothing gay-specific about a screen-actor’s performance being a series of more or less believable tics and gimmicks. (Val Kilmer’s take on Jim Morrison in The Doors, anyone?)
And of course, following the piece to its logical conclusion opens up a host of related questions. If straight actors can’t play gay parts, what else is off limits? Can Jewish actors play gentiles? (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line.) Can Californians play Alabamians? (Tom Hanks as the title character in Forrest Gump.) Can gay actors play straight roles? (Rock Hudson in . . . every role he ever played.)
In sum, Salon’s scribe seems to have forgotten that the job of actors is . . . acting. The whole point of the exercise is to inhabit a role that isn’t your own. Imagine his reaction when he learns that Laurence Olivier, who played Richard III to much acclaim in 1955, wasn’t actually handicapped.