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A Glimpse Outside the Closet

Being openly gay will no longer end a Hollywood career. But it can mean the difference between journeyman and star.

July 15, 2001|RICHARD NATALE | 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.

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