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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

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."

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