James Franco is poet Allen Ginsberg in "Howl," the opening film… (Jojo Whilden / Image.net )
Can openly gay actors convincingly play straight characters?
FOR THE RECORD:
Outfest: An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about this year's Outfest film festival said a Newsweek article published in April referenced "Glee" star Chris Colfer. The Newsweek article did not reference Colfer, but did reference "Glee" star Jonathan Groff. —
That question was raised in a controversial article published by Newsweek in April, which referenced "Glee" star Chris Colfer and Broadway actor Sean Hayes. Now, the issue is being tackled at this year's 28th Outfest, the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which begins on Thursday and runs through July 18.
On July 17, the festival will host a panel titled "Coming Out in Hollywood." Veteran publicist Howard Bragman will discuss the subject with "Family Ties" actress Meredith Baxter and other industry insiders.
"We thought it was important to try and bring the conversation further along," said executive festival director Kirsten Schaffer. "I happily welcome the debate, because I think it's through conversation that we can actually make some headway and make some change happen, because if we don't talk about it, then no change happens."
Indeed, Bragman's panel was also triggered by remarks made at last year's festival, when Todd Holland, an openly gay Emmy-winning director, told an audience that he believed young, gay male actors should "stay in the closet." A few days later, Holland issued a statement apologizing for his "poorly chosen words at Outfest." Also at the 2009 festival, gay writer-director Don Roos ("The Opposite of Sex") said that he thought gay actors should not come out because it can distract from the characters they play on-screen.
It's an idea that Bragman hopes to challenge in a meaningful way. "Since Meredith came out last Thanksgiving, more celebrities have come out than at any time in history," said Bragman, citing Hayes, Ricky Martin and Chely Wright as examples. "We're also at a time when we have people like Neil Patrick Harris and Cheyenne Jackson, out gay men, playing heterosexual men with great credibility."
The panel is one of more than a dozen the festival will host, in addition to the 147 films — 60 features and 87 shorts — that it will screen. Schaffer says that Outfest — which was founded in 1982 by a group of students at UCLA who "felt like they weren't seeing images of themselves reflected on-screen" — is the perfect venue for intelligent discussion.
The audience that the festival attracts, according to head of programming Kim Yutani, is "predominantly male" and "industry oriented." Last year, around 40,000 people attended the 11-day event.
On Thursday, the festival will open with the L.A. premiere of "Howl," a movie about poet Allen Ginsberg starring James Franco.
"I thought it was a really daring film and part of it was that it's a film that really speaks to a gay and lesbian audience because of Allen Ginsberg's importance to this community," Yutani said of the film, which also opened the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. "I want to show films that don't necessarily have to have LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] content as the main content. I'm interested in exposing our audiences to great films that they will enjoy and find satisfying. I think we have a very sophisticated audience, and they don't necessarily always need to see something about a gay man or a lesbian at the main story."
Other Outfest films sure to inspire debate include "A Marine Story" and "Out of Annapolis," two films that deal with the issue of "don't ask, don't tell" in the military. But the festival isn't all about issue-oriented filmmaking. For those looking for lighter fare, the teen classic "Clueless" will screen as part of the Legacy Collection, while "Grease 2" will play at the Ford Amphitheatre as a sing-along.
Meanwhile, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of West Hollywood, the festival will present a series of films that include the city, such as "The Broken Hearts Club" and "An Ordinary Couple," which focuses on a couple who erect a marble monument to themselves at Hollywood Forever Cemetery to honor their 30-year relationship.
The festival will also honor actress Jane Lynch with its Achievement Award and is celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation, a collaboration with the UCLA Film and Television Archive which helps protect LGBT films.
Schaffer says the festival's close relationship with Hollywood helps make it unique.
"We are definitely set apart because we are in the heart of the entertainment industry and every filmmaker has an opportunity to meet with agents, lawyers and studio executives," she said. "We have an infamous pool party for emerging filmmakers hosted by [producers] Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks, which is actually where Dustin Lance Black met them and pitched them on the idea of 'Milk.'
"You never know who is in the audience or who might offer you a job."