Gay for pay: when straight actors play gay

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With 'Bruno', Sacha Baron Cohen has made us reconsider gay stereotypes in cinema. Time Out looks at how other straight actors have played gay for the camera

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist in ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)

Battling their own intuition, bands of rustlers, the harsh conditions of the Wyoming High Plains and some brutal facial hair, modern-day cowpokes Del Mar and Twist fall hard for each other in Ang Lee’s wonderfully restrained love story. Both actors play their parts in the fated romance to perfection, with Ledger’s resolve to put his feelings to one side and get on with his shitkicking ways set against Gyllenhaal’s cow-eyed confusion and longing for the past.Living the cliché? Less rhinestones and chaps, more grubby sheepskins and utility vehicles.
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Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in ‘Milk’ (2008)

If a Best Actor Oscar means anything to you, then Sean Penn’s turn as pioneering gay rights activist Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s crowdpleasing move back to mainstream filmmaking was a counter-casting masterstroke. Even though it was an unabashedly rousing and likeable turn, some critics complained that Penn’s moves seemed too studied, like every exaggerated hand movement, every understanding smile, every scene of male-on-male horseplay looked as though it was taken from the ‘So, You’re Playing a Gay/You’ve Been Cast as (the) Gay)?’ acting manual. Still, as a technician of the acting craft, Penn is untouchable.Living the cliché? Well, yes, but didn’t he do it well!
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Woody Harrelson as Carter Page III in ‘The Walker’ (2007)

The cumulative macho baggage from past man’s-man screen roles in films like ‘Natural Born Killers, ‘White Men Can’t Jump’ and ‘The People vs Larry Flynt’ made Woody Harrelson’s decision to star as an immaculately coiffeured, effete and extremely gay gentleman escort in Paul Schrader’s ‘The Walker’ all the more intriguing and rewarding. Fastidiously attired and sporting a blond pencil moustache, the lantern-jawed actor adopts a camp, Truman Capote-like high-pitched southern drawl and delivers it in a disarmingly naturalistic manner. Living the cliché? Goes a little overboard on the dandyisms, but otherwise, top notch.
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Al Pacino as Sonny Wortzik in ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ (1975)

‘Attica! Attica!’ The fact that Sonny’s undisguised homosexuality (he’s pulling a bank job to pay for his boyfriend’s sex change, ferchrissakes) is rarely remarked upon is a measure of how cautiously Pacino and director Sidney Lumet play the gay card in this riotous heist classic. That Sonny also somehow managed to wind up a macho icon – see Travolta’s vigorous homage in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ – simply confirms their masterful manipulation of the audience.Living the cliché? Not even slightly: this one was completely overlooked by gay activists and foaming conservatives alike.
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John Ritter as Vaughan Cunningham in ‘Sling Blade’ (1996)

Ritter’s character in Billy Bob Thornton’s career-making minor-key melodrama seems to be gay for plot purposes – so that he can maintain a friendship with Natalie Canerday’s fragile Linda without her berserker husband getting suspicious – rather than because Thornton feels any particular warmth towards the gay community. That said, Vaughan is subtly written and played with great tenderness by Ritter in arguably his finest screen role.
Living the cliché?
A smattering of liberal saintliness and effeminacy.
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Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great in ‘Alexander’ (2004)

Altering the close, arguably romantic nature of the relationship between Alexander’s hero Achilles (Brad Pitt) and his beloved Patroclus (Miscellaneous Buff Dude No 573) to that of ‘bromantic’ cousins was just one of the ways in which Wolfgang Petersen’s ‘Troy’ (also 2004) undercut the drama of the Greek experience. Oliver Stone, however, is made from sterner stuff, and was confident enough to leave the central love affair between Alexander and lifelong friend Hephaestion (Jared Leto) in tact while he got on with ruining the film in a whole variety of other ways, such as ghastly slo-mo shots and wall-to-wall harp Muzak.Living the cliché? Farrell, just like the Boy General, is his own man and cares not a jot of what people think of him.

Author: Adam Lee Davies, David Jenkins, Tom Huddleston


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