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Can Gay Play Straight? What Sexuality Has to Do With Winning Roles and Academy Awards

If gay actors can’t play straight convincingly, and are losing gay roles to straight actors, what parts are left?

Movies often call for viewers to suspend disbelief. I’m not just referring to films of the science-fiction variety; this can pertain to depictions of real-life situations, even those based on true stories. Take Monster, for example, the celluloid adaptation of murderer Aileen Wuornos and her descent from prostitute into serial killer. Charlize Theron won the Oscar for playing Wuornos, a poor and unattractive (by most standards) woman who was down-and-out, and a lesbian. Theron was praised for being able to sink into the role, for being so unrecognizable and able to perform as an ugly, gay murderess.

Hilary Swank, similarly, won the Oscar for her portrayal of transgender Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, transforming herself into an androgynous looking teenager and feigning sex with Chloe Sevigny on screen. Nicole Kidman donned the fake nose and subtle lesbian sexuality as Virginia Woolf in The Hours and Salma Hayek put on the famous unibrow and bedded women for Frida. Kidman also won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and Hayek was nominated, as was Felicity Huffman for her MTF character in Transamerica. So it would seem that playing queer and/or unrecognizable would guarantee an Oscar, just as much as, say, playing crazy would (as alleged by Newsweek writer Ramin Setoodeh).

Playing gay(ish) was part of the win for Best Actress this year, too, as Natalie Portman won and Annette Benning was a frontrunner, and both engaged in some “lesbian sex” in their respective films ( Black Swan and The Kids Are All Right). And a new piece in the Guardian wonders if these “great gay roles” (which is arguable in and of itself, especially considering Portman’s role isn’t gay, per se and The Kids Are All Right comes with accusations of being not so lesbian-friendly since Julianne Moore’s character sleeps with the male sperm donor) are being “stolen” from real lesbian actors. Stolen, of course, by the straight actors who end up playing them.

The word “stolen” doesn’t seem quite accurate, but I can see where theGuardian is going with this: Straight actors receive preferential treatment. This comes on the heels of Setoodeh's Newsweek article discussing how gay actors can’t play straight convincingly. So if gay actors aren’t getting gay parts, and they aren’t getting straight parts, what are gay actors to do?

The unfortunate part about both of these articles is that they aren’t completely true. While they have some major gay actors and actresses willing to speak up in their favor, such as Jane Lynch, who has maintained that she will never be cast as the leading lady, it isn’t always the case. Lynch, for example, said she would never be cast as an ingenue, or as a “Julia Roberts” type:

“This is a business of projection and desiring people from afar. And watching people go through trials and tribulations, so there has got to be some truth to it, in terms of, 'I could see myself with that person'. Because the leading man and lady are the people we want them to fall in love with, and most of the audience is straight. So, for right now, we can only use straight actors.”

That is likely true; as a character actress, Lynch has played several hilarious roles, but none quite so romantic. However, she was believable as the overtly sexual-harassing boss in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, as well as the (straight) reformed-coke addict leader of a girls and boys club in Role Models. They weren’t romantic roles, but they were non-gay roles, and she made them the most memorable parts in both films.