Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Gay As Blackface in Liberace?
I read an article very late last night that gets into gay as the new blackface and the HBO film Liberace. Before I get into it, I've already posted my thoughts on the HBO film Liberace and I even posted about the use of yellowface in the film Cloud Atlas.
I would also like to state that some of the gay men I know seemed to like the way Liberace was handled, and they said they liked the way Matt Damon and Michael Douglas portrayed gay men. Others were insulted and found it patronizing. I still stand by all of my comments I've linked to above. I'm not one of those who write blog posts and then take them down to hide something.
The article I'm talking about can be read here. I'm going to take a few small pieces and comment now.
This is what the article said in the beginning:
“Behind the Candelabra” was troubling from the start. First came the wearisome sight of Michael Douglas congratulating his heterosexual costar Matt Damon for having the “courage” to play a gay role.
Although I do admit that I thought both Douglas and Damon did excellent jobs portraying Liberace and his young dysfunctional lover, I also mentioned how annoyed I was with the promotional events I saw both online and on television. I wasn't annoyed about the "courage" remark because I actually do think it takes courage for a straight actor to play a gay part, and for a gay actor to play a gay part. This is what I said in a previous post:
No, no, my dear. We just had this thing online called the Hop Against Homophobia and Transphobia because this does actually exist and it's not cliche. The homophobia is still there, and this is the reason why so many gay actors do NOT come out of the closet. It's why so many young straight actors hesitate to play roles.
However, one of the offensive post filming promotional pieces I read was where ultra liberal Ben Affleck actually joked that he was jealous of the kissing between Damon and Douglas. For those who don't know, Damon and Affleck were rumored to be gay, and lovers, which was completely false. But Affleck seemed to find it amusing to joke around with his good old dude-bud about being gay for him. There were other issues with the way the film was handled during the promotion that I found as offensive, and I'm glad someone else agreed with me. I also focused on review train wrecks for the film that were often more insulting (link above).
The article says this:
“Behind the Candelabra” and its reception open up an entire can of worms about the whole notion of straight-created, gay-themed entertainment. Why aren’t we looking upon Douglas’ and Damon’s performances with the same queasiness we now regard the blackface performances of Laurence Olivier in “Othello” or Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer”? (Like Douglas and Damon, Olivier and Jolson didn’t set out to mock an entire category of people – but they ended up there anyway.)
He has a point, and a very valid point. It's hard to dispute this from the most basic politically correct POV. And I can't help but ask why aren't we (gay people) getting the same kind of respect? Trust me, there are days now when I find myself being insulted, as a gay man, several times in any one given day just on social media alone. And the sad fact is most people don't even realize they are doing it.
The article goes into more depth about gay cultural consumers where the author mentions the fact that there are, indeed, more openly gay actors than ever before. He also gets into the hetero-normative aspects of how gay stories like Liberace are told from the hetero POV. And we as the public wind up comparing Liberace and Thorson to gay couples of today with marriage and equality, when their relationship was nothing like most gay couples of today.
And then there is the old argument that if straight actors can't play gay roles because it's politically incorrect than gay actors can't play straight roles for the same reason.
At the same time, surely I can’t be the only gay viewer who has felt as if some of the most highly lauded performances of recent years — Christopher Plummer as the just-out-the-closet 80-something in “Beginners”; Sean Penn as the slain gay activist Harvey Milk in “Milk”; Colin Firth as a closeted professor grieving for his lover in “A Single Man” – were impressive, yet fundamentally hollow acts of mimicry. These actors capture the looks, sounds and movements of their gay characters, but barely seem to scratch the surface of the depths of anguish, self-hatred and fear these men must have known in their lifetimes.
He's not the only one. I've felt this way, too. And not as deeply as other gay men I know. I tend to be more forgiving, but that's because I focus in on the specifics in detail, like the way Michael Douglas and Matt Damon portrayed their characters in Liberace. And to be perfectly honest, there were (and still are) gay men like them in real life, not just in Hollywood or Vegas. But for me the big question is always why don't we see more gay stories that represent other aspects of gay life...like the gay republican living in a small town with his husband? Or the gay corporate executive who lives in middle America with his husband? In other words, we only get to see what they want us to see, and it winds up becoming a massively broad misrepresentation of the entire gay community...and what usually winds up being a sideshow at the circus.
There are so many excellent, smart quotes in this article I'm not linking anymore. I highly suggest you read it in full to get the impact of what the author is trying to say. I don't say this often enough, but this time I think someone finally got it right. But more than that, someone, blessedly, addressed this issue and now we can all talk about it openly. I will continue to link to this article in the future, because I know that sooner or later I'm going to be insulted again by Hollywood...or publishing. And now I have back up that actually makes sense.
The only thing I would like to add is that I wouldn't have been as harsh on the film Liberace, but for me it was more about the way the film was handled in reviews and in promotional pieces. And for those of you who are wondering what I'm talking about, I'll make it simple. The next time you want to discuss or say something about gay people think about people of other minorities and wonder if you'd say the same thing, or make the same joke. The odds are you probably wouldn't. And I don't think that's too much to ask for. And remember, when it comes to gay content, even though it's still a fight to the finish, the gay guy or woman always gets the final word. I think that's what I want engraved on my headstone when I'm gone.