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Want an Oscar: Play Disabled. Or Gay. Or Both!

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Monday Feb 27, 2012
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It’s not that Christopher Plummer didn’t deserve an Oscar for "Beginners." As our reviewer here noted, this was one of the better gay-themed films in recent years. And certainly, Plummer, one of our finest living actors, deserved an Oscar in a career that has given him fame (he’ll never live down Capt. Von Trapp) and juicy roles (he recently did "King Lear" in New York, the Olympus of male parts).

It’s also true that the Supporting Actor category is often viewed by the Academy voters, who are on the whole pretty old themselves, as a sort-of stand-in Lifetime Achievement Award; e.g., Alan Arkin in "Little Mary Sunshine"; Heath Ledger ("The Dark Knight"); Morgan Freeman ("Million Dollar Baby"); Michael Caine ("The Cider House Rules"); etc.

But it’s also notable how many times the Academy awards an actor for playing gay; e.g., William Hurt ("Kiss of the Spider Woman"); Tom Hanks ("Philadelphia"); Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote"); Sean Penn ("Milk"); Hilary Swank ("Boys Don’t Cry"); Charlize Theron ("Monster").

The Academy also loves when people play a character with a physical or mental handicap or addiction. Examples: Angelina Jolie ("Girl, Interrupted"); Patty Duke ("The Miracle Worker"); Ray Milland ("The Lost Weekend"); Cliff Robertson ("Charley’); Dustin Hoffman ("Rain Man"); Daniel Day-Lewis ("My Left Foot"); Al Pacino ("Scent of a Woman"); Ingrid Bergman ("Gaslight"); Jane Wyman ("Johnny Belinda"); many, many more.

When an actor used to take on a gay role, people talked about it being "brave." Actually, being driven to an air-conditioned trailer to emerge and say a few lines isn’t something I consider "brave." Staring at a string of hills in Afghanistan full of snipers, yeah, that’s "brave." But then, we’re talking about Hollywood, where hyperbole is the lingua franca of the town.

What bothers me is that playing gay is somehow considered a stretch, something so outside of the actor’s normative scope that it requires, like the embodiment of blindness or autism, an "otherness."

It’s no secret among casting agents that gay or ill gives an overlooked actor a better chance of scoring awards. Or, to even better the odds, combine them, like Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia" (AIDS); or Charlize Theron in "Monster" (bat-shit crazy lesbian serial killer).

I not only have nothing against straight actors playing gay, I prefer it. I’ve always said that all gay roles should only be given to straight actors, and that gay actors should only be cast in straight parts. That’s why it’s called "acting." But I do wish this whole notion that it is somehow reaching beyond the scope of normal acting abilities to have same-sex feelings.

This notion was given a well-deserved send-up in the hysterical HBO series "Extras," when Kate Winslett, playing herself, tells an extra during a film shoot in which she is a nun during the Holocaust that she’s only doing because she’s been nominated five times and never won. "The Holocaust? Oh that. Yeah, it was grim. We got it. Get over it," she says in one of those self-mocking parts that make you love actors like that.

There’s also a fabulous send-up of playing mentally handicapped as a classy role in the don’t-miss Hollywood send-up "Tropic Thunder." Ben Stiller is Tugg Speedman, an action film star who plays a retarded man and is laughed out of town.

I mean, come on: Is it really that hard for anyone to kiss James Franco ("Milk"), Christina Ricci ("Monster"), Raul Julia ("Kiss of the Spider Woman"), or Antonio Banderas ("Philadelphia’)?

Let me repeat that last one for emphasis: Antonio Banderas! Kissing him isn’t "brave"; it’s "lucky."

Oh yeah, one more thing. Kate Winslett finally won an Oscar. For a movie about ... the Holocaust ("The Reader") -- that other path to an award ("Roberto Benigni, Adrien Brody.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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