Still out of line? Yes.
This is a sentence I never thought I would type: I'm coming to the defense of a theatre critic.
Newsweek's Ramin Setoodeh wrote an article last week titled "Straight Jacket" in which he argues that gay actors can't and shouldn't play straight characters. His "Exhibit A" in the piece is Sean Hayes, the stunningly gifted actor who came to our attention playing Jack MacFarland on the much beloved NBC half-hour comedy Will and Grace. (This was back when NBC broadcast television shows.) Mr. Hayes just opened in the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises, a 1968 musical by Neil Simon, Burt Bacharach and Hal David that was based on The Apartment, the Academy Award-winning film by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. (Izzy) Diamond that starred Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Are you following so far?
It doesn't really matter, because all you need to know is that Sean Hayes plays C.C. Baxter in this great show, and that C.C. Baxter is a man who is attracted to women.
Ramin Setoodeh, unlike the overwhelming majority of the people in the audience at the two preview performances I attended, was unhappy with Sean Hayes' performance. This reaction was not due to Mr. Hayes' acting, singing, dancing, comedy, unique charm and exceptional rapport with the audience. Mr. Setoodeh's problem with the star's performance was that in real life, Mr. Hayes is gay. And as if the studio had given the screenwriter a note that the story had to be spicier, Mr. Setoodeh is gay as well.
Much is being made of the Newsweek piece. Much should be. I'm proud to say that my friend, Kristin Chenoweth, who stars opposite Mr. Hayes in the show (and about whose performance I can't possibly be objective — she's sensational and we'll leave it at that) led the charge — posting an online rebuttal to Mr. Setoodeh in which she called him homophobic.
For an actress who makes her living and her reputation on Broadway, throwing down with a prominent theatre critic isn't something you do as a career move. In her response to Setoodeh, Ms. Chenoweth made good point after good point after good point…
…and missed the point.
So did Setoodeh.
First things first. An actor, no matter which sex they're attracted to, can't "play" gay or "play" straight. Gay and straight aren't actable things. You can act effeminate and you can act macho (though macho usually ends up reading as gay), but an actor can't play gay or straight anymore than they can play Catholic. The most disturbing thing to me about this episode is that the theater critic for Newsweek didn't know that. Of COURSE gay actors can play straight characters — it's impossible to believe that Mr. Setoodeh would prefer if Ian McKellen would stop doing King Lear.
But with sincere respect to Ms. Chenoweth and the hundreds and hundreds of Internet posters who've crashed down on Setoodeh in the last few days — some understandably passionate and some unfortunately hostile — I don't think Setoodeh was being homophobic. Just wrong.
The problem doesn't have anything to do with sexual preference. The problem has everything to do with the fact that we know too much about each other and we care too much about what we know. In one short decade we have been reconditioned to be entertained by the most private areas of other people's lives. We've become the family dog who's allowed to eat anything that falls on the floor, and the press is the little kid in the family who keeps dropping food. Sandy Bullock's life falls apart? That's for us. A golfer gets caught with strippers? We'll take that, thank you. Lindsay Lohan's an alcoholic? Mmm, mmm good! When Jennifer Aniston plays a movie character who's looking for love, her performance — always sublime — doesn't stand a chance against the real story we've been told it's okay to pay attention to, which is that Jennifer Aniston is looking for love. I can't hum a single John Mayer song but I can name five women he's slept with. Sean, for Setoodeh, the show began before you even showed up to the theater that night.
The volcanic eruption of tabloids, Internet insanity and — you better believe it — reality TV, has de-creepyized voyeurism. More than that, it's made the private lives of public people — in the vocabulary of television writers — the "A" story. And in a not-so-convoluted way, the "A" story has an author — thousands of authors in an extraordinary collaboration. When I need the audience to know that a piece of information they're about to hear is important, I can use words, a close-up, a push-in, music… when the authors of the no-longer-private-lives "A" story want the audience to know that something's important, it shows up on our Yahoo homepage. (The third story on my homepage yesterday was that Britain, our closest ally, has a new Prime Minister. The first story was about Justin Bieber. Unless the new Prime Minister is Justin Bieber, something's obviously gone wrong.) Is Sean Hayes' sexuality relevant to his performance? It has to be — the "authors" told us it was important. (Though Setoodeh would have done well to have asked himself if Mr. Hayes' performance would have been any different if C.C. Baxter was in love with a man instead of Ms. Chenoweth's Fran Kubelik. It wouldn't have been.)
I would never presume to — and those words are almost always followed by whoever said them proceeding to do exactly what they just said they would never presume to do — but I would never presume to tell someone how they should feel about something. I can only imagine that Setoodeh's piece felt like a solid kidney punch, not to just Mr. Hayes and the other actors tagged in the story, but to teenagers — kids who live in daily fear of what their parents are going to say, of getting the hell beaten out of them at school, of being an oddity. Gay actors, you'll forgive the expression, are caught between a rock and a hard place. Only criminals and adulterers should have to hide who they are. And in addition to living their own lives in sun and not shadow, these actors want to — admirably — be role models for these kids. But they also know the blanker their canvas the better their chance of marginalizing the "A" story. They know that even in 2010, there's still no such thing as an actor who's gay, a movie star and alive all at the same time.
So while I would never presume to tell someone how to feel, if it were me, I would re-direct my energy away from Mr. Setoodeh. (Ryan Murphy– the very gifted creator of Glee whose cast member, the invaluable Jonathan Groff, was also smacked in the teeth by Setoodeh– has called for a boycott of Newsweek. I get it completely, but I say please don't boycott Newsweek — it's still one of the very last places left where we can find news. Boycott the red carpet instead. You're going to win the Emmy, Ryan, and you're going to get the whole publicity bump that comes with it. You and your cast should proudly walk past every microphone that's shoved in your faces. The people holding the microphones are writing the "A" story and you don't have script approval. Boycott In Touch and Us Weekly and Brangelina Daily and every other piece of crap that makes us feel like we're all sitting under hairdryers.)
Gay actors are in absolutely no danger of losing parts in Broadway shows, so if it were me, I'd re-direct my anger to the real problem. The honest-to-God, no kidding around, small-minded, mean-spirited, hysterically frightened, pig-ignorant bigots who don't think homosexuals are fit to get married, adopt children or fight and die for their country. The ones who hold signs saying "God Hates Fags." Those people aren't in the backwoods of Idaho, they're in Congress. Fight THEM. I'll help.
And you know who else will help? Ramin Setoodeh. I promise you he's on the side of the good guys.
Of course, Sorkin brings up some interesting points, because he's an intelligent dude, but we're not buying it!
The fact of the matter is, REGARDLESS of society's obsession with celebrity culture, Setoodeh thinks that gay men are incapable of portraying straight men the way straight men are capable of playing gay…that, in itself, is a homophobic and offensive generalization!