Thursday, 16 February 2017

The death of my industry

My good friend Sam recently told me all about a new film which is due to open this year's LGBT film festival. The piece is called Against The Law and it's based on a best selling novel by Peter Wildeblood, a journalist who was imprisoned in the 1950s under the same anti-gay legislation which sent Oscar Wilde to jail in 1895. It was actually his case and similar cases of its type which led to the 1967 Decriminalisation of Homosexuality act, and it's the men who went to jail before this date who've very recently received official pardons. About bloody time! The film certainly looks very interesting, and I shall very much look forward to seeing it.

Here's an interesting thing, however: It seems that just one of the principal cast members in the film is actually an openly gay man, and he (Mark Gatiss) "gives a chilling performance as a prison doctor charged with administering therapeutic measures to homosexuals acquiescing to the idea that they can be ‘changed’." One assumes, therefore, that he's not actually playing gay.

It's a really complicated issue, and it's one upon which I haven't quite formulated an opinion. Here are my thoughts so far...

If you look at many of the most iconic gay films in cinematic history: Maurice, Brokeback Mountain, My Beautiful Laundrette, A Single Man, Milk, the lead roles are almost always played by straight men. To make matters slightly more unpleasant, these straight men often feel the need to assert their masculinity and heterosexuality in interviews associated with the film, and then, flippantly and for the sake of titivation, joke about how the snogging scenes were some of the best on screen kisses they've had in their career. There's a sort of metrosexual machismo which exists in the entertainment world which often involves camping it up for the sake of a cheap laugh.

So whilst countless straight men get to win Oscars for being "brave" enough to play gay, there are very few openly gay actors who get to play straight romantic leads. I once went to a very close female friend's house with a gaggle of other girls to watch films, and the subject of gay actors playing straight men came up, "it would ruin it for me" one said, and the others agreed, "if I knew he was gay in real life, it would take away the romance of the film." This is going back ten years, and society's views are slowly changing, but there, right there, is the reason why so many A lister Hollywood stars are still so firmly trapped in the closet.

I do have some sympathy for the argument, however. Growing up in the 1980s, when the first gay characters started appearing in telly and film, I was often devastated to discover that the actor playing a gay role wasn't actually part of my community. It almost felt as though I was gaining a role model and then instantly having it whipped away again, particularly when, as was inevitable, an interview appeared in the tabloid press where the actor literally wanted to "set the record straight" and make it clear that he'd simply been playing a role, he was happily heterosexual, and that, to boot, he'd been fairly uncomfortable with the gay content of the scenes he'd done. I remember an interview to this effect with Gary Hailes who played Barry Clark on Eastenders, around the time that he was involved in the show's first ever onscreen kiss. Millions of viewers complained. You can really believe it these days.

Now, it's not that I think gay characters should always be played by gay men or that gay men shouldn't play straight. Far from it. But what I would like acknowledged is that there's still a massive disparity in this respect in the movies. Straight actors play gay, and straight actors play straight. Gay actors get to play the best mate of the leading lady, or the comedy fag. How many openly gay men have won a best actor gong? I think none!

Many would argue, of course, that being gay is one of those things people don't really notice. There's a hideous phrase which gets trotted out, which suggests gay people "pass" in society, that someone passing a gay man in the street wouldn't know they were gay, so, as a result, we are unlikely to experience homophobia until we start rubbing our lifestyle choices in people's faces. The same people might argue that having a straight man playing a gay role is not as offensive as a white man pretending to be black. And, of course, this somewhat sweeping argument is largely true.

But actually, most of the straight portrayals of gay men I've seen in film and on telly don't feel hugely authentic.

Sometimes it's simply an aura. Take, for example, Colin Firth's performance in A Single Man, which I found generally unconvincing. In fact, there's a scene in the movie where he kisses a woman, and it felt a great deal more erotic than any of the scenes which involved his kissing men.

If you look at Modern Family, and the two gay characters Cameron and Mitchell, it's no surprise for a gay man to learn that the mincing parody role is played by a straight actor, whilst the altogether more subtle lawyer role is played by a gay actor. And yet my straight friends still love to say things like, "oh yes, so and so was very convincingly gay" and "you'd never guess he was gay by the way he acted..."

To me parallels can and should be drawn with race. Plainly not the blanket black/ white thing, but certainly akin to the sort of questions which are asked when Japanese people play Chinese, and Indians play Bangladeshis. To people living in the countries concerned, the blanket "oh they all look the same" statement is incredibly offensive.

So those are my thoughts on the issue. Feel free to shoot me down in flames!

An email came through today advertising a well-paid commission for a composer who would be required to write a "hip hop version" of Wind in the Willows. This, in the same year that two, separate, non hip-hop musical adaptations of the book have run at the Rose Theatre and in the West End. It's one of those ideas which feels a little like setting Shakespeare on the moon, namely, if you want an edgy, hip hop show, why wouldn't you commission an adaptation of a story with material better suited to that particular style? In the light of Hamilton, this new project simply feels like a band-wagon-jump and I think it's a terrible shame that we live in a world where we're forced to ascertain the genre of a new musical before we find the composer to write it!

The brief for the successful candidate stated that "you must have an in-depth knowledge and passion for hip hop and electronic music as well as a background in melody writing for songs. A knowledge of musical theatre form is desirable but not necessary."

And with that final sentence, my beloved industry gets flushed down the toilet. Imagine a job spec for writers on the Guardian newspaper, which stated "a background in journalism is desirable but not necessary," or a post for a teaching job which claimed the ability to actually teach was secondary to being a cool dude! The continued vilification of musical theatre writers in the U.K. just doesn't make sense to me.

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