Friday, 7 March 2014

Dallas Buyer’s Club: Hollywood Hypocrisy in Queer Representation

(Warning: This post contains spoilers for too many films to list.)

Last Sunday night Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both won Oscars for their work in the movie Dallas Buyer’s Club – based on a true story about a man who contracts AIDS in the 1980s and turns to drug smuggling to treat his condition because the drugs with the best chance of prolonging his life have not yet been approved by the FDA. McConaughey won Best Actor in a Leading Role and Leto Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Neither actor’s acceptance speech mentioned the real life people their roles came from, the impact the AIDS crisis had on the queer community (or even AIDS itself) or the hardships that trans people faced back then and now. Contrast this with the speeches of the stars and creators of 12 Years A Slave who all paid respects to Solomon Northrup, Patsey and anyone who experienced – and is still experiencing – slavery, and you start to see why people aren’t all quite so happy to see McConaughey and Leto be so commended.

The trouble started a while back when Jared Leto started winning awards and making speeches which revealed his ignorance of the trans experience. It’s easy to understand the crushing disappointment when the chance to draw attention to a real issue in today’s society is botched so badly or in the case of The Oscars, ignored completely. No one is saying that either actor gave a bad performance, or that their awards were undeserved, however their success this past season shines a light on the hypocrisy that has been plaguing Hollywood for decades: that of awarding straight actors for playing queer roles whilst simultaneously black balling openly queer actors and pressuring the closeted ones to stay quiet. It’s also yet another example of queer stories being told through a straight lens – another AIDS film which focuses on a straight male lead whose homophobia is challenged and eventually tempered when he is forced to spend time with queer AIDS sufferers (See 1993’s similarly Oscar winning Philadelphia).

Firstly I want to focus on the issue of straight actors playing queer roles – or more specifically the disparity between the celebration of queer roles as played by straight actors and the lack of openly queer actors in Hollywood.

Jared Leto is just the latest cisgendered actor whose role as a trans character has been critically praised and garnished with awards. Hilary Swank won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Brandon Teena in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, Felicity Huffman was nominated for the same award for her role in 2006 as a trans woman in Transamerica, Jaye Davidson (who is gay, but not trans) received a Best Supporting Actor nom for his role in The Crying Game and, to bring this up to date, there is considerable buzz surrounding Jeffrey Tambor’s role as a trans woman in the new Amazon Prime series Transparent. I can name five cis actors praised for their performances as trans characters off the top of my head, yet I can only name two trans actresses – Laverne Cox, who is best known for her work in television on Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, not (yet) Hollywood film, and Harmony Santana who starred in the low budget indie Gun Hill Road. My inability to name more than two trans actresses – and any trans actors at all – may of course be down to my own ignorance, however my point still stands. If I, as a keen cinephile and queer person, can only bring to mind two trans actresses the average straight person with no exceptional interest in films, TV or LGBT issues, may not even be able name one. There is a clear imbalance here – Hollywood celebrates trans characters but not trans actors. The fiction is admirable, award worthy, the reality is seen as something to be ignored or in some cases actively shunned.

The numbers are even more disparate when we compare straight actors awarded for playing queer roles against openly gay Hollywood actors. (Firstly a proviso: my repeated specification of “Hollywood” is used in order to distinguish big money, widely released films and Oscar nominees from low budget, small release indies and television – where queer representation is much more prolific if not quite as widespread and unproblematic as we’d like. What I refer to as a Hollywood actor is, to me, someone who is often in contention for big roles in big money films, an “A Lister” if you will.)  Until last month I could only think of three openly queer actors who are big names in Hollywood; Jodie Foster and Ian McKellen – who have both taken more of a backseat recently – and Zachary Quinto – whose only major film role has been in the Star Trek franchise. On Valentine’s Day this year Ellen Page joined the list. (Note, I haven’t included Angelina Jolie here because I’m not sure rumours of her bisexuality were ever really confirmed so I can’t in good conscience describe her as openly queer.) Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Philip Seymor Hoffman in Capote, Sean Penn in Milk, Christopher Plummer in Beginners, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain, Ed Harris, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore for The Hours, Greg Kinnear for As Good As It Gets, Colin Firth in A Single Man, Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Anette Bening in The Kids Are All Right, Catherine Keener for Being John Malkovich, Charlize Theron in Monster and Salma Hayek for Frida – all nominated for Best Leading or Supporting Actor/Actress at The Oscars, all played by straight actors. That’s 16 nominations and I am almost certain I have missed a few.

The trend is again clear – Hollywood likes gay characters not gay actors. It is also important to note just how many of the films listed were based on true stories and that the vast majority of the queer characters end up dead. Brandon Teena was raped and murdered for being trans. Tom Hanks’ character in Philadelphia succumbs to AIDS like Rayon in Dallas Buyer’s Club and Ed Harris’s Richard throws himself out of a window to escape the same fate in The Hours. Jack Twist dies at the end of Brokeback Mountain – officially from an accident changing a tire but it’s suggested he was really beaten to death like the man in the story Ennis told him, Virginia Woolf puts rocks in her pockets and wades into deep water. Natalie Portman’s Nina dies of a possibly self inflicted stab wound in Black Swan and Harvey Milk is assassinated.  Christopher Plummer’s character in Beginners is dead even before the film begins and only appears in flashbacks, and Aileen Wournos is executed for the murders of six men. The closest any of these characters really gets to a happy ending is Greg Kinnear’s neighbour not being quite as awful to him anymore – and even he had to endure a savage beating to get there – or Nic’s reconciliation with her wife in The Kids Are All Right, implied with a hand clasp in the closing shots.

This biased celebration of films where the queer character dies is hugely problematic. Of course with the films inspired by true life events, this ending is unavoidable, but one does have to wonder why Hollywood doesn’t want to turn any triumphant queer stories into movies instead choosing to focus on the tragic and the maudlin. The broadcasting of stories such as Brandon Teena’s to a wider audience is of course commendable but the question persists: how much of a line in the sand are you drawing when you don’t consider a trans actor for your trans role?  The fact remains that the lauding of so many films where queer characters meet an untimely end creates a biased representation of the LGBT experience. Those who are less likely to seek out queer cinema specifically, and so will only really register the films that everyone is talking about, get a particularly dark picture of what it means to be queer. There’s a reason that even the most supportive parents are often worried or upset when their child comes out, they’re scared that being queer means we’re going to die of AIDS, get killed or commit suicide seen as they’re the only fates Hollywood affords us.  Representation needs to be more than just fictional or dramatized real life tragedy. We need to see queer people being successful, not just queer stories and we need to see queer people who live.

This is not to say that straight actors shouldn’t play queer roles, they should of course have as much right to them as queer actors have to straight roles. However it’s plain to see that queer actors just don’t get cast in lead straight roles in Hollywood. There’s a kind of unspoken idea that queer actors just can’t convince as straight, that the public knowing that part of their personal life will infiltrate their experience when watching the film and any heterosexual romance will feel fake. This of course is total bullshit, it’s an excuse so that producers don’t have to admit their own prejudices, or perhaps more accurately, their own fear of other people’s prejudices and the financial impact that may have on ticket sales. This creates a catch 22 which results in the dearth of queer actors working in Hollywood. Straight roles go to hetero actors and cis roles go to cis actors because queer people “just wouldn’t be convincing” but then gay roles and trans roles go to straight actors as well, because the queer ones aren’t big enough names to carry a niche movie into a wider market.

Take as an example The Kids Are All Right. Co-written and directed by Lisa Chodolenko – an openly queer woman who took inspiration from her own use of a sperm donor to start her family with her wife – the film was nominated for four Oscars in 2011 and starred Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as the leads, a lesbian couple who deal with the fallout when their children decide to contact their donor father. Without its high profile leads, the film would most likely be a small critical success, popular with critics and queer audiences but not given a wide release, funded to the same extent or backed for awards season. Queer films about queer issues with queer creators are often consigned to a niche market. They’re popular within the LGBT community and may become classics of a sort amongst a queer audience. Films like But I’m A Cheerleader, Itty Bitty Titty Committee and Weekend all fall into this category and also, notably, all star openly queer actors. However, if you’re looking to broaden your film’s audience, get a bigger distribution deal and a wider release you have to make compromises and one of those compromises is often the casting of a big name actor, who as we have established earlier, will most likely be straight. Now on the one hand, this is seemingly a hit worth taking, a queer movie being seen by a larger audience means more people are exposed to queer issues which can only be a good thing. However, this shutting out of queer actors from the only roles Hollywood seems to think they’d be convincing in is only perpetuating the lack of real life representation on the red carpet. If queer actors are not cast in queer roles, they are far less likely to ever be considered for straight ones.

This is especially difficult for trans actors, for whom “convincing” can be a contentious issue in their personal lives as well as professionally. Trans actors need to be sought out to play trans roles in order to pave the way for the possibility of cis roles being given to them as well. Not only would this create more visibility for the trans community and hold up vitally needed role models to young trans people, it would also prevent the kind of misinformation and confusion evident in Jared Leto’s speeches about “the Rayons of the world”. A trans actress with a real understanding of the trans experience would be far better positioned to educate uninformed audiences and would therefore be a far better advocate for the trans community. Leto does not understand how to talk about trans issues and his choice to ignore those who have tried to explain this to him indicates he doesn’t really care to learn. The wider audience for trans issues that was seemingly afforded by casting a well known cis actor, has not materialised. Instead those with a limited knowledge of the trans experience were only fed more ignorance and distortion, more trivialisation and focus on anatomy, this time from a seemingly trustworthy and educated source.

What needs to change is not excluding straight actors from queer roles altogether but making it easier for queer themed movies to cast queer actors if they want to. Producers need to be willing to fund films with openly queer leads and awards season needs to start recognising more independent films (rather than the cursory token indie they seem to include for appearances sake and that never actually wins anything). The issue comes down to money - of course it does, it’s Hollywood – queer films are deemed risky and queer actors even riskier. Producers don’t want to chance their money on projects which might not make a profit and anything that is seen as the slightest bit controversial is far less likely to be funded. It’s the same reason why cinemas are full of superhero movie franchises and animated sequels, Hollywood loves a safe bet. The industry needs to start making films for art’s sake again, rather than for profit. It needs to start trusting its audience more and it needs to recognise that the tides have changed. Queer people are no longer the pariahs we once were,  we’ve come a long way and studies have shown that homophobics are in the minority. Essentially, the potential ticket sales lost from homophobes boycotting a film for its queer content or queer lead would be negligible, and more than made up for by the potential ticket sales gained from queer audiences grateful for the representation. The bottom line is that we need to see real life representation in Hollywood, we need to stop being told that our identities are only ok if they are fictional, if we are characters rather than people.

It is not only the lack of queer actors in Hollywood that Dallas Buyer’s Club’s recent success highlights. It also shines a light on another disappointing trend, that of the Oscars rewarding films about queer issues that ignore queer people altogether. Dallas Buyer’s Club is set in 1985, at the heart of the AIDS crisis yet focuses on a straight white male, leaving queer people as secondary characters in his story. AIDS is the biggest tragedy to hit the LGBT community. Queer people were dying in droves, and the lie that AIDS was solely a gay disease – exemplified in its former name GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) – attached a stigma to being queer whose ramifications are still felt today. It’s due to this stigma that gay men are still not allowed to donate blood without being celibate for a year, despite the fact that now statistically heterosexual people are far more likely to contract AIDS than queer people. AIDS was and still is a huge burden for the LGBT community. It killed us back then and its legacy is still oppressing us today. Yet the two major films about AIDS that were celebrated by The Academy both focused mainly on its impact on heterosexual characters.

 Both Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyer’s Club and Joe Miller in Philadelphia are straight, openly homophobic characters whose knowledge of the disease is limited and influenced by their prejudices. Woodroof contracts AIDS and is forced to associate with queer sufferers through his drug smuggling enterprise; Miller – a lawyer – takes on Tom Hank’s Andrew Beckett as a client and helps him sue his former employers for unlawful dismissal after he is set up and fired for having AIDS. Both characters’ homophobia is “cured” throughout the courses of their respective films as they learn that queers are people too and befriend their corresponding “enlighteners”.  Both Woodroof’s friend Rayon and Miller’s friend Beckett die at the end of the film, giving the heterosexual characters chance to show just how much they’ve changed by weeping at their bedside or having an epiphany about the value of life over money. It’s plain to see that Hollywood is interested less in queer stories, than how queer issues affect the straight, homophobic, everyman.

Hollywood’s treatment of queer stories in this way is similar in process to the white-washing of the stories of people of colour. One example that springs to mind is the casting of Angelina Jolie in the film A Mighty Heart. Jolie played the character of Mariane Pearl, journalist and a woman of colour whose husband was kidnapped and killed by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002. The film was based on Pearl’s memoir and a white woman was cast to play her. Hollywood clearly found the story captivating enough to turn into a film, but was scared that casting a woman of colour as a woman of colour might damage their profits. Another example would be the casting of Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind in the role of real life El Salvadorian Alicia Nash, or Ben Affleck playing Tony Mendez who is of Hispanic descent in Argo. Hollywood likes these people’s stories, just not the colour of their skin.

Not only does Hollywood cast white actors to play the roles of people of colour in the same way that it casts cis actors to play trans characters, it also has a nasty habit of using “white saviour” characters to tell the stories of minorities. The Help focused on a privileged white woman helping black women working as maids in the south of the early 1960s. It is Skeeter’s story, the black women are features who show her benevolence and cast her as the sympathetic non-racist in a bigoted society. At the end of the film Skeeter gains success as a writer off the back of her book “The Help” which is made up of the stories of the black maids, including those of the secondary characters Aibileen and Minny. Aibileen is fired from her job because of the stories she told Skeeter leaving her separated from her charge, unable to pay her rent and left to move in with Minny who already has a large family to support. Aibileen’s circumstances are largely side-lined, the focus squared instead solely on Skeeter’s happy ending to the extent that Aibileen is shown to not be concerned at all about her recent unemployment, only proud of her friend’s success. This trend is also seen in the “inspirational teacher” genre where upper class white teachers like Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers, Antonio Banderas in Take The Lead  and Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds save largely black and Hispanic  inner city kids from gang life. Instead of focusing on the people of colour these issues are actually happening to, Hollywood instead prefers to show how racism affects white people or how white people can help people of colour escape the vicious circles that institutional racism so often forces them into.

Now of course the effect of Hollywood whitewashing the stories of people of colour is very different from the way that it “straight-washes” queer stories. Queer characters cast with heterosexual actors are still queer whereas representation disappears altogether when characters of colour are cast with white actors. However parallels can still be drawn between the two. Hollywood takes advantage of the drama created by racism and homophobia whilst still eschewing queer actors and actors of colour and in some cases queer and non-white characters as well. The awards success of queer films like the ones previously listed is hollow. It’s The Academy’s attempt to show they’re not bigoted, to pay lip service to the stories and experiences of queer people without actually making any attempts at real representation. The same can be said for the success of films like The Help and Driving Miss Daisy whose black characters are all supporting roles and are, tellingly, all servants to the white lead characters.  

Hollywood is not only giving queer roles to straight, cis actors – and so excluding queer actors almost altogether - it is also giving queer stories to straight characters and diminishing representation even more so in the process. 

One film that may be set to buck this trend is the upcoming Freeheld. Based on fact, and developed from the Oscar winning documentary short of the same name, Freeheld tells the story of police lieutenant Laurel Hester who, dying of cancer, fights to be able to leave her police pension benefits to her partner of five years Stacie Andree – a mechanic who the board of freeholders do not recognise as her legal partner. The film version is set to star Julianne Moore as Hester, and Ellen Page as Andree. Page has been attached to the project for years and has often stated in interviews that she was working to get the film financed. Freeheld will be a film about queer issues, focusing on two queer main characters and starring an openly queer actress as one of its leads. Having already won an Oscar as a documentary, the story is likely to be in consideration for awards season again if the film lives up to its predecessor. The state of queer cinema in Hollywood might seem a little unpromising right now, but with Freeheld finally on its way and Ellen Page finally out of the closet this may be about to change.

Freeheld could break a little of the glass ceiling preventing queer actors from working in Hollywood and also bolster the numbers of breakout films about queer issues that actually focus on queer people.  Of course this can only happen if the film is any good and if it gets enough funding for a wide release. If not, it will just join films like Pariah, Gun Hill Road, Weekend, But I’m A Cheerleader and Tomboy – celebrated by LGBT audiences but remaining unwatched by bigger, heterosexual crowds. I’m hopeful though, Ellen Page usually makes good career choices and I trust her judgement that this is a film worth making. I’m watching this space. 


  1. Amazing commentary. Well done.

  2. Great commentary, very thorough and very thought-provoking.

    So thought-provoking that I feel like adding a some side notes (sorry if I'm overlong):

    (1) At least "Transamerica" cast a (cis) woman as a (trans) woman. All the other films considered the sex assigned at birth of the character the "real" one. Nice, eh?

    (2) Another "mainstream" gay actor is Neil Patrick Harris (although in television). The fact that he's been given the role of the playboy in "How I Met Your Mother" is great. The fact that he's been much praised, good. The fact that some of that praise went together with the words "also considering that he's gay!," not.

    (3) "We need to see queer people being successful, not just queer stories and we need to see queer people who live." THIS. So, so much. It's a perfect case of "you've got to pay and suffer for your transgression." let's leave the Hays Code morality in the past, please. Pretty please?

    (4) "Leto does not understand how to talk about trans issues and his choice to ignore those who have tried to explain this to him indicates he doesn’t really care to learn." [Mean mode on] Well, to be too much of an ally might lead to deal with the competition of a trans actor, or to normalising trans people so much that playing one isn't any longer a "brave choice" that gives you the Oscar. [off]

    (5) "What needs to change is not excluding straight actors from queer roles altogether but making it easier for queer themed movies to cast queer actors if they want to." Equality. Lovely word. :-)

    (6) "using “white saviour” characters to tell the stories of minorities." Which is not "just" relegating minority characters in supporting role, it's worse: objectifying minority people as inspiration porn for "us normal people." The "gay friend who's soooo sensitive, and his shopping tips are so great" effect.

    Thank you again.