By Henry Stewart
In the most "controversial" scene of last year’s Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey, Jr., playing an actor in blackface, cautions Ben Stiller, also playing an actor, about the dangers of going "full retard.” He argues that no actor wins an Academy Award unless the character is only partially handicapped: Rain Man was an idiot savant, Forrest Gump merely "slow".
The satire cuts like safety scissors. It had been seven years since Sean Penn, the most recent target of the joke, went "full retard" in I Am Sam, earning him an Academy Award nomination. (He lost to Denzel Washington, for the intellectually challenged Training Day.) The mentally handicapped thing is so over; Penn is already on to other things, generating Oscar buzz for his role in Milk as the title’s openly homosexual politician.
Gay is the new retard.
Tom O’Neil at The L.A. Times counts 28 actors (lead and supporting) nominated for playing gay or bi-sexual characters since 1968. But Philip Seymour Hoffman’s winning turn as the title character in 2005’s Capote marked a turning point: award-worthy actors could now go "full gay," acting out the basest superficial stereotypes of homosexuality as they once did with the mentally disabled. Post-Will and Grace and post-anti-gay-marriage referenda —as the cultural acceptance of homosexuality seems to simultaneously widen and constrict in this country — Hollywood has decided (or noticed?) that we no longer want our screen gays to act like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. We want them fuh-laming.
Hoffman arguably brings more to his portrayal of Tru than mere imitation, but the way he fairies-up the role exposes what the country considers to be acceptably homosexual. He beat out Heather Ledger’s turn that year — which surely most critics would judge the better performance? — as a gruff, laconic and Marlboro Man-y homosexual in Brokeback Mountain, more Duke Hobbie in In Cold Blood than Toby Jones in Infamous. East Coast writers can be as fruity as they please, but Western frontier archetypes are off-limits. We need our gays to speak in effeminate voices and flit their hands, otherwise we might not be able to spot them, and protect ourselves accordingly, before it’s too late.
Following in Hoffman’s footsteps, Penn takes the safe route this year as an acceptably flamboyant gay: he plays San Francisco (alert! alert!) City Supervisor Harvey Milk. A nomination seems guaranteed, a win not unlikely. In fairness, both Hoffman and Penn play personages that in real life were gaudily gay, so maybe it makes sense that they act them out as full-blown queens out of Shortbus, right? Well, not really. This isn’t about political correctness; it’s about the fine line between realistically playing a loud and proud gay man and doing a part in "gay face." Only 2 of O’Neil’s 28 nominated actors were actually known homosexuals; the last time a gay actor was Oscar-nominated for playing a homosexual character was Ian MacKellen for Gods and Monsters. Ten years ago. Hoffman and Penn dance on that fine gay-face line, suggesting that these days a sure route to snagging an Oscar nod is for a capable actor to adopt a lisp and a limp wrist. We can bestow awards upon gay performances so long as they’re fluttering, because it’s such a "stretch" for the straight actor. But if the only way for an actor to win is to go full gay, that doesn’t get the country’s homosexuals any closer to achieving real cultural acceptance. It just reinforces their status as "the other".