Media Circus

An Esquire article insinuating that actor Kevin Spacey is gay stirs controversy

Published October 15, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Esquire's October cover story on Kevin Spacey has generated more attention than the magazine got during the three years Ed Kosner served as editor. The magazine's new editor, David Granger, must be gloating -- even though Tom Junod, the two-time National Magazine Award winner who authored the Spacey piece, has been widely lambasted by publicists, editors and columnists for pseudo-outing Spacey. The actor himself slammed the piece, calling it "dishonest and malicious"; his agent told other clients to snub Esquire and its reporters. In the brouhaha surrounding Junod's piece, no one has mentioned the most interesting thing about the story, which is that Junod spends as much time stuffing Spacey into the closet as he does dragging him out of it.

Titled "Kevin Spacey Has a Secret," the piece is a bit of a narrative striptease act. Which makes sense: Secrets are interesting only so long as they remain on the verge of being revealed, as long as they're charged with the possibility -- and not the reality -- of disclosure. A good way to keep that charge alive, in fact, is to almost tell a secret, to hint that what you've said is the truth while simultaneously suggesting that there's more -- or less -- you haven't yet disclosed. If Spacey were openly gay, after all, there would be no story. All the ambiguity and all the complicated interplay between public and private personas that Junod uses to structure his story would disappear. Junod didn't want Spacey to be out. He wanted him in-between.

Junod's story begins: "I mean, my mother knows. Or thinks she knows. Or supposes. Or suspects," and describes Spacey passing on the streets of Savannah, where the actor is working on a new movie. He calls Spacey "a creature of entrances and exits," which is just what you would have to be if you lived in a closet. But Junod also describes Spacey as someone who is "always playing," always performing, as the one who knows that "he who keeps his secret the longest wins."

Spacey and his supporters have read this as a not very veiled insinuation that there is a gay man hiding beneath Spacey's straight fagade. But the curious thing is that in all his major performances -- "Swimming With Sharks," "Seven," "The Usual Suspects" -- Spacey's fagade has been more mincing than butch. So if his outer shell and his inner self are at odds, then it's not really clear which is which. He may be a gay man who plays straight characters whose slightly fey mannerisms are just a disguise. Or he may be a straight man who plays gay characters whose supposed heterosexuality is the real ruse. Who knows?

Junod is playing a fairly high-stakes game of hide-and-seek: Even if he doesn't care about whether Spacey really is gay, lots of people do. And the truth is that although both Junod and Esquire editor Granger have vehemently denied that the profile makes Spacey's sexuality "an issue," without the metaphor of the closet the piece would have no juice. In that sense, even if the piece doesn't out Spacey, its effectiveness arises from the possibility that it will, and that doing so would make a difference to Spacey's career. There are, after all, still no major leading men in Hollywood who are out, nor are there even openly gay actors who regularly play straight characters. In that sense, there may be more at stake here than simply some ideal of nondisclosure.

That helps explain, at least in part, why the response to the article was so quick and ferocious. Almost as soon as the issue hit the stands, Spacey's publicist was in the New York Times attacking Esquire and denying that Spacey had "come out" while playing a character in the film version of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." That was followed by Spacey's public disavowal of the piece and a series of attacks on it in daily papers across the country. Reading over them, it's hard not to envision the press-release machine that got going as soon as Spacey's people heard the news. Of course, Esquire can't have been too unhappy about the publicity, even if Granger's repeated insistence that the piece is not about Spacey's sexuality, oddly, ends up selling Junod's rhetorical dexterity a little short.

Fittingly enough, though, the public debate over the piece has been as curious and many-sided as the profile itself. Spacey, for instance, said the article "proved that the legacy of Joseph McCarthy is alive and well," which is a weird invocation when you consider that Roy Cohn, McCarthy's chief aide, was a notorious closet case. Was he suggesting that it was Junod who has a secret? Meanwhile, the New York Post's Page Six column reported last week that Junod's original article had included material on Spacey's "fun-filled nights out in steamy Savannah" and episodes of "illicit sex in his trailer on the set of 'The Usual Suspects.'" The logical assumption was that someone at Esquire had leaked this to the Post, since it suddenly made the magazine look relatively restrained. But Junod told an Atlanta paper that the Post report was "an out-and-out lie" and that he "was not saved by a prudent editor." But then standing by his piece only strengthens his cover story as a responsible journalist, doesn't it?

In a way, everything that has followed "Kevin Spacey Has a Secret" has conformed to the same hall-of-mirrors logic that shapes the article. No one has denied that Spacey is gay, nor has anyone affirmed it. All anyone has really talked about is whether it's OK to discuss an actor's sexuality in public, but of course even those who say it isn't find themselves doing it even in their rebuttals. One way or another, then, they have found themselves on Junod's turf. The allure of the closet, apparently, is irresistible.

By James Surowiecki

James Surowiecki is a regular contributor to Salon.

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