Perhaps the most revolutionary thing a straight actor can do is play gay.
While gay actors like Zachary Quinto, Ian McKellen and Neil Patrick Harris are compelled to play heterosexual roles as a matter of course -- that's the bulk of what's out there -- straight actors get Oscars and praise for bravery.
The latest actors to join the fraternity of the courageous are Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, who respectively play Liberace and his lover in the HBO film "Behind the Candelabra." Damon told Entertainment Weekly that the film's revealing costumes embarrassed his wife: "I really wish she didn’t see that. That’s too much." As for the sex scene between Douglas and Damon, "The scene where I’m behind him and going at him, we did that in one take," said the younger actor.
"We do it. Cut. There’s a long pause. And then you just hear Steven [Soderbergh, the director] go, 'Well … I have no notes.'"
The complaining about the film's ribald costuming -- especially in light of the fact that Damon is married, let us not forget, to a woman -- goes along with film critic David Denby's bizarre apparent paraphrase of Soderbergh that the film is too "juicily gay" for movie theaters. And there's a palpable discomfort to the discussion about playing a gay sex scene.
But at least Damon seems like a good sport. Will Smith, playing a gay character in the 1993 film "Six Degrees of Separation," refused even to kiss the actor playing his lover, though it had been part of the role as written. "I was thinking, 'How are my friends in Philly going to think about this?' I wasn't emotionally stable enough to artistically commit to that aspect of the film," Smith said in 1993. He reportedly had been advised not to commit to the role by Denzel Washington, who -- also in 1993! -- played a homophobic lawyer in "Philadelphia."
Mark Wahlberg has openly spoken about refusing to pursue a role as a gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain," noting in a 2007 interview, "I read 15 pages of the script and got a little creeped out. It was very graphic, descriptive[...] I told Ang Lee, ‘I like you, you’re a talented guy, if you want to talk about it more …’ Thankfully, he didn’t."
That movie ended up getting Oscar nominations for both of its stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger; other recent actors to get Oscar nominations for playing gay include Sean Penn for "Milk" (he won the trophy), Philip Seymour Hoffman for "Capote" (ditto), Christopher Plummer for "Beginners" (he won, too!), Ed Harris in "The Hours," and Colin Firth for "A Single Man." All of them, at some point, have ended up getting asked whether it was, you know, gross to make out with a man -- but all of them carry themselves with some dignity (contra Penn's "Milk" costar James Franco, who giggled over the prosthetic penises used in the movie). Asked about his love scenes by an interviewer, Gyllenhaal said, "To me the physical stuff was easy. It's choreography, it's a dance. That's how we did it, just like in an Ang Lee movie. Just like in 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' -- those fight scenes were like love scenes."
The interviewer asked if it was "easier to play the scenes in the back of the car with Anne Hathaway," the sort of question that guarantees stars who play gay will get praised even while obliging them to hint that a gay sex scene is not just part of the gig, it's a little weird.