God bless Sir Ian McKellen.
Amid Hollywood's orgy of
self-congratulations about how Brokeback
Mountain marks a 'milestone,' a
'landmark,' a 'breakthrough' that proves how
progressive and pro-gay the industry has
finally become -- he had the English
gentleman's guts to mention the elephant in
In accepting a lifetime achievement award at
the Berlin International Film Festival this
weekend, the openly gay McKellen was asked
to predict Brokeback's influence.
He tartly replied that the film might lead
to more honesty about homosexuality on the
screen, but probably not behind the scenes
"It is very, very, very difficult for an
American actor who wants a film career to be
open about his sexuality," McKellen
lamented. "And even more difficult for a
woman if she's lesbian. It's very
distressing to me that that should be the
Not just distressing; downright disgusting.
And these days, more than a tad
hypocritical, because frankly, Hollywood's
ceaseless hype about Brokeback Mountain
as a "universal" love story is a lot of
is precisely and
specifically about a uniquely gay dilemma:
the destructive horror of the closet. And
the closet -- Hollywood-style -- is what
McKellen is talking about.
The fundamental purpose of gay liberation
has been to chip away at the closet
everywhere, carving out huge swaths of
freedom in which lesbian and gay Americans
can live honest lives. We've been so
successful that one of the standard comments
is that if Jake and
Ennis were alive today, the whole horrible
tragedy probably wouldn't happen at all.
That's true, but here's the real irony: in
2006, Jake and Ennis would find it easier to
live as openly gay sheep farmers in Wyoming
(where Casper has an openly gay mayor) than
as openly gay stars in Hollywood.
The industry assumes that moviegoers will
not accept gay actors playing straight
leads, and agents and managers routinely
insist that their gay clients remain
discreet, which isn't easy in today's world
of tabloid snoops. So gay stars cower, and
Hollywood remains one of the few outposts in
liberal America where the hellish old closet
The funny thing is, there's really no
evidence to support what McKellen too
politely calls Hollywood's "old fashioned"
attitude towards openly gay stars.
I remember when the music industry had that
same attitude: people used to say that any
pop star who dared to come out would be
dropped like a bomb. But then pop stars
began coming out left and right, and it
either had no effect on their careers, or
they became even bigger stars.
Then consider the example of classic
romantic movie stars like Rock Hudson, Cary
Grant, Montgomery Clift and James Dean, who
were closeted in their lifetimes but not
anymore. If the theory of career death for
queer stars were true, their movies should
now be consigned to oblivion. Yet these guys
remain in very heavy rotation. No one seems
to be saying they can no longer watch
Rebel Without a Cause
because their stars are simply not
believable -- or acceptable -- in straight
I think the whole theory is a myth left over
from the bad old days. But there's nothing
as powerful as a scary myth when millions
are at stake. So today, we have the weird
spectacle of Hollywood executives preaching
a feel-good message of tolerance to the
rubes of Wyoming while enforcing a stifling
closet in their own home town.
As Oscar night approaches, the industry has
every reason to feel proud of a great film
like Brokeback Mountain
. But we
have every reason to feel embarrassed about
the Backlot Mountain that still looms over
Kudos to Sir Ian for that reality check.