Film writer Amy O’Neill analyses Cate Blanchett’s position on straight actors playing gay characters (and visa versa) and how the LGBTQ+ community is represented in film
After her stunning Oscar-nominated performance in lesbian romance Carol three years ago, Cate Blanchett has come out with a blazing defence of straight actors being able to play gay characters in films, saying that she will ‘fight to the death’ for the right to play roles outside of her experience.
She cites the importance of being able to suspend your belief when watching films, and that it’s true that films can be a wonderful way for both audiences and actors themselves to have fundamentally changing experiences concerning their worldviews and preconceptions.
The notion that straight people should be able to play gay characters is not an entirely awful one, thought not entirely what she was referring too. For one, it avoids an unfortunate outcome of many gay actors playing gay roles before they have come out. Blanchett herself admitted that she had ‘never been asked more questions about her sexuality than when she had played a lesbian character,’ and this media attention can be harmful to closeted actors. Lee Pace, for example, was outed earlier this year in an interview with W magazine, about his role in hit play Angels in America where he plays Joe Pitt, a closeted Mormon in the height of the AIDS crisis. When asked about his sexuality, the magazine described him as being ‘flustered and surprised,’ responding ‘I find your question intrusive.’
This, of course, raised eyebrows, and forced him to come out in a statement on Twitter, describing himself as being a member of the ‘queer’ community. This is horrible for many reasons, not least that he was unable to come out on his own terms, in his own time, as is the right of every LGBT person.
Despite this, Blanchett’s statement has, of course, attracted well-founded criticism. In film, it is hard for the LGBT community to have a voice; our stories are often written for us, or about us, by people who do not share the same experiences. Though exceptions are often made, LGBT films are fraught with issues. Famously, Blue is the Warmest Colour did an injustice to the graphic novel that it was based upon for fetishising a young lesbian relationship. As a result the film was criticised by feminists and queer critics for being been created with the male gaze pointed directly at the relationship. The author of the graphic novel in question lamented that the problem with the film was that it lacked lesbians. Fetishisation was not the only problem.
Throughout the history of LGBTQ+ cinema, from The Children’s Hour to Brokeback Mountain, stories of LGBT suffering, troubling coming out stories, and trauma, usually culminating in a suicide or other gruelling death scene; has told LGBT and straight viewers alike that members of the LGBT community haven’t got a happy ending for decades. There is often an underlying sadness or difficulty to the stories, simply due to the nature of many of our lives, but stories written, directed or acted by LGBT people are often soft, thoughtful, and hopeful. God’s Own Country, directed by Francis Lee, is a shining example of this, featuring a young man coming to terms with his feelings for a fellow farmer, and the angst, hope, sincerity, and love that comes with this process.
In light of this, gay roles for straight actors seems a strange hill for Cate Blanchett to die on. The availability of roles available to gay actors needs to be addressed, and is a far more pertinent issue. If straight actors can play gay characters, then surely the same opportunity should be extended to gay actors, for them to play roles ‘outside their experience.’ Straight actors not being able to play gay roles is a non-issue: 52 straight actors have won Oscars for playing gay roles, and these actors are usually celebrated, heralded for being brave, for daring to tell these stories.
Meanwhile, many gay actors are pigeonholed and do not have access to the broad range of roles available to straight actors, which Ellen Page has criticised: since coming out as a lesbian in 2014, Page has only been offered roles in gay films, which she feels is limiting and a double-standard in the industry.
Clearly there is a bigger problem at hand than straight people playing gay roles. High profile actors like Cate Blanchett should be calling for more roles and representation for LGBT actors, writers, and directors across the board, to open up genres to people of all sexualities, and to allow us to tell our own stories.