A recent interview with thespian Matt Damon created more of a stir than is usually expected of these opening weekend chitchats – or perhaps, one’s never sure of the level of calculation on the part of the parties involved – by venturing that an actor being open about his or her sexuality is therefore less of a mystery to audiences and so, it follows, less credible to them. He used Rupert Everett as an example of a gay and out actor whose career had suffered due to his candour. Although the two comments have been run together in a lot of the subsequent discussions, they really appear to be two different carriages of one train of thought. He said first:
But at the time, I remember thinking and saying, Rupert Everett was openly gay and this guy – more handsome than anybody, a classically trained actor – it’s tough to make the argument that he didn’t take a hit for being out.
I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period. And sexuality is a huge part of that. Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.
As other, faster, minds have pointed out when considering the ‘ugly implications’ of these comments, to be an actor these days is to be expected to deliver up a certain amount of one’s personal life in order to generate audience interest in the film that is being touted. As Damon well knows, because the Guardian interview makes brief mention of his family. For all that he attempts to extend his wish for this vow of silence to include straight actors…
Here's Matt Damon not letting anyone know anything about his sexuality, keeping it private and a mystery. pic.twitter.com/gXQE8y0w4A
— Tom & Lorenzo (@tomandlorenzo) September 28, 2015
That said, is Damon really so far off the mark, when Rupert Everett has himself plainly stated that he would not advise any actor thinking about his career to come out:
The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business. It just doesn’t work and you’re going to hit a brick wall at some point. You’re going to manage to make it roll for a certain amount of time, but at the first sign of failure they’ll cut you right off. And I’m sick of saying, ‘Yes, it’s probably my own fault.’ Because I’ve always tried to make it work and when it stops working somewhere, I try to make it work somewhere else. But the fact of the matter is, and I don’t care who disagrees, it doesn’t work if you’re gay.
The major difference here is that Matt Damon is talking about maintaining an air of mystery for the viewing public, while Rupert Everett presents it as fear of the industry, the studio heads and deal-makers, that keeps people living quietly within their closets. That ever-present worry that your sexuality will one day count against you and ‘they’ll cut you right off’ instead of offering the support that your straight peers can expect. Asked by another Guardian interviewer whether he felt he had missed out, Everett responded:
The answer to what, if he’d been luckier or straighter, the promise of My Best Friend’s Wedding would have led to is, he thinks, obvious. “If I’d been straight? I’d be doing what Colin [Firth] and Hugh [Grant] do, I suppose.”
Which means, as they now reach more advanced ages, Everett could be playing kings, politicians, lords and lawyers. (And it’s not to say his career is over, he still appears on stage and TV, writes and produces.) But still, it is the (straight, married) Firth who earns the plaudits (and rightly!) as the personification-of-elegant, bereaved, gay, British professor in A Single Man. Maybe so that director Tom Ford can tell the Wall Street Journal about how autobiographical the story is and yet still reassure them:
…this is not a gay film.
Which may perhaps also be true – it is a beautiful love story, ultimately – one that in a more perfect world wouldn’t need to be tagged with any kind of sexuality. If you have known love and loss, you will adore this film, Tom Ford could have said. Also if you appreciate the finer things in life, you could watch it for the architecture, the cars and Julianne Moore’s wardrobe and be incredibly happy. That does, however, take away from the fact that it is a beautiful story of the love between two men in a committed, homosexual relationship, both being played by straight men who have never been told to keep quiet about their heterosexuality so that audiences can believe in their on-screen love.
If Matt Damon is confused as to why his comments have sparked controversy, he only needs to look to his own career for further evidence of the double standard at work. During press for Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, his fellow straight married man and father, co-star Michael Douglas hailed Damon:
I just want to commend Matt because I don’t think I would have had the courage at that point in my career to take this on.
There is very little attempt by either star to maintain an air of mystery around their sexuality and allow that ambiguity to enhance the enjoyment of their performances by the audience. Instead it was sledgehammered into almost every interview and profile: LOOK THEY’RE NOT REALLY GAY, OK? IT’S JUST PRETEND. Some mystery, lads.
I often feel that audiences don’t get enough credit from the Hollywood bigwigs. The old adage about no one ever having gone broke by underestimating the intelligence of the masses seems to get a lot of play there and results in ever more and more stupid films being given immense budgets to stun our senses into submission. That’s why whenever anything half-decent with a semi-functioning brain comes along you feel you must support it and tell everyone you know to do the same, in case they never make another one like it.
But ultimately, suspension of disbelief is what we are there for, sitting in the dark cinema, giving up three hours of our lives to be shown something that we are pretty sure isn’t real but are prepared to go along with for the thrills. Psst, Matt, no one really believes that that is King Kong hanging off the Empire State Building or that Audrey Hepburn couldn’t walk into Tiffany’s and be given one of anything she asked for. We are delighted with the smoke and mirrors, the tricks of lighting, the CGI (but not too much of it) and the hyper-reality of a cinematic experience. And sure, it can be wonderful when real-life couples play opposite each other – Bogart and Bacall, for instance – but it can also be kind of icky: Cruise and Kidman, for instance. We don’t need the showmances or to have our hands held: Matt Damon can play Tom Ripley, Neil Patrick Harris can play straight in Gone Girl and all will be well.
Matt Damon could have created a very different kind of press storm by pointing out that if ‘they’ are cutting off actors with the vitality, looks and charisma of Rupert Everett because they think his private life has typecast him, more fool them. No one should have to keep quiet about their personal life – unless they want to – in order to reach the top. Unfortunately it seems Hollywood still remembers the morals clauses of the past, where actors had to promise not to ‘outrage public morals or decency.’ While it is slightly commendable for Matt Damon to hark back to those classic Hollywood days, before the gossip mags took over and we knew more about the goings-on of some inhabitants of La-La Land than we do our own family members, that particular horse has well and truly bolted. Instead, let’s have more quality film-making unafraid to risks with content and in casting. Let’s create more diverse stories showing truer representations of the mixed up, muddled up, shook up world we inhabit (when we’re not off bothering Martians, of course). And let’s celebrate love and the lovers, whichever category they may fall into.