Sunday, September 20, 2009

Can It Hurt Hollywood Careers to Play Gay?

In 1993, Will Smith starred as a gay con artist in the film adaptation of Six Degrees of Separation, but when it came time for him to lock lips with Anthony Michael Hall he refused. They had to handle the same sex kiss through trick camera angles, so that the fact that the two men weren't actually kissing would be hidden. Why would he agree to take on the role of a gay man and then bizarrely refuse such a minor concession to the role?

Denzel Washington had apparently told him that kissing another man on screen would tarnish his "hetero" image and ruin his career.

It's hard to believe it could have hurt someone who is now one of the hugest movie stars ever, but at the time it was Smith's first big-screen role and the short story that would become Brokeback Mountain had yet to even be written. Maybe he was right to be cautious, but is it still a concern?

Flash-forward 12 years to 2005. Rami Malek, pictured right, has his first significant role as Kenny Al-Bahir, a flamboyantly gay, closeted teenager, on the Fox sitcom The War at Home. Like Smith, he was a minority actor portraying a gay man. Unlike Smith, he didn't already have a lengthy television and music career behind him. It was a move that could typecast someone so fresh on the scene.

And after The War at Home was canceled, he disappeared from film and television for two years. Maybe all any casting agent saw when they looked at him was flaming Kenny. Maybe he just didn't have what it took to survive in Hollywood.

But, no. In 2009 he showed up again. Aside from appearing in the sequel to Night at the Museum this year, he was also cast in 24 as an Arab American would-be suicide bomber. And in 2010 he'll be popping up again as a Marine in the WWII epic miniseries The Pacific:

The pair of roles are about as macho as one can get without just spraying the set down with testosterone. Clearly, his "hetero" image hasn't been hurt onscreen at all.

But, before we get too congratulatory about how far we've come, there's one more thing to consider. One more thing that Rami Malek has in common with Will Smith. Despite how racy The War at Home was, Kenny never got to kiss a boy onscreen.

So maybe, sadly, things haven't changed nearly as much as we think.

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