Why Newsweek need not apologize to GLAAD

Commentary: Column on gay actors was tough but fair

It takes a truly extraordinary hatemonger to earn labels like "horrendously homophobic" and "mind-blowingly bigoted." So when those phrases are aimed at a Newsweek journalist who also happens to be gay, it's all the more surprising.

And yet that's what has befallen Ramin Setoodeh, who wrote a commentary criticizing the performances of two openly gay actors in heterosexual roles. He also pointed out the relative dearth of homosexual men and women playing romantic leads.

That was enough to invoke condemnation from actors Kristin Chenoweth and Michael Urie, as well as producer Ryan Murphy, who called Tuesday for a boycott on Newsweek and action from Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. GLAAD followed suit Wednesday, demanding Newsweek apologize. (GLAAD president also co-wrote a commentary on the subject with "Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black exclusively for THR here.)

But at the risk of offending anyone gay or straight, I don't understand what exactly Setoodeh did wrong.

Part of the problem is that Setoodeh's article has been misrepresented by his critics. He never says, as they allege, that gay actors should NEVER play straight roles. He does note that two particular gay actors -- Sean Hayes in "Promises, Promises" and Jonathan Groff in "Glee" -- are particularly underwhelming in these particular straight roles.

But those are two completely different sentiments, and the fact that they've been confused indicates just how sensitive this subject is.

So let's start with a simple but controversial question: Is it OK to chalk up an actor's poor performance in a straight role to his or her homosexuality?

That's essentially what Setoodeh is doing, particularly with regard to Hayes, who the writer suggests isn't convincing in a heterosexual role -- as if the actor simply exudes homosexuality, thus undercutting the character.

GLAAD et al don't like that, but the crux of their objection isn't entirely clear. Perhaps it wouldn't have been as offensive if Setoodeh had just characterized it as a poor performance by someone who just happens to be gay.

But that's not the same thing. As Setoodeh has pointed out, that approach is what the New York Times seemed to be taking in its own "Promises" review, which deemed Hayes' onstage manner to more like a younger brother than a lover to Chenoweth, his co-star.

If GLAAD feels Setoodeh went too far, was NYT's approach appropriate? Because I have to agree with Setoodeh's opinion that what NYT did felt like it tip-toed right up to the line he crossed and winked at the reader instead. Is that really any better?

That an actor happens to be gay shouldn't define him or her. That's a wonderfully idealistic notion, but sexual orientation can distort a performance, and in more ways than one.

The first is that just knowing an actor is gay can color someone's perception of that actor's character. It's sad to say, but unrealistic to suggest everyone in the audience is as evolved as the next person. Just because GLAAD and its supporters wish that wasn't a possibility doesn't mean that if a writer points out that possibility, he's blasphemed.

The second way applies even if the viewer doesn't know whether the actor in question is gay or not. Politically incorrect as it might be to suggest, there is always the possibility that even the most brilliant closeted actor in the most incredibly scripted heterosexual role could fall short, especially in a romantic lead role.

As any producer knows, sexual chemistry onscreen is a delicate magic. Just because Rock Hudson was one such magician doesn't mean every gay actor can do same.

That doesn't mean gay actors shouldn't be considered for those roles, but there exists the unfortunate possibility that they may not succeed, and perhaps Setoodeh has identified two such failures already.

Nevertheless, I happen to be quite optimistic that an openly gay actor will eventually come along who will render this debate moot. Until then, let's not vilify those who dare to speak their mind even when being unkind.

Andrew Wallenstein can be reached via Twitter at @awallenstein.