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Culture Warrior: Playing it Straight

By  · Published on May 4th, 2010

Then – Rock Hudson

There’s a scene (video below) midway through the Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedy Pillow Talk (1959) that has always fascinated me. Through the benefit of hindsight, it’s impossible to watch the scene as it was viewed contemporaneous to its release. Time and knowledge have changed the meaning of the scene in its entirety, veering miles away from its intended effect.

Pillow Talk follows a typical romantic-comedy trajectory, forcing two characters who comically hate one another to eventually reconcile their differences and realize they’re in love. The scene in question involves Hudson’s character pretending to be Day’s character’s scheduled blind date, and gaming her by performing suggestions that he is gay. Of course, this being 1959, Pillow Talk was released at a time when the Production Code was very much still in effect – weakened, inevitably, by the adult psychodramas of the 50s, but enforced nonetheless. So, “gay,” of course, is never explicitly uttered in this scene, rather allusions to the character’s sexuality are done by making implicit references to what now read as some of the most antiquated of homosexual stereotypes (intended, of course, for comic effect): Hudson extending his pinky finger as he sips tea, walking to share recipes, and talking about how close he is to his mother.

This scene took place years before Hudson himself was outed as gay, something that the actor, despite empirical evidence to the contrary within public purview, denied to his dying breath. So this scene in Pillow Talk represents a complex intersection of performance, passing, and meta-text for the life and persona of the actor.

In mid-twentieth century America, performance – or, passing as straight – was necessary in order to function and succeed in a society that still by this point officially considered homosexuality a form of psychosis. Being outed would limit one’s career opportunities, social mobility, and potential privilege, not to mention swing the doors wide open for the homophobia-inspired, religiously motivated regimes of oppression in US culture to take effect. For the figure in the public eye – the politician or, more evidently, the movie star – the stakes are much higher, and the project of performance more extensive with its multifarious avenues of potential evidence as the closeted movie star must perform both on and off-screen.

In a sense, all movie stars are performing off-screen. The movie star, after all, is more of a highly regulated and valued commodity than a human being. The movie star is a foundation, an investment, rather than an individual. This is why publicists exist. Tom Cruise is not the same as Tom Cruise (and the fact that his real name is Tom Mapother IV is further evidence of the gap between the person and the public persona). These aren’t method or character actors who disappear into a role – their value, rather, is given by their consistency and repetition, their sameness, thus the public persona outside the film is directly related to how they are perceived as characters within their films (one only has to look at the reduction in bankability of Cruise and Mel Gibson (the actor, not the director) after their respective public controversies to see evidence of this).

Rock Hudson knew that his career would be over if he was ever outed. As the highly constructed persona of the star is often conflated with the characters they play, Hudson’s very marketable sex appeal would be gone if the truth were to come out. But Hudson, of course, didn’t only perform as straight when in the public eye, but in his private life as well, so in a sense the life of the closeted gay man in 1950s America is one of unending performance and attempts at passing, one where every moment of one’s waking life is an active play at convincing everyone around them that they are, in fact, someone else than who they actually are. Hudson was not only an actor by profession, but also one who acted within every moment of his life.

This is what makes the scene referred in Pillow Talk so fascinating: in being a gay man pretending to be straight playing a straight man pretending to be gay, Hudson engages in a process of double-passing, fully understanding the codes and signifiers of society that determine, define, and identify both heterosexuality and homosexuality. It remains supremely ironic that the audiences of 1959 were able to perceive one of Rock Hudson’s dual performances without being able to identify the other – as heterosexuality is perceived as normalcy and homosexuality is perceived as a deviation from the norm, or queerness, the signs of queerness remain evident while the signs of straightness act invisibly. In this context, Rock Hudson gives an incredibly layered performance in Pillow Talk that rivals only the best of actors, but not because he sought to, rather because he had to.

Now – Neil Patrick Harris

In recent Hollywood, gay lead characters have most often been played by straight men. While anyone from Tom Hanks to Sean Penn have been lauded with awards for playing gay men, actual gay men have found no such leading man opportunities in Hollywood – even in roles where they can play gay characters. Hollywood operated under the ethos that straight men can play it gay, but the reverse didn’t apply. Look at the careers of Nathan Lane and Rupert Everett: they’ve either played gay supporting characters or asexual ones since being open about their sexuality. Their real life was inextricable from their persona, and thus any embrace they have with the opposite sex in cinema is rendered unconvincing.

Then comes Neil Patrick Harris. Certainly not a movie star by any means, but definitely a signifier of progress in terms of how we view the openly gay actor with respect to his characters, and how we manage the relationship between star persona and the characters portrayed.

In How I Met Your Mother, NPH has been one of the highlights of the show as a manipulative, womanizing – but magnetically endearing – douchebag. But it’s not only this show that illustrates the resurgence of NPH as a successful separation of the artist and the man that allows an actor to explore all types of roles while not having to hide his life from the public. His role in both Harold and Kumar films provide a fascinating intersection of performance and meta-text without the necessity of passing in its traditional form. Neil Patrick Harris doesn’t play ‘Himself’ in these films, as the actor insisted on being credited as Neil Patrick Harris, thus illustrating a distinction of the man from the role, but still a role comically conflated with certain aspects of the persona of the man. NPH plays NPH as an out-of-control drug-abusing misogynist, and it is, oddly enough, the fact that the actor, an openly gay man, can convincingly portray not only a straight man, but a chauvinist asshole (in both Harold & Kumar and How I Met Your Mother), that identifies NPH as a harbinger of progress for openly gay actors. In a strange counterpoint to Rock Hudson’s socially mandated gay-as-straight-as-gay act of self-reflexive passing in Pillow Talk, NPH’s gay-playing-straight roles approach a repeated character persona of straightness (not only straightness, but alpha male straightness) without conflict with the man’s openly gay public persona.

It distinguishes the persona from the person, and the character from the actor. In a notable evolution of the star, NPH is able, at his own discretion, to play it straight onscreen without being forced to do the same in reality.

We still live in a country where the star is a carefully regulated commodity. I’m not here to speculate on anybody’s private life (the politics of outing on behalf of others is complex, and something I have no authority to partake in), but if high-profile actors like Tom Cruise or, perhaps less controversially, Kevin Spacey were openly gay, the value of the person as a product of commerce would decrease dramatically. While in some respects progress has indeed been made in Hollywood and elsewhere, homosexuality still remains a political minefield for a large segment of the country, one too present for a $20+ million-per-picture property to risk. We don’t yet have a Hollywood with an openly gay movie star that is bankable enough to compete with the Will Smiths or the Adam Sandlers of the movie world, but in the changes that have taken place between the years of Pillow Talk and How I Met Your Mother, we might just be heading in that direction.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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