The Glass Closet

9.22.2008

By Michael Musto

This article originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Out.

"Bravo, Jodie Foster!" That cry has long sounded among easily charmed gay celebrity watchers from Hollywood to Gotham. After all, Jodie is one of the original out-but-not-really-out queens of 'at least.' You know: She's never come out publicly, but at least she's never tried to claim she's straight either. She's talked incessantly about her kids, but at least she hasn't named the father and tried to make it sound like he was any kind of love interest. She won her greatest acclaim for a movie protested by gay activists'The Silence of the Lambs'and reportedly refused to do a short film based on the lesbian classic Rubyfruit Jungle, but at least she isn't afraid to play tough women, single moms, and parts originally written for men (even if that might be what she mostly gets offered).

And though her '92 Oscar speech for Lambs seemed to confirm her tenacious belief in the semicloset ('I'd like to thank all the people in this industry who have respected my choices and who have not been afraid of the power and the dignity that entitles me to'), at least she's never threatened lawsuits when press people drag her out of it!

By all reports, Jodie lives an out life'within serious limits'while cagily avoiding any on-the-record revelations, a delicate dance that's difficult to pull off'but not nearly so much so as double-bolting the door and living a total lie. Jodie, it turns out, is one of the foremost residents of a glass closet'that complex but popular contraption that allows public figures to avoid the career repercussions of any personal disclosure while living their lives with a certain degree of integrity. Such a device enables the public to see right in while not allowing them to actually open the latch unless the celebrity eventually decides to do so herself.

The glass closet is nothing new in Hollywood. Back in the 1920s and '30s, leading man William Haines was gay in everything except magazine interviews. (He was, in fact, as gay as any star was allowed to be in that era, and when he crossed the line'getting arrested in a gay incident and then refusing to hook up in a fake marriage'his acting career was kaput.) In the '70s performers like Paul Lynde and post-Liza Peter Allen similarly went as far as seemed possible, hinting around at their sexuality and even making appearances at various gay spots. But they could be certain the squeamish media wouldn't push things any further by addressing that, so they remained flamboyantly, ambiguously glassed off. And today, the press still gives a free pass to people like Good Morning America weather anchor Sam Champion and CNN presence Anderson Cooper, helping to keep their glass doors shut so they can lead gay social lives while carefully skirting the issue. The media has a field day with all kinds of oddballs, but the earnest TV-news presences'whom everyone has a crush on'get 'protected,' even though Cooper has been seen in gay bars in New York and Champion sightings have long been reported from Fire Island to the Roxy.

The glass closet seems to make a perfect fit for a lot of celebs today, when gay is inching toward becoming more OK in the entertainment world. In an increasingly gay-tolerant environment, these stars can enjoy actual relationships, they don't have to constantly dredge up opposite-sex dates (other than their mothers), and after a day of pretending for the cameras they can go back to almost being themselves.

But at the same time, the stars aren't willing to make the jump to being officially labeled queer and all that it represents in the business. Douglas Carter Beane's timely play The Little Dog Laughed'which ran earlier this season on Broadway'had a wily lesbian agent, Diane, not only angling to heterosexualize her client's breakthrough movie role but trying to do the same thing to the client himself. I wasn't surprised to read at least one review that seemed to think Diane was a winsomely heroic 'fairy godmother'!

She was more like a Machiavellian deception queen who's terrified of shattered glass, though some closet-busting survivors might say she had a point. In his memoir, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, Rupert Everett describes losing jobs in About a Boy and Basic Instinct 2 specifically because he's openly gay. (And no, in the latter case, he probably didn't dodge a bullet. A quality art-house director was set to helm it at that point.)

What's more, Everett deserved an Oscar nomination for My Best Friend's Wedding, but the Academy generally frowns on out gays playing gays'it's not really acting, after all. Though Sir Ian McKellen broke the curse in 1999 with a Best Actor nomination for Gods and Monsters, actual trophies have been reserved for 'courageous' straights playing gay, like William Hurt, Tom Hanks, Hilary Swank, Charlize Theron, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as if it takes courage to accept career-defining roles most actors would die for). Alas, whenever another X-Men movie rolls around, no one says, 'Wow, Sir Ian was so brave to play straight! What a stretch!'

'I think there are four kinds of gays in Hollywood,' explains Howard Bragman, CEO of the PR firm Fifteen Minutes. 'There's the openly gay; the gay and everybody knows it but nobody talks about it; the married, closeted gay who doesn't talk about it; and the screaming 'I'll sue you if you say I'm gay' person.' In other words, the no closet, the glass closet, the cast iron closet, and the closet you get buried in.

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