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Does Martyr Equal Oscar?

Lets assume for the sake of argument that the following actors are straight: Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William Hurt, Ed Harris. Each of these fine leading men received an Academy Award nomination for the feat -- so brave! -- of playing a gay character. You know, like without the benefit of having ever actually sucked dick. At least thats the official story. Any frank discussion of Hollywood heterosexuality calls for skepticism; I mean, God bless the queen Sir Ian McKellen, but Magneto is scarcely the lone lavender mutant up on the silver screen. In any event -- namely, the Hollywood event, the Oscars -- lets call these fellas straight for the sake of argument, or rather inquiry: How, exactly, do heterosexual actors construct gayness? By what mannerisms, vocal inflections, and styling -- if any -- do they inhabit a body whose hard-wired erotic urges, whose socialization and psychology, categorically differ from their own? And more specifically, what does it take to go home with the hottest bachelor in Hollywood? Sean Penns Best Actor nomination, and likely win, for the title role in Milk affirms that the surest path to bedding Oscar is to play the martyr. For as long as gay characters have been nominated -- or indeed, for as long as there have been movie mos at all -- they have been sacrificed: to love (Brokeback Mountain), politics (Philadelphia), or both (Kiss of the Spider Woman). Philip Seymour Hoffmans Best Actor turn as the flamboyant Capote struck the ultimate Oscar double whammy: The character is both a martyr to his art and a celebrity. Because if theres anything the Academy loves more than a sacrificial homo, its a high-minded biopic. That Hoffman bested Ledgers intense, taciturn Brokeback triumph, widely regarded as one of the great performances in modern movies, suggests the oversize power of mimicry to impress Oscar voters. (Or maybe, like Homer Simpson, they just prefer their beer cold, their TV loud, and their homosexuals fuh-laming?) As the ultimate gay martyr in the ultimate gay biopic, with extra momentum from Hollywood shame over the Brokeback dis and Prop. 8 apathy, Penn should be a sure thing. But what kind of thing, exactly, is he? Penns Milk, like Hoffmans Capote, is a virtuoso act of mimicry, and one whose source material comes with an Oscar-winning pedigree: The Milk saga, as told in the extraordinary The Times of Harvey Milk, took home the Best Documentary statue in 1985. Revisiting the doc in light of Milk allows for a close look at Penns scrupulous simulation and, perhaps, his slips of the wrist? Harvey was less fey, observes Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman, more butch than Penn played him. That whole sugary, nerdish, singsong voice, the way that Penn made Milk into just a little bit of a swish, was an exaggeration invented for the film. You could make the case that theres something regressive about that, Gleiberman adds, but Penn was looking for an actors hook, for a way to dramatize Harveys exuberance -- and, yes, his gayness -- and give it an indelible touch of theater. And he succeeded. Notwithstanding the long-haired hippie stylings he rocked during his first run for political office, Harvey Milks general appearance and manner -- if not his wit -- were strictly status quo. He was, in a word, butch, though it pays to remember that Milk considered politics a form of theater and was highly aware of public personae as performance. Many gay men exhibit a kind of situational effeminacy; one behaves in a different manner when, say, thanking the Academy onstage than one does later that night, dishing over cocktails with Kevin Spacey about Nicole Kidmans gown. What Milk did let slip on-camera were flashes of impish mirth, a quickening of the eyes and a widening of the smile that were part of his famous charm, but which knowing eyes might see as intimating a subterranean order of experience erupting to the surface. Theres a marvelous anecdote told in The Times of Harvey Milk about the occasion that Milk met Ruth Carter Stapleton, the evangelical sister of President Carter, who told him she could covert him to Christianity despite his being Jewish, and that on doing so his homosexuality would disappear. Im surprised that you shook my hand, said Harvey when they met, because you never know where my hands been. Penn has a bit of fun hinting at where Harveys hand has been, but hes far too meticulous an actor, much too controlled in his effects, to instinctively capture Milks naughty twinkle, his queering, one might say, of the respectable politicians facade. But who could? His Milk is, like Milk himself, a dazzling piece of theater. Harvey Milk is the ultimate homo martyr, but the AIDS hero played by Tom Hanks in Philadelphia runs a tight second. Make that tight-assed second: Despite the poofy hairdo, penchant for swooning to Maria Callas arias, and tendency to cross his legs really, really tight, Hanks more or less eschews stereotypical gay behavior. Philadelphia is predicated on a gay man passing in a corporate context, but a funny thing happens as Andrew Beckett, the AIDS-afflicted lawyer, grows increasingly ill and angelic in his suffering. As the trail wears on, revealing the appetites and afflictions of his gay flesh, Hanks affects a subtle touch of the pinched urban dandy -- locked lips, erect posture, a slight craning of the neck -- as if, marshaling the last of his resources, he dons a crisp, faggoty armor to protect himself from public humiliation. Philadelphia is dignified -- to a fault -- by Hankss immaculately tasteful performance. His Beckett is as spartan as Samuel Beckett compared to the ugliest of Hollywood AIDS cases, Ed Harriss monstrous turn as the dying poet in The Hours. Lurching around like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Harris rages against the dying of the light in a fit of Acting so hysterical it literally flings itself out the window. The Academy evidently found such histrionics preferable to Dennis Quaids terse, thoughtful role as the closeted executive in Far From Heaven. Would Quaids neo-Sirkian tour de force have been nominated if, rather than exiting the narrative more or less happy with another man, hed shot himself in the head? Nominated, like Harris, for Best Supporting Actor, Bruce Davison played the first mainstream movie AIDS casualty in the 1990 weepie Longtime Companion. Though his death occurred offscreen, elided by the films unnerving chronological leaps through the horror show of early AIDS, the acclaim he gets for the role rests largely on the famous deathbed scene, when he gives his lover permission to let go. Perfectly scaled and pitched for Oscar telecast excerpt, its a fine moment, albeit one whose emotional intensity triggers a flurry of odd facial tics in Davison, as if he were beset less by heartbreaking resignation than a swarm of invisible gnats. Campbell Scotts leading role as a shifty, AIDS-phobic gym bunny is the movies true triumph, if insufficiently sacrificial for Oscar recognition. As for Dermot Mulroneys bouncing, flouncing, ultra-authentic ber-gay: girl, two snaps up! Nearly all the major Oscar faux mos play manly men who love men (or, in the case of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, manly men who love men who want to be women). When going gay for the movies, the rule of thumb seems to be that one should never go full gaytard. Hoffmans celebrity riff notwithstanding, the most flamboyant performance to win a Best Actor Oscar can be credited to William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Gentle, elegant, wry, and soft-spoken, Hurt is the least alpha of American leading men, so its ironic to note the obvious mechanics involved when he summons the swish. Wrapped in silk robes, rhapsodizing about old movies, wrists flung willy-nilly nelly, Hurt plays Luis Molina, a mincing pederast jailed in a cell alongside a righteous political prisoner done up with aggressive heterosexuality by Raul Julia (Valentin Arregui). Hurt has never loomed so physically large as when tasked with shrinking himself into a flopsy, wincing faggot. You can feel the exertion involved in minimizing his personal space, the effort to play passive. This tension between Hurts natural carriage and the effeminacy of the role neatly plays into a thematic crux of Kiss: the notion of the stereotypical gay man as weak-willed and duplicitous. Molina is recruited by prison officials to rat out his cell mate, suss out information on his subversive activities. Milking the setup for all its worth (roasted chickens in butter, canned peaches, heart-shaped boxes of bonbons), Luis strings them along to the bitter end. Once again, martyr = Oscar: Released in a bid to entrap Valentins connections, Luis takes a bullet for love. Speaking of gaytarded: The whole homo Oscar thing was burlesqued by In & Out, a grimly unfunny comedy starring Kevin Kline as a small-town teacher whos outed by a former student. Accepting a Best Actor Oscar for the role of a gay marine, Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon) singles out his old high school drama teacher, Howard Brackett (Kline), as a gay role model -- which comes as a surprise to Howard and his fiance (Joan Cusack). The joke is that Howard is in fact gay gay gay, as hinted right up-front in a credit sequence that has him reveling with a locker room full of hormonal teenage jocks who douse him with champagne in a manner less suggestive of post-game victory than a Bel Ami bukkake. Oh, you guys!In & Out trades on every idiotic gay clich less in a bid to subvert them (a la the underrated fauxmosexual burlesque I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry) than to ratify a retrograde paradigm for the amusement of multiplex squares. The butchest thing Howard manages is to attack someone at his bachelor party who claims Streisand was too old to play Yentl -- one of several tiresome Babs gags better suited to the self-loathing ghetto gays of The Boys in the Band than a comedy from 1997. Worse than all this limp-wristed minstrelsy is the thankless task given to Joan Cusack in the shrill, frankly misogynistic role of Howards abandoned wife, a humiliation for which she was -- what do you know? -- Oscar-nominated. Never underestimate the power of pity. The annual orgy of self-regard that is the Academy Awards provides a forum for the celluloid closet to feel sorry for itself. Sorry about AIDS, sorry about suicide, sorry about heartbreak, sorry about martyrdom, sorry about remaining so deep in the closet. The queer thing about Milk is that, while it ultimately plays into this pity party, it gets there via the most unabashedly elated and empowered of routes. Two steps forward, one step back -- hand on hip, striking a pose. Send a letter to the editor about this article.
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Nathan Lee