Now that Bret Easton Ellis has conceded that he wasn’t chosen to write the screen adaptation to Fifty Shades of Grey, you may have thought that his hyperactive tweets about E L James’ best-seller, the upcoming movie, his casting thoughts, his first choice for director, more of his casting thoughts, would finally subside. But Ellis has not gone quietly. On Wednesday, he followed up his announcement that the film’s producers were no longer considering him by provoking fans with a string of tweets that claimed Matt Bomer could never be cast as Christian Grey, the controlling sexual dynamo who opens Anastasia Steele’s eyes to kinky pleasures of the flesh in James’ novels. Ellis’ reason? “Okay I’ll say it. Matt Bomer isn’t right for Christian Grey because he is openly gay. He’s great for other roles but this is too big a game,” he argued in one tweet. “I am NOT discriminating Matt Bomer because of his sexuality. Fifty Shades of Grey demands an actor that is genuinely into women. Get it?!?,” he said in another.
So here we are… again… still. Can an openly gay actor convincingly portray a straight character on screen? (Yes, I agree that the question itself is a little insulting.) You would think that Neil Patrick Harris’ portrayal of a unrepentant heterosexual lothario on How I Met Your Mother would have settled this issue once and for all, but Ellis still voices a significant mindset. In 2010, Newsweek writer Ramin Setoodeh ignited a furor when he explained that he couldn’t appreciate Sean Hayes’ performance in the play Promises, Promises, primarily because “it’s weird seeing [the openly gay] Hayes play straight.” In 2009, Rupert Everett was so frustrated by Hollywood’s inability to see anything past his own sexuality that he urged young gay actors to stay in the closet if they wanted to enjoy any real mainstream success.
At one point in Ellis’ Twitter seizure, he acknowledged that a significant portion of female respondents didn’t seem to have an issue with Bomer playing Grey. “I actually think it’s cool that women want Matt Bomer as Christian Grey,” he wrote. “It means that we’ve moved beyond stereotypes and that gay is hot…” I couldn’t imagine a more misguided interpretation of that feedback. Another explanation: women are not threatened by the idea of gay men. They flocked to theaters to see Bomer play a straight male stripper in Magic Mike, and his sexuality has never stifled his character’s appeal to female fans of White Collar.
Clearly, then, this is more of a guy issue. In the book, Christian Grey is a fantasy not only to millions of women, but also to men who want to be able to see themselves in him and live vicariously through his exploits. Apparently, that male illusion is complicated when the man portraying that hero is gay. Which is ridiculous, folks. It’s called acting! As EW’s Mark Harris reminded us in the aftermath of the Setoodeh affair, “Robert Downey Jr. does not really have a special suit that lets him fly.”
Understanding Ellis’ reaction is important to appreciating the hypocrisy when the on-screen sexual orientation scenario is reversed: Was Tom Hanks less believable playing a gay man in Philadelphia because the audience couldn’t resolve the role with his real-life marriage to Rita Wilson? Ditto for Sean Penn in Milk? Colin Firth in A Single Man? Greg Kinnear in As Good as it Gets? Perhaps the reason they were accepted in prominent gay roles and generously honored for doing so is because, deep down, there’s homophobic residue that exists in even the most enlightened dude’s psyche that is reassured by the reality that those actors are “just pretending” to be gay. It gives these males the opportunity to have it both ways — no pun intended. They can admire the “courageous” performance but sleep easy knowing that the actor is, really, just like them.
Whether Ellis was describing his own personal views, or simply offering his assessment of the industry realpolitik that will ultimately decide who will star in a potential blockbuster, isn’t exactly clear. (I would argue that in this case, they are one and the same.) But I think his line of thinking grossly underestimates the audience, and demonstrates a major misunderstanding of the craft of acting. Bomer might be asked to play an intelligent billionaire tycoon who oozes sexual charisma. As a straight man, I don’t mind saying that he can pull that off. Now if he were up for the role of Lennie from Of Mice and Men — that might be a stretch.