Mark Harris explains what the speculation about an actor's personal life tells us about Hollywood

By Mark Harris
Updated April 08, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

So what if Kevin Spacey may or may not be gay?

Now that the Academy Awards are finally over and we at EW have at least a three-month break before we have to start talking about them again, we can get back to discussing really important issues in the world of entertainment. For instance: Is Kevin Spacey gay?

I know what you’re thinking. (Well, I don’t, but I’m guessing what the enlightened and intelligent among you might be thinking.) What does it matter? Who cares if Kevin Spacey is gay or straight? What I really want to know is, is Angelina Jolie sleeping with her brother? And you’re right — it doesn’t matter. But we should care, just a little, because if Spacey is straight, something really terrible is going on. And if Spacey is gay, ditto.

If you haven’t been following this, here’s the rough (that’s rough as in unpleasant, coarse, ugly) sequence of events. A while back, Esquire magazine published a coy, smirking profile of the actor, who had until then never spoken much about his personal life, called ”Kevin Spacey Has a Secret,” in which the writer played with the notion that Spacey might be gay without really pressing the point. Many readers, gay and straight, were offended by its violative, all-but-outing tone. Since then, Spacey has loudly, publicly, and repeatedly declared his heterosexuality, up to and including thanking a woman named Dianne identified by his publicist as his ”longtime girlfriend” at the Oscars. Days after winning his second Academy Award, Spacey was the subject of an article in the tabloid the Star showing photographs of him ”romping” (their amazing word) with an unidentified male companion.

And there we stand, at the precipice of two creepy scenarios. Let’s examine them. Scenario 1: Kevin Spacey is heterosexual. Now, I haven’t measured his index finger lately, so I can’t be scientifically certain. But let’s assume he is. If he is, it means that after decades of struggle, homosexuality is still such a stigma that an actor not only needs to deny it but deny it in crass, ”Love American Style” terms (one of Spacey’s less appealing assertions is that being perceived as gay has helped him, like, score with babes!). And it means that the very whisper of homosexuality is still enough to serve as fodder for late-night talk-show jokes, supermarket-rag ”investigations” and panicked denials. We’ve come a long way, baby? Apparently not.

Now to Scenario 2: Kevin Spacey is gay. If so, he may be the first victim of a new entertainment/media/industrial-complex rule: You can keep your private life private, but you can’t lie about it. Under this dictum, people like Jodie Foster, Rosie O’Donnell or Ricky Martin (to name three favorite objects of speculation) are allowed to set a benchmark expectation of privacy by declining to talk about their personal/sexual lives that’s more or less respected (although even ”Will & Grace” feels it’s okay to make the occasional ”Sommersby” joke). But Spacey, by falsely shouting his heterosexuality from every housetop, is basically pulling a Gary Hart — daring anyone who thinks he can catch him to try — and is thus fair game.

While the folks at the Star shouldn’t exactly get drunk on self-congratulation (Wow! You took photographs of a gay guy? Now THAT’s journalism), let’s come out and say it: If Spacey is lying, he should be ashamed of himself. Nobody makes an actor talk about his sex life; certainly, nobody makes an actor lie about it. Shutting up about who you sleep with is one thing (a good thing, in fact), but when a highly successful gay actor feels compelled to burnish his image by creating false girlfriends and tell ridiculous fables, he, and nobody else, is stigmatizing homosexuality in a truly deplorable way.

Why would he do it? Well, the argument that being gay might hurt his ability to play romantic leads is unconvincing; as I recall, before ”American Beauty” Spacey’s most convincing on-camera heterosexual relationship was with Gwyneth Paltrow’s severed head — he’s not exactly Hollywood’s go-to stud muffin. Nor does the contention that being openly gay could ruin an actor’s career hold up. Ellen DeGeneres is developing a variety show for network TV; Rupert Everett scored a major success (as a ladies’ man, by the way) in last summer’s ”An Ideal Husband”; and does anyone believe that teenagers are going to stay away from this summer’s ”X-Men” because Ian McKellen is in the cast? Plenty of gay actors have shown either the courage to come out or the discretion to be quiet. Doing neither is pretty indefensible.

So there you have it: Two scenarios. And either way, not much American beauty.