Oscar Myth Busting: playing gay
Put down those Pop Rocks and Diet Cokes. We’ve got some A-list myths to examine! Ahead of this Sunday’s Oscars, we’ll be taking a look at some of the most famous myths to rise out of the annual awards ceremony. Want to know if being nude will get you a Best Actress statue? Or if the Best Supporting Actress trophy is indeed a curse? You’re in luck – we’ll be investigating one Oscars-related urban legend each day this week. Today, we investigate whether playing a gay character will automatically get you a statue. In the past 25 years, has that been the case? Read on to find out. (And click here for more of EW’s Oscars Myth Busting.)
Oscar Myth: Will playing gay nab you gold?
What Is It?: The odds are in the favor of straight actors who play a character who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
Origin of the Myth: Peter Finch, who earned a nod in 1971 for his work in Sunday Bloody Sunday, is widely recognized as the first person to ever be nominated for an Academy Award for playing a gay character. And William Hurt won in 1986 for his role as a gay windowdresser in 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. While milestones, indeed, neither can be credited for perpetuating the myth that gay equals gold. After Hurt’s win, fewer than a handful of actors were nominated for playing LGBT characters. (Though, that list includes Tom Hanks, who won for the highly acclaimed and widely influential Philadelphia.) The myth didn’t seem to take hold until 1998, with the nomination of Greg Kinnear, who earned a Supporting nod for As Good as It Gets. Since then, there have only been three years in which the nominations in acting categories did not include someone who portrayed LGBT character: 2002, 2005, 2008.
Please note that for the purpose of this particular look into Oscar lore, we are not counting characters with ambiguous sexual preferences (as this is neither the time nor the place to debate such a murky matter) and we are focusing our analysis on the past 25 years — from 1987 to 2011. So let’s jump in:
When It’s Come True: Hurt’s win in 1986 just misses our time-frame cut-off, so as a result, stats show that only eight actors have taken home statues for playing LGBT characters. The first post-Hurt win went to the aforementioned Hanks in 1994, and there wasn’t another until 1999, when Hilary Swank took home Best Actress for Boys Don’t Cry — a win that was also a first for someone playing a transgender character. Three years later, Nicole Kidman was the sole winner in a trio of noms for The Hours in 2002. Charlize Theron took home a trophy for Monster in 2004 — though, if we’re being honest, her de-glamification for the role garnered far more attention than her character’s sexual orientation. Philip Seymour Hoffman won for Capote in 2006, and 2009 saw a pair of wins for actors in LGBT roles: Penélope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (for her role as bisexually curious Maria Elena) and Sean Penn for Milk, based on the the life of famous politician and activist Harvey Milk.
When It Hasn’t Come True: Too many to count. Not really — but you get the point. Excluding the sizable group of never-nominated stand-out performances given by actors in LGBT roles, losses for the likes of Bruce Davison (in 1991 for Longtime Companion), Jaye Davidson (for 1992’s The Crying Game), Kinnear, and two for Brokeback Mountain‘s headliners Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are hard to ignore.
So, Is It True?: Perhaps the most deceiving part of this myth is the attention paid to actors who are nominated for playing LGBT characters. In doing so, it perhaps skews perspective on the issue, leading some to believe that a large number of nominees equals a large number of wins, which is not the case. While an actor playing a LGBT character stands a good chance of being nominated — should the performance, you know, actually be good — we can say that there’s no guarantee of a win. But if there’s any justice in Oscarland, a win will come to a deserving actor eventually — whether they play gay or not. (Just ask Colin Firth.)
Which Brings Us to This Year: By current odds, Christopher Plummer has an edge in the Best Supporting Actor category for playing an elderly gay widower in Beginners. Meanwhile, Rooney Mara, who also went nude in her film (damn, she must really want this), stands less likely to walk away with gold for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, in which she plays a bisexual badass. And in the case of Albert Nobbs, a movie that also garnered a GLADD media award nomination, both Glenn Close and Janet McTeer are in the running for their roles as transgender women (though some might consider them merely cross-dressers). Close’s nomination came as a shock to most Oscar predictions and the odds still stand against her. But we’ll throw some support behind McTeer, whose far more convincing portrayal as house painter Hubert, was pretty unforgettable. (Kate Ward, Aly Semigran, Keith Staskiewicz, and Darren Franich contributed to this report)
Tomorrow, Lanford Beard will investigate whether Oscar presenters have a connection to the winners.