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Should We Be Happy for Brendan Fraser?

Should We Be Happy for Brendan Fraser?

Brendan Fraser

Many thought the gay character Charlie in The Whale should have been played by a gay actor, but in the end it’s just a job, so does it really matter?

Thirty years ago this year, I was awestruck that Tom Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as the HIV-positive Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia. It was a seminal moment in the fight for HIV acceptance and the gay community.

It’s important to remember that while Magic Johnson revealed his diagnosis two years prior, and earned the sympathy of millions, gay and bisexual men were severely stigmatized by the disease, and were mostly shamed by society. It was partly because major celebrities known to be gay — like Rock Hudson, Halston, and Liberace — died of the disease. To be gay, or at least to be out, you were assumed to get HIV or presumed to have the disease. That stigma kept many, including myself, from coming out.

I saw Philadelphia with a guy I was dating after moving to New York in 1993. He was a law student and petrified of being outed. We snuck into the theater, and then, as soon as the credits started to roll, we made a beeline to the door. We hightailed it down Broadway to blend in with the crowd, and all the while, I couldn’t stop crying. Hanks was incredible in that film, and I still weep every time I watch that movie.

Hanks wasn’t the first straight man playing gay to win an Oscar. When we wrote about Brendan Fraser’s Best Actor Oscar, we cited the five other straight, cis men playing gay that won — William Hurt for Kiss of the Spider Woman in 1985, Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote in 2005, Sean Penn for Milk in 2008, and Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018.

Hurt’s performance, like Hank’s, was equally groundbreaking, and like Philadelphia, Kiss of the Spider Woman received a best picture nomination; however, and this sounds harsh, but in the mid-1980s, Hurt’s feminine role was almost an affront to a lot of gay men, many who tried hard to act masculine lest they be perceived as gay. Regrettably, I remember scoffing at Hurt's Luis Molina.

Hoffman and Penn are two of the finest actors of their generation, and each deserved Oscars for their performances, and they, along with Hurt and Hanks, took on gay roles during times when there weren’t many out gay lead actors. And many straight, male stars during the '80s, '90s and even into the 2000s were reluctant to take on gay roles because they felt doing so would jeopardize their careers. Some of that still exists today.

Yet, that wasn’t the case for Fraser. He jumped at the chance to play the part of an obese gay man to help resurrect his career. And, by 2021, when the movie was shot, playing gay as a straight man wasn’t considered a big deal, e.g., Malek as Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. But, one thing has changed over the years, and that is there are now out actors who are leading men, including Neil Patrick Harris, Jim Parsons, Billy Porter, and many others.

Which is why some aren’t too happy that, for the sixth time, a straight man won an Oscar for playing gay. Is the sentiment against Fraser’s casting and win warranted? Are we being duplicitous if we aren’t questioning why gay men are playing straight and vice versa? Does it matter anymore if straight men play gay?

Fraser is regarded as one of the “good guys” in Hollywood, which is why his Oscar resonated so well with the crowd on Sunday. Plus, everyone loves a comeback story. Fraser had hit rock bottom, and starred in some forgettable films, with one exception.

Specifically, I’m talking about Fraser holding his own opposite the legendary Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters, which revolved around McKellen’s portrayal of James Whale, a legendary gay British director. That film was made in 1998, and I do recall the buzz about the film, and the fact that Fraser was cast in such a serious and intense role, despite his previous work and his notoriety in teen comedies and quirky films. And that his starring role was in a "gay film."

What’s ironic about that film is that you had the gay McKellen playing a gay character, and who ultimately received a best actor Oscar nomination for his outstanding performance. Fraser’s “been there and done that” for gay-themed flicks.

Related: What It’s Like to Watch The Whale as a Queer Fat person

Regarding Fraser's hunky Clayton Boone, the gardener in Gods and Monsters, I was not the only one hoping Clayton would turn out to be gay. And, let’s face it, back in those days, the fact that Fraser appeared in a gay film, you just held out hope that maybe he, too, might be gay, since out actors were so few and far between.

Sadly, most of us probably weren’t looking sexually at Fraser’s Charlie in The Whale. And maybe only diehard Fraser fans were still hoping Fraser was gay too; however, that’s not how it works anymore. We don’t need to fantasize about straight actors in 2023, because as gay men, we can look googly-eyed at our own crop of lookers like Matt Bomer, Luke Evans, and Jeremy Pope (let the record show these are my personal preferences).

What does vanity and fantasy have to do with whether gay characters should be played by gay actors? It underscores a point, and that is it is an actor’s job to create fantasy, to create a character, to embody someone they are not. It is a job, and it just so happens it’s a job that has mass appeal to the general public, which is why a lot of people care more about an actor's job than they do their own. And any job, be it an actor, accountant, or acupuncturist, should go to the best candidate, gay, straight, nonbinary, transgender — it shouldn’t matter what or they are. Just that they are the most qualified.

And, at the risk of sounding sexist, would we want all hairdressers to be gay? And if so, should Warren Beatty not have played George Roundy in Shampoo? It's a somewhat valid point, but many, including me, would think that way of thinking is so outdated.

This brings us to present day, and one thing that the younger generation, who has no idea what Shampoo is, or who Warren Beatty is, might not understand; that is appreciating the fact that a gay film character is portrayed on screen in the first place. Back in the day, we had to hold on tight to the characters Hurt, Hanks, and even Hoffman and Penn played. They were a rarity, and they were human and decent. Not murderers or freaks, which is how gay men were portrayed for decades. You just didn’t see gay characters on the big screen, and if you did, and they were "normal," you felt a rush of validation.

You can’t imagine what it meant to see Hanks play gay, with a loving boyfriend played by Antonio Banderas in 1993, when as a gay man, I was frightened of being gay and of AIDS. It was brutally sad that Hanks died of AIDS complications in the film, but his character was nothing short of a hero, to me, and millions of other gay men.

I, for one, am thrilled for Fraser. In the end, it was just an actor doing his job, and doing it superbly — enough to garner an Oscar. We didn’t need to fantasize about Fraser, we didn’t need to clutch on to Charlie as a gay character. We have plenty of out actors to choose from, and many will go on to win an Oscar — that is for sure. And, we’re sure to see more gay characters lovingly depicted on film, played by an actor who is best suited for the job, regardless of sexuality.

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate.

Views expressed in The Advocatesopinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.