Idol, a wannabe mockumentary/satire of stupefying dullness and insulting vapidity that premiered at NewFest, the 18th annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival held June 1-11 in New York City, is useful in proving two things: homosexuality and filmmaking talent are entirely separable; and even a movie as bad as this can contain one or two provocative ideas.
Idol posits a universe where “Espionage,” an action-adventure show with a gay male lead character, has become a five-season megahit, due in no small part to the magnificently ripped bod and bedroom eyes of its star, Lance Hardcastle. (His swoon-inducing signature phrase is “I fight with my shirt off.”) When straight Lance dies in an accidental decapitation (not shown but discussed), the show’s producers turn to an actor named Kerry Mitchell, who offers several advantages: being unknown, he’s probably available cheap; and he’s openly gay.
Well, stranger things have happened in the actual topsy-turvy world of television and entertainment, and it’s conceivable TV producers would court the next level of controversy by casting an actual homosexual for a gay part. There’s just one problem: Kerry, like Heath and Jake, is only playing gay. (I’m not spoiling the suspense for people who actually see Idol, because it doesn’t have any.)
So one little idea Idol has is built on the willingness of actors to do anything — ANYTHING — to get a part, updated for our slightly more gay-friendly times. Think of it as the homo’s revenge for all the gay actors who have had to play straight, both on and off the screen.
But rather than exploring Kerry’s potentially interesting dilemma, Idol gives us a parade of characters it would be flattering to call stereotypes, each less appetizing than the next. There’s a two-faced, ass-kissing, flaming queer public relations guy, and his browbeaten, prissy assistant; Kerry’s clueless, classless leisure-suit clad agent; his nasty, no-nonsense manager; the husband-and-wife casting directors who cast Kerry; Kerry’s warm, cute female assistant; the TV show’s director; and various other flacks, hangers-on and wannabes — in other words, your typical Hollywood entourage.
Aping the improvisational style of Christopher Guest’s far, far superior films (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind), Idol consists of “backstage” scenes (there’s a documentary filmmaker covering Kerry’s ascension) and a lot of talking head interviews. Some of these are funny at first, featuring either bitchy humor or offhand absurdities, but by the third or fourth visit with each character, they’ve all worn out their welcomes.
Idol’s co-screenwriter and director Chris Long apparently believes he and his colleagues are being clever and edgy, but they are way behind the times. I mean, imagine! Hollywood people are shallow, image-obsessed phonies, observing a ruthless pecking order based on vague and ever-shifting power lines of stardom, influence and hotness! I had no idea! Even the gay jokes are musty — the fire-and-brimstone Mormon denouncing both “Espionage” and its now-actually-gay star is — of course — a closet case himself. That joke was funny the first 15 times I heard/saw it.
The peripheral characters are just that, peripheral, and their scenes are filler that goes nowhere. What’s missing is any exploration as to why Kerry does what he does. For instance, there’s no scene where Kerry is offered the “Espionage” part and realizes he’s getting it primarily because he’s gay. (The actor playing Kerry is far from buff, though he is relatively personable in a series of quickie interviews for a TV press junket). We never see what goes into his decision to pretend to be gay. And by the way, how do the producers know? Does he have “openly gay” on his headshot and resume? Or maybe he was already playing gay and has decided he’s straight now? I’m sure actors pretend to be lots of things if they think it will help them get parts, but the whole concept behind this film would be vaguely insulting if it wasn’t so implausible.
The most implausible implausibility is that Kerry’s lie has somehow made ordinary people hate him with a passion usually reserved for terrorists and cell-phone users in movie theaters. Why? Did his being straight ruin the TV show? (There’s a clip of him in the mock show, but it’s so poorly edited that it’s unclear if he is supposed to be good in the part or not, irrespective of his sexuality). Did he spoil the illusion for the gay men who watched the show? Believe me, they would be more disappointed with his lack of defined pecs and six-pack abs than with his preference for pussy. Besides, many gay guys like to indulge in the fantasy that a lot of straight guys are no more than a few beers away from a walk on the wild side. (Unfortunately, this mistaken idea may have been what got Matthew Shepherd killed.)
There’s another idea suggested by Idol but only glancingly touched on, about the actual limits of Hollywood’s liberalism and the general audience’s acceptance of gays in the media. This is the idea that while it’s O.K. — even hip — to play gay today, it’s still not O.K. to be gay. Brokeback Mountain may have been “too gay” to wrest the Oscar away from that spasm of white liberal guilt Crash, but I believe it wouldn’t have done even as well as it did if its two stars weren’t models of heterosexuality offscreen. (No dis to Heath, Jake or Ang Lee — this is about the audience and the Academy, not the film, which was great.)
Ditto the success of “Will & Grace.” Now that the show has concluded eight Emmy-winning, highly-rated seasons, it’s hard to remember how edgy it was in 1998. If straight leading man Eric McCormack had been gay (or even was unmarried) when the series began, it’s possible people might not have warmed to him, and the show surrounding him, so quickly. And even today, unless I’m mistaken, Sean Hayes, as the even more flamboyant Jack, has still not either come out of the closet or declared himself straight — not that he should have to, but it seems odd that he wouldn’t want to, even now.
Or maybe not so odd. Because as clumsy as Idol is, it does point out a sad truth about America and our popular entertainment. Even as gays continue to make significant strides, anti-gay hatred and hysteria continue to bubble up from the poisoned cauldron — witness the charade in the U.S. Senate as this millionaire’s club debated an anti-gay-marriage amendment to the Constitution that (fortunately) has no chance of actually becoming law. The sad truth is that it would probably still be career suicide for a male action-adventure star to come out of the closet.
It’s a complicated issue. Movie stars have to deal with the implications of being the sexual fantasy object for millions of people they don’t know and, in most cases, don’t want to know. Add to that the fact that actors are not the most secure people in the world to start with, and that once they do become famous, they’re under a level of scrutiny that would drive even a normal person slightly nuts. Of course, they are well-compensated for all this angst, and I’m sure some 100% straight actors revel in the idea that they are objects of desire for both women and men.
So would I cheer if the next Bruce Willis or Hugh Jackman, after starring in two huge summer blockbusters in a row, declared himself queer? You bet. Would I be dismayed if his actions, and indeed his very existence (He misled us all! Think of the children who idolized him!) was attacked as a key element in the so-called “Homosexual Agenda”? Yes. Would I wonder if it’s one step forward, two steps back if his next film flopped, giving risk-averse Hollywood another excuse to keep playing its shell games with gays both in front of and behind the camera? Unfortunately, yes. But it would still be worth it.
How would the rest of the audience react? This is one of those nonsensical rhetorical questions, as if “the audience” were a single organism rather than billions of individuals. Another complicating factor is the changing nature of our relationship to entertainment. It’s become a truism that the entertainment product itself — the film or TV show — is important but only one element in our enjoyment. With “Behind the Music,” the “E! True Hollywood Story,” “Entertainment Tonight,” etc., the illusion that we know something “real” about those flickering images has become a part of the package. So would the knowledge that an action hero was actually gay be Too Much Information? Isn’t acting about pretending to be someone else in any case?
It would be nice if we could all be truly sexuality-blind when clicking the remote or going to the movies, but I don’t think it’s possible. It may not even be desirable. What if our knowledge of an actor’s real sexuality became part of the information packet we all trooped into the theater with? Yes, some teenage boys might snicker if an openly gay actor is going at it hot and heavy with his female co-star. They might snicker even louder if he makes out with his male co-star. A cohort of pre-teen girls might be less inclined to poster their walls with a teen idol’s image if he admitted to his preference for cock. But it’s also possible some in the audience — probably a minority, but some nevertheless — would not only admire the actor’s courage but also his skills. Yes, the knowledge would “take us out of the story.” But maybe our kids, watching the same movie on TV in a couple of years, might simply say “That was an awesome stunt. That guy is cool!”