Patricia Nell Warren

Sean Penn and PC in Movie Casting

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | January 29, 2009 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media, Politics
Tags: Harvey Milk, Milk movie, out gay actors, political correctness in casting, Sean Penn

The alg_milk.jpgother day, when accepting his award for best male lead at the SAG Awards, Sean Penn made an important and incisive comment about his experience while playing the role of an out gay activist in Milk. He said, "We actors don't play gay or straight...we play human beings. And...this is a story about equal rights for all human beings."

A few months ago, when I saw Milk at a WGA screening sponsored by its Gay & Lesbian Writers Committee, I had to agree. Penn belongs to that select group of actors who can morph into a role so deeply that you forget you're watching a real-life celebrity named "Sean Penn" or "Russell Crowe" or, in the case of women stars, "Meryl Streep" or "Glenn Close." Much as I would have liked to see an openly gay actor play the part of Harvey Milk, I was impressed and convinced by Penn's performance. Indeed, all the casting in the film was well-done.

When some LGBT people view this issue of casting in movies, they have their feet planted firmly in political correctness. And they do have a point. It's true that being out in Hollywood was always -- and still is -- a difficult and scary thing for any actor, male or female, who is not heterosexual. All too often, gay, bi and lesbian actors choose to stay in the closet for their entire careers. They do this not necessarily because they lack personal courage but because they want to get steady work...and getting work is what being an actor is about. This makes the choices a little scanty for casting directors. All too often, when the moment arrives to cast one of those rare LGBT lead parts or supporting roles that do come along, a straight person gets the part because there's nobody openly gay who is right for the part.

When Brokeback Mountain was released in 2005, there was a heated division of opinions in the LGBT world. Many felt that both Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were convincing as closeted cowboys. But an outburst of PC resentment came from some who wanted to see both characters played by out gay actors. This debate had its own ironies, since the two characters were not out to their 1960s ranch-country world in the sense that we understand "out" today. Jack, the character played by Jake Gyllenhaal, was a shade more out, but he paid the price for it -- was gay-bashed to death by locals who got the idea that he was gay.

Personally I thought that Heath Ledger was totally convincing as Ennis, the other cowboy. He was brilliant as the more stoic and deeply closeted of the two men. As an expert horseman in real life, he was also more convincing with horses and the general outdoor stuff, whereas Gyllenhaal's body language betrayed his lack of comfort around horses. I thought that Ledger should have gotten the best-actor Oscar for his work.

These casting questions -- especially the question of being "right for the part" -- are personal for me. My novel The Front Runner continues to hover in the air as a story that many people hope to see on the big screen. With interest in the TFR film now stretching across 35 years, it's fascinating to see the file of actors who have come and gone in gay-community fantasy casting games as possibilities for track coach Harlan Brown and runner Billy Sive. In 1975 Paul Newman took the first option on the film rights, but he opted not to move forward with production. This was too bad, because Newman might have been perfect as Harlan Brown, in my humble opinion.

Meanwhile, as years passed and other efforts to make the film went onward, other mainstream actors that many of us would have liked to see in that part -- and the part of Billy Sive too -- also grew older and moved out of possible consideration.

At lunch the other day, a couple of WGA members and I were talking about the SAG awards, and they asked me, "Looking at all the actors that are around today, who would you like to see playing Harlan Brown?"

I'm always reluctant to name names, so I usually say something like this:

The part of Harlan carries the film and calls for a seasoned actor -- not necessarily a big star, but a man who has depth and range. There are five criteria that this actor has to meet. Any casting director will tell you that he has to be (1) available, and (2) affordable, and (3) willing to play the part. But (4) he also has to be right for the part. Meaning, in this case, that he has to project that hard-bitten, conservative but conflicted, ex-Marine at the core of Harlan's persona. Not every actor is convincing as a military veteran.

Last but not least, (5) the movie Harlan has to have real chemistry with the guy playing Billy. If the chemistry is missing, movie-goers won't believe their on-screen relationship.

So...right now, is there an out gay male actor who is 39-something and can meet all five of those casting criteria for Harlan Brown? If there is, I would hope to see him accepting the job. If not, the casting efforts will have to turn to actors whose public image includes being an "apparent heterosexual."

The same criteria apply for the actor who might play Billy Sive, the long-distance runner in his mid-20s.

In any film, few things are more disappointing than miscasting. The magic of a movie is all about the viewer embracing the reality of the story...and that feeling of reality is destroyed by an actor who is not convincing in a lead role. Personally, as author of The Front Runner, I would hate to see disappointment for the people who like the novel and waited many years to see the movie, only to see that the two actors on the screen are goodlooking and sexually appealing, but not convincing as the actual characters.

Sean Penn is right. The magic of movies is about playing "human beings." Meaning that, when the chips are down and the casting director has the challenge that makes or breaks a film, there's no place in the mix for political correctness. With the Oscars ahead, I'll hope that Penn is recognized there too, as best actor in a leading role for his work in Milk.


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Its funny that sean penn should say those words as they directly contradict a sentiment made by harvey milk in the film.

Perhaps you remember the scene after harvey gets elected and he is having a campaign strategy meeting with other politicians about how to fight the anti-gay proposition. The large owner of the advocate hands him a brochure which couches the issue as a human rights issue, with no mention of gay people anywhere.

Harvey, and I think rightfully calls it cowardly bullshit and throws it into the fire.

Calls for universalism, especially by those in positions of power, effectively erase the struggle for recognition by oppressed minorities. They maintain the status quo and deny us our right to be unique individuals that bring a relevant and important perspective to the table. Essentially calls for universalism, say they are about ending oppression, but don't actually do any of the work of ending oppression. A gay actress brings something special to a gay character, something a straight character can never bring. She *actually* knows what it is like to be an oppressed person. Also, by having gay actors play gay characters you undermine the hegemony of straight people in the acting world and give gay kids role models too.

Your point is well-taken. But the issue you mention is not the issue that I'm addressing here...especially since we're talking about a film that didn't try to avoid mentioning gays.

No my comment was spot on. It a criticism of the following claim you make:

"The magic of movies is about playing "human beings." Meaning that, when the chips are down and the casting director has the challenge that makes or breaks a film, there's no place in the mix for political correctness."

There is always a place for respecting oppressed minorities and giving them a hand to get overcome their oppression its the right thing to do. That is what "political correctness" is, its doing the right thing, even when it is tough, or complicated, or requires you to change the status quo.

We'll have to agree to disagree on the value of "politically correct." Sometimes it's the right thing to do -- other times it can become an arbitrary positioning that doesn't necessarily help the oppressed minority.

I didn't even know there were people making a call for the character of harvey to be played by a gay man.

It's a weird take on identity politics. I didn't see too many people who had a problem with harvey milk being played by a gay man, but i imagine that if a biopic were being made about MLK, and the best actor available was white, so they decided to put some make-up on him and go, that there would be some outcry there.

It's interesting to think about that.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | January 30, 2009 8:47 AM

All I could think of as I read your piece Patricia was the ongoing "head count" of how many GLBT Obama appoints. Life imitates art in this sense. He has to be "right" for the part. I would sooner see good work done than tokenism.