When 1982’s groundbreaking Making Love was cast, top Hollywood actors Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas and Richard Gere allegedly turned down the male lead, afraid of being linked to a romantic gay drama.

Eventually settling on three B-list television stars Michael Ontkean, Kate Jackson and Harry Hamlin, the film about a closeted L.A. doctor in an unfulfilling marriage, who finds the strength to “come out” from a promiscuous novelist, was less praised for its performances and more for being the first Hollywood film to treat gay relationships truthfully.

As a testament to our changing times, Focus Features’s upcoming film Brokeback Mountain, which reportedly treats gay romance in a similarly honest manner, features two accomplished straight actors, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger.

Directed by Academy-Award winner Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) based on an E. Annie Proulx’s short story, the film traces the enduring love story of rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) and Wyoming ranch hand Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) who meet as shepherds in the Wyoming grasslands in 1963, but soon form a lasting, more-than-friends relationship over the next 20 years.

According to reports, popular actors including Billy Crudup, Colin Farrell and Josh Hartnett also vied for the parts, which demand some passionate big-screen lip-locking.

Once avoiding gay roles, both up-and-comers and long-established actors are mirroring a greater understanding of homosexuality off-screen by playing more evolved queer characters on-screen.

From Russell Crowe’s gay portrayal in Geoff Burton’s The Sum of Us (1994) to Home Improvement’s Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Third Rock From The Sun’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt and 7th Heaven’s David Gallagher’s gay roles in Nickolas Perry’s Speedway Junky (1999), Grek Arake’s Mysterious Skin (2004) and Duncan Roy’s soon-to-be-released The Portrait of Dorian Gray (2005), respectively, it’s now becoming more acceptable for hetero-heart-thobs to switch-hit on film.

This past year, even greater Hollywood heavyweights with more picking and choosing power, have agreed to go gay on film, from Johnny Depp’s portrayal of bisexual 17th Century poet John Wilmot in The Libertine to Liam Neeson’s simulation of the bisexual statistician in Kinsey to the depiction of gay songster Cole Porter by Kevin Kline–who already played gay in 1997’s In & Out–in De-Lovely.

But for every step we take, we go back a few when certain gay-for-pay actors, fearing speculation over their sexual identities could lead to criticism and fan losses, often renounce their queer roles in interviews.

After playing a gay role in 2004’s Heights, Swimfan star Jesse Bradford, who a few years earlier turned down a queer role in The Rules of Attraction, told the New York Daily News that there are certain risks involved in kissing another man onscreen. He went on to say that kissing James Marsden on screen was “one of the most heterosexually reaffirming moments of my life. Like, ‘Oh, that’s why I don’t like this. That’s why I always figured I wouldn’t like this.’ Now I know. Now I know for sure.”

Collin Farrell also felt the need to reassert his own heterosexuality in an interview with GQ last November, about 2004’s A Home at the End of the World. “When you feel his stubble against your lip, it’s repulsive to me, as repulsive to me as for a lot of gay men the idea of putting their tongue near a pussy is—something that, for me, is akin to heaven sometimes,” he said.

Lost star Ian Somerhalder recently defended his 2002 statement that his kiss with James Van Der Beek in The Rules of Attraction would be his last gay kiss on screen. According to ContactMusic.com, Somerhalder is now saying “fans and outraged men saying that I was making anti-gay remarks” is “completely unjustified,” because “I’d never make a disrespectful remark about anyone, especially in public, about one’s sexual preference.” He didn’t change his position on the kiss, however, but claims, “It’s not me who can’t handle it, it’s the audience.”

There is also resistance towards same-sex scenes among agents and managers who fear their clients could suffer gay typecasting if they appear in too many gay films, as evident in a more recent Colin Farrell interview, where the actor who recently played gay roles in A Home at the End of the World and Alexander imagined his agent’s reaction if he accepted another queer role.

“If I took a third, I think my agent could kill me,” he told the UK’s Sunday Mirror. “I’m sure he would start to think it was a bit dangerous career-wise.”

But as heterosexual actors continue to explore their range in films that take same-sex relationships more seriously, they might find that it becomes as normal to them as playing any other character. There are signs of this shift beginning to happen in some of the comments recent gay-for-pay actors have made.

When Jason Ritter was interviewed recently about the kiss that went along with his gay role in the indie film Happy Endings (currently in theaters), he laughing told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I finally understand about stubble,” but added “I didn’t even consider using a stand-in. I wouldn’t have missed doing that scene myself.”

Brokeback’s Gyllenhaal told Canada’s Calgary Sun last year, “I grew up in a family where many of our close friends were gay couples. As well as that, every man goes through a period of thinking they’re attracted to another guy.”

Heath Ledger is even more direct. “Aren’t we at the stage these days when it just doesn’t fucking matter?” he told the BBC in March 2004. “It’s a story of love and it’s a story between two people. If people can’t get over that and just accept it as a story, then that’s their problem. I’m big enough and brave enough to do it.”

Who knows? With all the Oscar buzz around their gay western, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger may soon decide to reunite as Armand and Albert in a not-so-campy remake of The Birdcage.

Until then, catch them in Brokeback Mountain.

Source: After Elton
Author: Joshua Rotter
Date: August 22nd, 2005

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