“The privileging of star persona over actor’s craft insists that sex within a narrative cannot, in fact, be a purely storytelling tool: it is required to be both a character reference and an image management tool for the actor. So the sex act (and, as a consequence, the actor’s sexuality) exists partly in the context of the story but also, more importantly, beyond it – it is not restricted and sometimes not even connected to the narrative in which it occurs. So, this being the case, the actor is scared of it within the story unless it does him some normative good in ways outside of the story; the viewer is scared of it both within and outside of the story, lest it contain information (about the star, about a disrupted organization of normative desire, or about the viewer himself) that unsettles him or creates ‘fissures’ in his ‘accepted, normalized ways of thinking.’
I. THE ICK FACTOR
Why not begin with Hollywood’s equal-opportunity hater?
Actor Mel Gibson, speaking Jan. 21  on ABC-TV’s Good Morning America, refused to apologize to gay men, who he ridiculed late last year  in an interview with the Sunday magazine of Spain’s largest newspaper, El Pais.
In the original interview, in the Dec. 1 issue of the El Pais Sunday magazine, Gibson was directly asked his opinion of homosexuals. He responded, “They take it up the ass.”
According to El Pais, he laughed, got up, bent over, pointed to his butt, and continued, “This is only for taking a shit.” (Rex Wockner, Bay Times)
Gibson’s wholesale reduction of homosexuals to nothing more than submissive participants in anal intercourse and his jocular association of this act with defecation is not as crude as it seems. It accomplishes a swift and sophisticated trifecta: it denies homosexuals existence in any context beyond the most crudely sexual, it renders them indistinguishable from one another in this crudeness, and it reduces them to a body part intended only for excretion. It is the perfect homophobic gesture, and it perfectly expresses what has come to be known as the ick factor – the feeling of disgust at the idea of man-on-man anal intercourse. This disgust is activated partly because of the association of the act with excrement (“this is only for taking a shit”), and partly because of the power of the act to undermine the established order of male power, both social and sexual (“they take it up the ass”). Male-male anal sex is disgusting because it is both dirty and disruptive.
Twenty-two years later, Alec Baldwin proved that Gibson’s sentiments are alive and well. On June 27, 2013, outraged by a quickly removed story on the Daily Mail‘s website alleging that his wife, Hilaria Thomas, was tweeting during James Gandolfini’s funeral in New York, he unleashed a Twitter rant about the (gay) journalist, George Stark, who wrote it:
I’m gonna find you, George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I’m gonna fuck … you … up.[I’d] put my foot up your fucking ass, George Stark, but I’m sure you’d dig it too much.
I want all of my followers and beyond to straighten out this fucking little bitch. (Ben Child, The Guardian)
What is notable about these tweets is neither their Baldwinesque hyperbole – he did, after all, famously call his own daughter a “thoughtless little pig” – nor their Gibsonian recourse to anal imagery; it is the elaborate architecture of their homophobia. First, their insults (“toxic little queen,” “fucking little bitch”) intentionally diminish (by effeminating) the journalist. Second, their braggadocio (“I’d put my foot up your fucking ass … “) intentionally pathologizes him: they make a clear reference to, and extend, Gibson’s idea of “taking it up the ass,” “sure” that the journalist – presumably like any other little bitch – would perversely welcome anal penetration, however punitive or violent (“you’d dig it too much”). Thus, he must be either a masochist, welcoming pain, or an abject, eroticizing degradation and participating in “a homoerotic system in which an “avowed homosexual” … debases himself before a masterful macho man, who maintains a heterosexual identity” (Stephens 53). Third and most troubling, their threats explicitly advocate violence. Along with Baldwin’s declaration that he himself is going to “find” the journalist, he makes a clarion call to his “followers and beyond” to “straighten out” George Stark. The choice of this phrase cannot be unintentional. Are Baldwin’s followers hunting the journalist down and either gang-raping or gay-bashing him? Probably not. Is George Stark getting hate mail from Baldwin’s followers about his sexuality? Perhaps.
In the face of this kind of animosity, it is little wonder that in the 1986 introduction to his book The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo notes, during his research into the Hollywood “closet mentality,” that “actors were terrified and remained silent” (xii). And it is little wonder, also, that twenty years later, in 2006, Scott Collins writes that “fear of sexual disclosure is among the most persistent of the terrors that govern Hollywood’s upper echelons. Trying to cover up a gay star’s romantic life has been a frequent obsession of publicists and agents” (Seattle Times). In 2009, Rupert Everett talked to The Guardian about being out in Hollywood: “It’s not very easy … And, honestly, I would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out … the fact of the matter is, and I don’t care who disagrees, it doesn’t work if you’re gay.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
II. THE BIG GAME (OR, THAT MALE ILLUSION)
This is an example of how things change: Matt Bomer, receiving the New Generation Arts and Activism Award for his activism in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and defying the Hollywood closet mentality, comes out at the Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards on Saturday, February 12, 2012, thanking his partner, Simon Halls, and their children. “I’d really especially like to thank my beautiful family: Simon, Kit, Walker, Henry. Thank you for teaching me what unconditional love is. You will always be my proudest accomplishment” (People).
This is an example of how things stay the same: Bret Easton Ellis’s Twitter tizzy, in the upshot of his failure to land the job of adapting E. L. James’ erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey for the screen, targets Bomer’s sexuality and his possible casting in the project:
Okay I’ll say it. Matt Bomer isn’t right for Christian Grey because he is openly gay. He’s great for other roles but this is too big a game. (August 8, 2012, 8:39am)
I am NOT discriminating [sic] Matt Bomer because of his sexuality. Fifty Shades of Grey demands an actor that is genuinely into women. Get it?!? (August 8, 2012, 8:45am)
I think Matt Bomer is incredibly handsome and a good actor but I think he comes off totally gay in White Collar. And that is why no to CG … (August 8, 2012, 8:52am)
We get it: these tweets trace a standard-issue attempt by a man – in this case, a man who announced to Metro Weekly that he “definitely [doesn’t] identify as gay” and to The Paris Review that he was “fairly bisexual in college” (Out) – to declare his Ick. Bomer is wrong for the role because he is openly gay. An openly gay actor cannot convincingly play a heterosexual character; it is either too challenging for the actor or too unsettling – too much cognitive dissonance – for Ellis and by extension viewers like him, preventing any willing suspension of disbelief. This is too big a game: the big game, of course, is partly the projected commercial hugeness of the film, so for other roles, read “lesser roles.”
The big game, for Ellis, is also undeniably the heterosexual star game: the role demands an actor who genuinely desires women. Gay actors, apparently, are unable to – and, more to the point, should not be allowed to – access their erotic imaginations across the genders, unlike straight actors – Al Pacino, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Javier Bardem, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Sean Penn, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Plummer, and others – who are able to, who are allowed to, and who accrue considerable heteronormative capital, both critical and popular, for it. But playing gay, these actors make clear, poses a real threat to their heterosexual subjectivity. Antonio Banderas admitted that romantic contact with Tom Hanks during the shooting of Philadelphia was difficult: “I suggested I should kiss Tom on the mouth and he was like ‘I don’t know about that.’ We started talking about it and I said, ‘We don’t have to do a screw kiss, it’s just affection and you’re not going to lose a finger, what’s the problem?'” (cinema.com). Hanks won an Oscar. Heath Ledger claimed terror and revulsion during the shooting of Brokeback Mountain: “It scared the hell out of me. I didn’t want to kiss Jake Gyllenhaal, you know?” (BBC). Jake Gyllenhaal distanced himself by desexualizing the situation with a little metrosexual humor: “When we kissed it felt like we were exfoliating” (starpulse.com). Both Ledger and Gyllenhaal were nominated for Oscars.
Ellis’s tweets – like Hanks’s doubts and Ledger’s fears – are reductive in two inextricable ways: first, they privilege the actor’s star persona over his imagination and craft by undermining the distinction between actor and character. Heath Ledger may not have wanted to kiss Jake Gyllenhaal, but surely Ennis Del Mar wanted to kiss (or, more disturbingly, perhaps, be kissed by) Jack Twist. Second, they rely on a sophomorically normative, intensely homophobic model of masculinity. Implicit in Ellis’s idea that the actor (not character) must be attracted to – genuinely into – not the actor but the sex of the actor (not character) with whom he plays sex scenes is the idea that any straight actor could genuinely desire any actress. By this argument, which reduces the complicated dynamics of desire to a simple process of objectification, any straight man could “desire” any woman (but, of course, no man). C. J. Pascoe, writing about masculinity and sexuality in high school, maintains that “heterosexual desire establishes a sort of base-line masculinity” (87) in adolescent boys: “Thus masculinity, in part, becomes the daily interactional work of repudiating the threatening specter of the fag” (81). The “fag” identity, relying primarily on Gibson’s “they take it up the ass” categorization, also implies weakness, inadequacy, and the inferiority associated with the male taboo of effeminacy.
Ellis’s allegiance to this high school model of masculinity is clear, and necessitates his adherence to an artistic double standard: while gay actors cannot imagine sexual attraction to women (because, for them, sexual attraction cannot be imagined or acted), straight actors can imagine – or, if not imagine, at least convincingly fake – sexual attraction to men. Straight actors are more able to close the gap between identity and imagination, and between identity and technique. Straight actors are better actors.
Since it is impossible to know with any certainty (“the problem with queers is that you can’t tell who is and who isn’t – except that maybe, if you know the tell-tale signs, you can … ” claims Richard Dyer, 62) who is and is not gay without irrefutable information, Ellis’s operative word is not gay, but openly. Matt Bomer’s openness about his sexual orientation allows Ellis his final jab – that, though “a good actor,” Bomer’s affect in the USA series White Collar is “totally gay.” Since Bomer’s character, Neal Caffrey, is framed as a dandyish metrosexual lover of women, it follows that – by Easton’s argument – Bomer’s performance is entirely unconvincing. So, though a “good” actor, he must also inexplicably be a bad actor. Would Ellis’ anxiety be so apparent if Bomer had maintained some ambiguity (and withheld the most obvious “tell-tale signs,” his partner and children) regarding his orientation?
Writing about gay spectatorship, Michael DeAngelis argues that in star discourse, “the audience’s continued emotional investment in the star figure, and the star’s continued accessibility to the desires of spectators across the lines of sexual orientation, depends on maintaining the star’s ambiguity by perpetually deferring the disclosure of an emerging “truth” that ultimately centers on the star’s sexuality” (7). In straight male spectatorship, if Ellis’s tweets are to be believed, the process works in exactly the opposite way. This audience’s continued emotional investment in the star figure depends upon a lack of ambiguity and a clear disclosure of an established “truth” that primarily centers on the star’s heterosexuality. “Clearly, then, this is more of a guy issue,” maintains Jeff LaBreque: “In the book [50 Shades …], Christian Grey is a fantasy not only to millions of women, but also to men who want to be able to see themselves in him and live vicariously through his exploits. Apparently, that male illusion is complicated when the man portraying that hero is gay” (Entertainment Weekly).
Ellis’s argument about desire and LaBreque’s speculation on identification suggest that the erotic power of an on-screen act depends not only upon the spectator’s ability vicariously to desire one of the actors (not characters), but also upon the spectator’s ability to identify with (or occupy the subject position of) one or both of the actors (not characters). The straight female spectator can occupy the female actor’s erotic subject position by vicariously desiring the male actor. The gay spectator (female or male) can occupy both actors’ subject positions, sometimes identifying with his enactment of desire, sometimes identifying with hers. The gay spectator is also accustomed to extrapolation, often turning that necessity into a virtue. David M. Halperin, writing about his gay students at the University of Michigan, explains: “They enjoyed appropriating and queering works of mainstream, heterosexual culture … At least, they discovered more queer possibilities in adapting and remaking non-gay material, and thus more uses for it, than they found in good gay writing” (110). The straight male spectator, however, finds himself disabled: he can understand desiring the female actor, but he cannot identify with the male actor enacting this desire. The inflexibility of the heterosexual male’s subject position makes it impossible for him to identify erotically with someone whom he knows to be gay: on the one hand, gayness is disempowering, panic inducing (“they take it up the ass”) and destabilizing (aligning him with the female, submissive, subject position); on the other hand it is deviant, disgusting, and dirty, causing revulsion (“this is only for taking a shit”). When erotic desire and practice become this disordered, his sexuality, his “base-line masculinity” and his sense of his own power, expressed through the gendered organization of desire, are at stake.
This is definitely “more of a guy issue.” The New York Post gossip column reports that Angelina Jolie once admitted, “Honestly, I like everything. Boyish girls, girlish boys … [I am] the person most likely to sleep with my female fans” (The National Ledger). What would the Twitter frenzy be, and what fires would have to be extinguished, if Brad Pitt were to be reported as being the person most likely to sleep with his male fans?
III. THE BISEXUAL BOMB
Tom Hardy stumbles clumsily into “I like everything” territory with his self-styled ambiguity in the construction of his star persona. The Huffington Post reports his response in The Daily Mail to a question about whether he has ever had sex with a man:
As a boy? Of course I have. I’m an actor, for fuck’s sake. I’ve played with everything and everyone. I love the form and the physicality, but now that I’m in my thirties, it doesn’t do it for me. I’m done experimenting but there’s plenty of stuff in a relationship with another man, especially gay men, that I need in my life. A lot of gay men get my thing for shoes. I have definite feminine qualities and a lot of gay men are incredibly masculine. A lot of people say I seem masculine, but I don’t feel it. I feel intrinsically feminine. I’d love to be one of the boys but I always felt a bit on the outside. Maybe my masculine qualities come from overcompensating because I’m not one of the boys. (huffpost.com)
Entertainment Weekly (August 3, 2010) reports on the comments ignited by this statement, which a “source close to Hardy” tried to minimize. “The Daily Mail was rehashing a 2008 article in Now magazine, which claimed to have interviewed Hardy where he dropped the bisexual bomb. But Now totally ripped off Attitude magazine’s 2008 cover story with Tom back when he was promoting RocknRolla [a 2008 Guy Ritchie film, in which he played Handsome Bob, a gay gangster]. You following?”
We’re following. According to this “source close to Hardy,” context excuses – or creates? – everything. Talking to a gay magazine about playing a gay character allows – or necessitates? – pandering to a gay readership. Since star discourse is comprised of primary texts, the star’s films, which are fixed, and secondary texts, the reportage about the star, which sculpts his persona but which is mutable, and subject to revisionism and reinvention, it is not surprising that Hardy’s exchange with the Attitude interviewer is reported slightly differently in EW than it is in Now or the Daily Mail:
Have you ever had any sexual relations with men?
As a boy? Of course I have. I’m an actor, for fuck’s sake. I’m an artist. I’ve played with everything and everyone. But I’m not into men sexually. I love the form and the physicality but the gay sex bit does nothing for me. In the same way as a wet vagina would turn someone else into a lemon-sucking freak. To me it just doesn’t compute now I’m into my 30s and it doesn’t do it for me and I’m done experimenting.
Have you done it all?
Not all but I can imagine. We’ve all got an arsehole and I can imagine. It just doesn’t do it for me, sex with another man. But there’s plenty of stuff in a relationship with another man, especially gay men, that I need in my life. A lot of gay men get my thing for shoes. I don’t think I’m metrosexual but I’m definitely my mother’s son. I have definite feminine qualities and a lot of gay men are incredibly masculine.
Later, in an interview with UK Marie Clare, he claims that these words were taken out of the context of his promoting his role as a gay character to a magazine with a gay readership. “I don’t regret anything I’ve ever said. It’s just a shame things are misconstrued and I don’t get the opportunity to explain.” There is an echo here of Mel Gibson’s 1992 response to his published interview with El Pams, in which he blames the translation from Spanish for the outcry. This is what Hardy takes the opportunity to explain:
I have never put my penis in a man. I’ve never had a cock in my arse, and I have no fucking desire for it. If that’s what you like, cool. But it doesn’t do it for me. (towleroad)
Apparently, Hardy has no need to explain his “definite feminine qualities” or his feelings of being “intrinsically feminine” and “not one of the boys,” attributes long associated with homosexuality. His overdetermined masculinity in, for example, Bronson and Warrior – fixed texts, immune from revision – presumably takes care of those issues. Nor does he need to explain his impulse to overperform his masculinity to compensate for his “definite feminine qualities.” He simply needs to “repudiate the threatening specter of the fag” by dealing with the Ick Factor. What needs “explanation,” in suitably distancing terms, is what he does – or, more importantly, does not do – with his cock and arse.
Commenting to interviewer Kyle Buchanan on his reading of blogposts about him (Vulture, May 22, 2013), he says “Sometimes no-one’s defending my corner! And then what you find – I’ve done it before – is that it’s a forest fire that you can’t put out. It’s like [when commentators say] “Is he gay? Isn’t he gay?” Does it matter? Does it actually?” Apparently it does. To Tom Hardy, to his fan base, and of course to spectators like Bret Easton Ellis.
Ellis continues to tweet his thoughts about Matt Bomer in the days following. On August 10, in an about-face (either facetious or alarmingly disingenuous), he writes, “You know what? I’ve changed my mind. I now think a gay actor has GOT to play Christian Grey. It’s IMPERATIVE that someone gay plays him.” Later, though, he tweets, “But I still don’t think Matt Bomer should play the role.” Obviously, if this is to be taken at face value, Ellis thinks that a gay actor whose affect – or public persona – is not “totally gay” should play the role. What could Ellis mean? He might be reaching into the Hollywood closet more deeply than outsiders could know. Does he mean an actor whose homosexuality is not publicly known? Or does he mean someone like Bradley Cooper, whose “daily repudiation of the specter of the fag” became clear when he was nominated for an Oscar, and when a “source” told the National Enquirer “now the floodgates have opened, and people are again wondering, ‘Is he or isn’t he?’ Bradley believes the cruel rumor could damage his leading man status” (Showbizspy)? Or does he mean someone like Jake Gyllenhaal, about whom rumors of gayness intermittently circulate, and who said “I’ve never really been attracted to men sexually, but I don’t think I would be afraid of it if it happened” (Starpulse)? If Ellis is saying that he thinks a gay actor should play Christian Grey, he is also obviously saying that he does not think that an openly gay actor should play the role. If so, he is echoing Rupert Everett’s recommendation that gay actors remain closeted. It is fitting, then, that The Advocate (August 12, 2012) chooses this as its headline on the subject of his tweets: “Bret Easton Ellis Revives Hollywood Homophobia.”
David Letterman (The Late Show, November 20, 2008) asks James Franco about his minute-long kissing scene with Sean Penn during the filming of Milk:
“I didn’t want to screw it up,” Franco told Letterman.
“See, if it’s me, I kind of hope I do screw it up,” Letterman shot back. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“To screw it up?” Franco asked.
“I mean, do you really want to be good at kissing a guy?” Letterman said as his audience howled with delight. (Mother Jones)
Letterman – definitely playing to a normative audience, and possibly expressing his own Ick Factor through his characteristic dry humor – gives Franco the opportunity to distance himself from the gay moment by collapsing the distance between actor and character, and by favoring star persona over craft (“That’s what you want, isn’t it?”). The more earnestly the actor asserts (or recoups) his heteromasculinity, the more he is showered with admiration. Writing about straight male spectatorship, Nico Lang quotes Jeff Labrecque’s speculation about this phenomenon:
Perhaps the reason they [the male stars] were accepted in prominent gay roles and generously honored for doing so is because, deep down, there’s homophobic residue that exists in even the most enlightened dude’s psyche that is reassured by the reality that those actors are “just pretending” to be gay. It gives these males the opportunity to have it both ways – no pun intended. They can admire the “courageous” performance but sleep easy knowing that the actor is, really, just like them. (Huffington Post)
Franco only partly takes the bait. After conceding that “It was a big thing for me to kiss Sean Penn for the movie,” and “I did my best,” he chooses silliness over seriousness and does what, according to Queerty.com, “any metrosexual post-straight guy does when another guy starts asking repeatedly over and over again what it’s like to kiss another guy: He offers a demonstration.” “But if you want it I’d be willing to do it right now,” he offers. After protesting (“I don’t think so!”), Letterman leans in for a chaste peck on the cheek, and then he himself resorts to silliness: “We’re registered at Target …”
This is a frivolous moment in star discourse, but not an unimportant one. It speaks to – by confronting, rather than endorsing – the heteronormativity of popular culture. First, by not announcing his revulsion at kissing Sean Penn, Franco sidesteps the normative imperative that non-heterosexual contact be disgusting (Mel Gibson), unnatural (Tom Hanks), or terrifying (Heath Ledger). Second, by inviting Letterman to be kissed by him, Franco introduces another possibility. The key phrase is the playful if you want it. Valerie Traub writes that
A plenitude of desires are available as unconscious erotic modes within every psyche. … Arbitrary divisions of desire into heterosexual and homoerotic are more indicative of sociopolitical prerogatives than of inherent psychic or biological imperatives. (121)
Obviously, Franco is not inviting what Banderas called “a screw kiss.” What his invitation is gesturing toward, however flippantly, is an acknowledgment of this “plenitude of desires” and its conflict with the demands of normative culture. It is precisely this conflict on which Franco has based both his artistic life and his star persona in the post-Milk years. On one hand, he has performed in mainstream projects like Jay Anania’s Shadows and Lies, Ryan Murphy’s Eat, Pray, Love, Aron Ralston’s 127 Hours (2010), David Gordon Green’s Your Highness, Will Rodman’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), and Carter’s Maladies (2012). On the other hand, he has directed a short film based on Anthony Hecht’s gay poem about escape to the greenwood, The Feast of Stephen in 2009 (Richard Lawson, citing Movieline‘s review of the film, writes that “Franco either nailed the work’s frank-yet-lyrical paeans to the male form, or he just really likes filming naked boys swinging”; Gawker); he played gay poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl (2010); he directed Sal (2011), based on Michael Greg Michaud’s biography of gay Rebel Without a Cause actor Sal Mineo; and he wrote, produced, directed and starred in a film about gay poet Hart Crane, The Broken Tower (2011), which featured a scene of him performing fellatio. Matthew Connolly of Slant finds Franco’s non-mainstream motives suspiciously pretentious:
It’s easy enough to dismiss The Broken Tower as calculated and self-indulgent on its director’s part. His fingers quite publically placed in several higher-education pies, Franco has self-consciously fashioned himself as a winking polyglot rebel, mixing high-profile studio gigs with forays into literary fiction, academia, and low-budget filmmaking. He’s also positioned himself on the edge of celebrity masculinity, courting homoerotic projects and projecting a general fascination with queer art and culture. What better way to solidify both public personae than playing a gay, doomed, early-20th-century poet? (He’s certainly willing to suck a prosthetic dick for his art.) Call it what you like: dilettantism, attention-whoring, overreach. (Slant)
What is interesting here is not the critic’s skeptical analysis of Franco’s motives or his tawdry description of his star persona; it is his inclusion of the patronizing and entirely gratuitous parenthetical. It is as if he simply cannot resist resolving his charges against Franco, both intellectual and sexological, into one degrading sexual image (figuring Franco not just as a cocksucker, but as a phony cocksucker – or a sucker of phony cock) before making his final indictment: Franco is meretricious. Perhaps this respondent to Lawson’s article on Gawker provides a more down-to-earth description of Lawson’s anxiety; it speaks directly to Michael DeAngelis’s argument that gay spectatorship and loyalty depend on “maintaining the star’s ambiguity by perpetually deferring the disclosure of an emerging “truth” that ultimately centers on the star’s sexuality,” and its corollary that, in contrast, straight spectatorship and loyalty depend upon the star’s clear eschewing of all things sexually ambiguous:
Why, oh why does Franco dance around homosexual themes like this?!? It’s so disturbing to his straight fans. Is he trying to prove a point? What IS it? Does he want people to keep on guessing? Millions of WOMEN love this guy but IMO, he needs to keep away from this subject. JUST LET IT LIE, JAMES! (Dillon Malboro 6/15/09 6:50pm)
Franco himself shows no signs of anxiety. “One of the things that’s very much part of my public image is the question of my sexuality,” he told Attitude magazine (April 2013). “It’s not something that bothers me in the slightest.” In fact, he shows all the signs of enjoying it, and is unlikely to let it lie. In Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan’s apocalypse comedy This Is the End (2013), in which he and several other stars play themselves, Danny McBride jokes, “James Franco didn’t suck any dick last night? Now I know y’all are tripping!” This insouciance is far from random, and is entirely purposeful. Confronted by interviewer Kyle Buchanan – who rather primly calls him a “sexual tourist” – about the integrity of his artistic endeavors, he is absolutely serious: “I feel like one of my roles as an artist is to ask questions and to help create fissures in accepted, normalized ways of thinking. And … the sexuality of the characters helps me to do that” (Vulture). In another interview, with Entertainment Weekly, he advocates for a less restrictive, less categorical vocabulary of sexuality:
It’s funny because the way that kind of stuff is talked about on blogs is so black-and-white. It’s all cut-and-dry identity politics. “Is he straight or is he gay?” Or, “This is your third gay movie – come out already!” And all based on gay or straight, based on the idea that the object of your affection decides your sexuality. (Huffington Post)
In Interior. Leather Bar., one of his 2013 Sundance projects (the other was kink, a documentary about a San Francisco BDSM porno company), Franco – speaking as himself, or a version of himself – addresses this “black-and-white” issue in more graphic terms:
Every fucking love story is a dude that wants to be with a girl, and the only way they’re going to end up happy is if they walk off into the sunset together. I’m fucking sick of that shit. So if there’s a way for me just to break that up in my own mind, I’m all for it … Sex should be a storytelling tool, but we’re so fucking scared of it.
This cuts to the heart of star discourse. The privileging of star persona over actor’s craft insists that sex within a narrative cannot, in fact, be a purely storytelling tool: it is required to be both a character reference and an image management tool for the actor. So the sex act (and, as a consequence, the actor’s sexuality) exists partly in the context of the story but also, more importantly, beyond it – it is not restricted and sometimes not even connected to the narrative in which it occurs. So, this being the case, the actor is scared of it within the story unless it does him some normative good in ways outside of the story; the viewer is scared of it both within and outside of the story, lest it contain information (about the star, about a disrupted organization of normative desire, or about the viewer himself) that unsettles him or creates “fissures” in his “accepted, normalized ways of thinking.” These strictures are also true, as Bret Easton Ellis’s tweets about Matt Bomer make clear, for the openly gay star. Sex cannot be a storytelling tool for him within a fictional narrative because what is known to happen in his factual life makes only certain sexual things believable. The rules of star persona win, in the case of the straight star, or lose, in the case of the gay star, over the rules of craft. What Franco seems to be calling for are fissures between or within these rules, and a breaking up of the conventions of normativity (most obviously (a) the gendered organization of desire and (b) the gay-straight binary), so that a conceptual, an imaginative, a queer space is opened up. Lee Edelman argues that “queerness can never define an identity; it can only ever disturb one” (17). In this queer space the star and the viewer are able to experience modes of action, thinking, and feeling that remove the fear of a less “cut-and-dry,” less binary, more flexible sociosexual model. So, if queerness suggests not a fixed, definite (and thus restrictive) model for existence, the tag on the cover of Attitude, “James Franco: Hollywood’s Gayest Straight Man” should probably be amended to “James Franco: Hollywood’s Queerest Man.” Do “gay” and “straight” even have places here?
But even Hollywood’s queerest man is not deaf to the authoritative decrees of normativity. Asked by Allison Schwartz whether he would come out – “hypothetically” – if he were gay, he resorts to the basic rules of star discourse: “I guess the reason I wouldn’t is because I’d be worried that it would hurt my career … I suppose that’s the reason one wouldn’t, right?” (People). Cavan Sieczkowski quotes his Attitude interview: “I think that the people I have known who are performers who haven’t publicly come out didn’t because they’re afraid it’ll hurt their careers. And they think they won’t be able to play straight roles anymore” (Huffington Post). But Franco is not one to play by the rules. Writing about Ryan Gosling in The New York Times Magazine, Alex Pappademas argues that “With the possible exception of James Franco, no actor of Gosling’s generation is better at self-awarely puncturing his own mythos in a way that somehow enhances that mythos – at existing inside the pop-entertainment sphere and remaining fully conscious of its paradoxes” (66-67). This is an example of how Franco bends the rules of star discourse, and cheekily punctures/enhances his own mythos: “Part of what I’m interested in is how these people who were living anti-normative lifestyles contended with opposition,” he said regarding his choice to play gay roles. “Or, you know what, maybe I’m just gay” (Huffington Post).
Adam. “Bradley Cooper in Gay Scandal?” Showbizspy. 23 Jan. 2013. Web. 18 July 2013. <http://www.showbizspy.com/article/256449/bradley-cooper-in-gay-scandal.html>
Advocate.com Editors. “Tom Hardy Did Make Gay Sex Comments.” Towleroad. 4 Aug. 2010. Web. 24 June 2013. <http://www.towleroad.com/2011/09/from-an-interview-in-marie-claire-this-much-candour-makes-you-wonder-whether-hardy-ever-regrets-being-well-quite-frank-i.html#ixzz2AR9MqHLF>
Appelbaum, Stephen. “Heath Ledger: Brokeback Mountain.” BBC. January, 2006. Web. 24 June 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2005/12/20/heath_ledger_brokeback_mountain_2005_interview.shtml>
“Banderas Had to Persuade Tom Hanks for a Snog.” Cinema.com. 7 Aug. 2001. Web. 24 June 2013. <http://cinema.com/news/item/4853/banderas-had-to-pursuade-tom-hanks-for-a-snog.phtml>
Buchanan, Kyle. “A Candid Tom Hardy at Cannes on Beards, Beer, Batman and Brando.” Vulture. 22 May 2012. Web. 24 June 2013. <http://www.vulture.com/2012/05/tom-hardy-dark-knight-lawless-mad-max-china.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+nymag%2Fvulture+%28Vulture+-+nymag.com%27s+Entertainment+and+Culture+Blog%29>
—. “Sundance 2013: Why Is James Franco So Interested in Gay Culture?” Vulture. 17 Jan. 2013. Web. 3 Aug. 2013. <http://www.vulture.com/2013/01/why-is-james-franco-so-interested-in-gay-culture.html>
Cadwalladr, Carole. “I Wouldn’t Advise Any Actor Thinking of His Career to Come Out.” The Guardian. 28 Nov. 2009. Web. 24 June 2013. <http://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/nov/29/rupert-everett-madonna-carole-cadwalladr>
Child, Ben. “Alec Baldwin Deletes Twitter Account After Raging at Journalist.” The Guardian. 28 June 2013. Web. 20 July 2013. <http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/jun/28/alec-baldwin-twitter-meltdown-gandolfini-funeral>
Collins, Scott. “Will Viewers Care if Gay Actors Play Straight Roles?” Seattle Times. 6 Dec. 2006. Web. 24 June 2013. <http://seattletimes.com/html/entertainment/2003463087_tvgay06.html>
Connolly, Matthew. “The Broken Tower.” Slant. 24 Apr. 2012. Web. 26 Aug. 2013. <http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/the-broken-tower/6233>
Cox, Jennifer. “Angelina Jolie Tops Bisexual Score Card.” National Ledger. 18 Nov. 2006. Web. 24 June 2013. <http://www.nationalledger.com/pop-culture-news/angelina-jolie-tops-bi-sexual–882200.shtml#.UjPGzj_ROZE>
DeAngelis, Michael. Gay Fandom and Crossover Stardom. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001. Print.
Dyer, Richard. The Culture of Queers. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Print.
Halperin, David M. How to Be Gay. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012. Print.
Harkinson, Josh. “On Hollywood’s (Not-Always) Subtle Homophobia.” Mother Jones. 10 Dec. 2008. Web. 30 July 2013. <http://www.motherjones.com/riff/2008/12/hollywoods-not-always-subtle-homophobia>
“Inception Star Tom Hardy: I’m An Actor, Of Course I’ve Had Gay Sex.” The Huffington Post. 28 July 2010. Web. 24 June 2013 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/28/inception-star-tom-hardy_n_662907.html>
Interior. Leather Bar. Dir. James Franco, Travis Matthews. Perf. Val Lauren, Christian Patrick. 2013. Film.
“James Franco Kisses Sean Penn and Lives to Tell David Letterman About It.” Queerty. 22 Nov. 2008. Web. 3 Aug. 2013. <http://www.queerty.com/james-franco-on-kissing-sean-penn-20081201/>
“Jake Gyllenhaal Had a Gay Time Kissing Heath Ledger.” Starpulse. 10 Jan. 2006. Web. 24 June 2013. <http://www.starpulse.com/news/index.php/2006/01/10/jake_gyllenhaal_had_a_gay_time_kissing_h>
Labrecque, Jeff. “Brett Easton Elis sees no shades of grey in latest gay actor flap.” Entertainment Weekly. 9 Aug. 2012. Web. 24 June 2013. <http://popwatch.ew.com/2012/08/09/bret-easton-ellis-50-shades-matt-bomer/>
Lang, Nico. “Fifty Shades of Homophobia: Who Cares If the Actor Playing Christian Grey is Gay?” Huffington Post. 16 Aug. 2012. Web. 15 July 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nico-lang/fifty-shades-of-homophobia-who-cares-if-the-actor-who-plays-christian-grey-is-gay_b_1777492.html>
Lawson, Richard. “James Franco’s Violent, Gay Fantasia of a Short Film.” Gawker. 15 March 2009. Web. 26 Aug. 2013 <http://gawker.com/5291621/james-francos-violent-gay-fantasia-of-a-short-film>
Out.com Editors. “Bret Easton Ellis: ‘I Was Fairly Bisexual in College.'” Out. 13 March 2012. Web. 24 July 2104 <http://www.out.com/entertainment/popnography/2012/03/13/bret-easton-ellis-i-was-fairly-bisexual-college>
Pascoe, C. J. Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. Print.
Pappademas, Alex. “Golden Boys with the Potential to Burn the World Down.” The New York Times Magazine, October 16, 2011. Print.
Raftery, Liz. “Matt Bomer Comes Out.” People. 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 24 June 2013. <http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20570017,00.html>
Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. Revised Edition. New York: Harper and Row, 1987. Print.
Schwartz, Allison. “James Franco Sets Record Straight—He’s Not Gay.” People. 10 Sept. 2010. Web. 20 Aug. 2013. <http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20420439,00.html>
Sieczkowski, Cava. “James Franco Responds to Gay Rumors in Attitude Magazine Interview.” The Huffington Post. 4 March 2013. Web. 3 Aug. 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/04/james-franco-gay-rumors-attitude-magazine-blames-himself_n_2805572.html>
Stephens, Elizabeth. “Masculinity as Masquerade; ‘Gay’ Macho in the Novels of Jean Genet.” Journal of Interdisciplinary Gender Studies 4.2, December 1999. Print.
This Is the End. Dir. Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen. Perf. James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen. Columbia Pictures. 2013. Film.
Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
Wockner, Rex. “Mel Gibson, Circa 1992, ‘Refuses to Apologize to Gays.'” Bay Times. 17 Aug. 2006. Web. 24 June 2013. <http://www.sfbaytimes.com/index.php?sec=article&article_id=5399>