One of the reasons the second season of Sense8 continues to be so enjoyable is that it’s not only intriguing, enticing and wonderful to look at but it’s also giving us so much to think about. In the clip I extracted below, film star Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) has been outed when pictures of him having sex with his boyfriend are photographed with a telephoto lens and leaked over the internet (raising all kinds of questions about the rights to privacy in the current digital, inter-webbed era). Soon his agent drops him and instead of getting leading roles in big-budget action movies, he now gets offered small roles (9 pages) of drug dealers, drug addicts, or other unhappy people on the edges of criminality who basically fulfil a plot point and kill themselves whilst giving the real star of the movie a chance to shine. It’s not unlike the situation of gays and lesbians in Hollywood cinema that Vito Russo so eloquently described and analysed in The Celluloid Closet almost half a century ago.
We have to assume that these filmmakers — so well versed in the art, economics and politics of Hollywood filmmaking — know what they’re talking about. And yet, we are on the one hand invested in wanting stars to be out, and indeed to out them – think of the pressures on Jodie Foster from the 80s until she came out recently and on people like Tom Cruise and John Travolta and so many others right up to the present; On the other hand, we also like to point to those who are out and whose careers don’t as of yet seem to be affected by it. Think of Cynthia Nixon on Broadway, or the success with which Neil Patrick Harris played heterosexual Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother, or how we applaud when Colton Haynes and Charlie Carver, both from Teen Woolf ,come out. We also like to indicate how the film careers of people like Ian McKellen’s didn’t suffer at all: as he likes to point out, he didn’t really have much of one before he did.
But it might be good to compare like with like. There might be differences in the parameters a TV star is allowed to operate within, ones that might be greatly expanded in the theatre, and ones much more severely limited for film stars. The fact is we still don’t have a film star, one who is currently commanding the best film roles, having film built around him/her, one who puts people on seats and is the focus of marketing, who is currently out.
We do know that Rupert Everett blames the decline of his starring career in films on choosing to be out. In 2009, Everett told The Observer: “I would not advise any actor necessarily, if he was really thinking of his career, to come out. The fact is that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business.” This caused the expected backlash with people arguing that he had a perfectly good career. However, no one knows his career better than Everett does himself, and whilst he continues to be a celebrity in various fields and arguably has become a West End star, he’s not had a career as a film star since he came out, with even his comeback in cinema, supporting Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding, taking place on a different, lower, plateau.
We also know that when an actor’s outed there is a period in which it’s not acceptable and then one in which it doesn’t matter. In my experience for a good decade after Rock Hudson’s death I couldn’t show one of his sex comedies without hearing snickers from the class, and a generation later, it didn’t matter at all, but maybe that was because the audience had forgotten that dimension of his later star persona. They seemed to have forgotten that Rock Hudson was gay and had died of AIDS. Most of them didn’t have a clue as to who he was period.
Adrian Garvey pointed out to me the instance of Luke Evans, who has been out since since a 2002 interview with The Advocate, is clearly a name and in one of the biggest hits of the year, Beauty and the Beast (Bill Condon, 2017). On the surface, being out hasn’t harmed his career at all. On the other hand, Dracula Untold (Gary Shore, 2014) is the last title role I remember him in. The article in Time, hyperlinked above, notes how when he moved to Hollywood, his management team tried to drag him back in the closet in order to push his career, an impossibility in the age of the internet. I see that he’s also been in High Rise (starring Tom Hiddleston) and The Girl on the Train (Justin Theroux played the male lead) and good in both parts, albeit secondary. He’s very charismatic, talented and clearly a name with a following. Yet compare his career to those of Eddie Redmayne or Benedict Cumberbatch. Isn’t it telling that Evans’ only title role in the movies recently has been as Dracula? If you’re gay you get blood-sucker, if you’re heterosexual like Redmayne and Cumberbatch you can play anyone, including a whole range of gay men. I don’t see films built around Evans the way the are around Redmayne, Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Michael Fessbender and other British stars in or out of Hollywood. It’s almost an impossibility to speak with certainty on this as it’s a game of woulda-coulda-shoulda and might-have-beens, but I find the comparisons informative.
I don’t mean to only imply that these actors suffer form a degree of homophobia. Of course they do, and Sense8 renders it very evident. But Sense 8, in a scene immediately following the clip I posted above, also demonstrates how it’s more complex than that. When Nomi (Jamie Clayton) and Amanita (Freema Agyeman) go with Bug (Michael X. Sommers) to see Our Father Who Art in Heaven at the Castro Cinema in Episode 5, the film takes pleasure in showing us how a trashy crude action film like that nonetheless involves great pleasures and complex processes of identification and desire. I suspect that the element of desire is not the greatest of problems: we’ve seen how adolescent girls continue to scream at their teen idols no matter what their sexual orientation (from Ricky Martin to George Michael) and I’m sure Bug had no desire for Lito to begin with. But the kind of identification — the way he says ‘No More Lies’ alongside the character Lito is playing onscreen; an idealised wishing one could do and say and move and look like who’s on the screen — I suspect that’s an area where sexual orientation does matter, particularly to men, and especially to young men already burdened with all kinds of anxieties about sex and sexuality.
What the little scene in Sense8 reminded me of is to extrapolate a further question, one which the speculation on Evans above also begs, which is that before we can answer whether a film star can remain a film star after they come out, we need to ask what is a film star today, something which we know to be different from what it was in the classic period, and even right up to the early nineties (think of how Sense8 uses the figure of Jean-Claude Van Damme) but which I’m not sure we’d necessarily have a shared understanding of, or response to, today.
So two things then, A) I think film stardom now is different than it was when Richard Dyer wrote his groundbreaking Stars and thus the methods he offers with which to analyse the phenomenon might no longer apply — or maybe only apply partially — to stars today and B) that questions of desire and identification, always considerations when talking about stars might affect stardom in ways that are not due solely to ‘homophobia’, which might be more ‘I don’t want to be, am not, like him/her’, rather than merely ‘Ugh’
Thanks to Adrien Garvey, David Sugarman, Celia Nicholls and Andy Medhurst for their input on this.
A film that any aspiring filmmaker should see. You want to know how to make a fine film with only one actor in one set? See what Steven Knight and Tom Hardy do with Locke.
Ivan Locke is a construction manager wrapping up work for the day. Tomorrow will be the apotheosis of his career, the biggest cement pour outside of that undertaken by government or the military in history. He’s in his car on his way home. His wife is making sausages and wearing the team shirt. His kids are all excited about the big game that they’re all about to see. But he won’t be there. On his way home, he gets a phone call that will change his life. At the end of his car journey, he will have lost his wife, his home, his job and his children. But he will have made sure the cement job gets done properly and he will have done the right thing. Plus, knowing Ivan Locke as we’ve come to know him on this journey, it’s hard to believe that he won’t return home tomorrow and win back all he’s lost.
The film is like a Hawkesian tale in which professionalism is indistinguishable from morality. Locke has to make sure the cement job gets done right and he also has to do the ‘right’ thing no matter what the cost to himself and those near him. He’s almost autistic in his attention to detail and he can’t lie. It’s an iconic role. If Hardy weren’t already a star, this role and his performance of it, would surely make him one. The character is bound to become iconic and a cultural reference point. Who wouldn’t want to be like Locke, slowly, methodically, systematically, humanely trying to answer everyone’s queries, solving everyone’s problems, being kind but truthful, trying to move resolve issues even as he knows that solving another’s problems is a move forward for another and a step backward and into the unknown to himself. Hardy is very moving, the changing tonalities of his voice in that gentle Welsh tone he adapts a mini-masterpiece of emoting.
The film is in the tradition of those tour-de-force theatre pieces like Cocteau’s La voix humaine where a woman breaks up with a lover over the telephone and the whole play is one long monologue. Except here it’s a man talking, sometimes to his absent father, about what it is to be a man. And you do get to hear other voices at the end of the line, all wanting something. This is a tour-de-force performance for Hardy, who gets to act out practically every emotion going whist in the service of a character who must remain calm, stoic, methodical. Because, it’s a one-character piece in one set, the dialogue here also has to bear the brunt of exposition that in an ordinary film would be spread amongst other aspects of mise-en-scene. This is of course an opportunity for the director and cinematographer, how to make the visuals interesting and expressive whilst remaining locked in one car. They succeed. Haris Zambarloukos does a fabulous job with the cinematography. We get neon colours at night, reflections of reflections depending on Locke’s state of mind, frames within frames, sometimes one a direct image, the other but a shadowy reflection of one, the softening of fog, the sharpening of focus, multi-coloured indicators in the night. What starts off as a long journey into night ends up as a cantering journey into clarity, purposefulness, decisiveness. This is why the film is so pleasurable to watch. Locke is very moving, very fine. But it is perhaps also why it is no more than that. Hardy, however, is nothing less than great.
PS Brummies might note with pleasure that in the film, the construction site in which the cement pour is to take place was the construction site of what is now The Cube.
Addendum: In his recent How to Watch a Movie (London: Profile Books, 2015), David Thomson notes that Locke is the film that established Tom Hardy as a major figure and that, ‘No film I’ve seen in recent years is more eloquent on where we are now, and on how alone we feel. There is nothing left to do but watch and listen’ (p. 41).