There’s a vast and growing list of prominent gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender media and entertainment figures — just don’t count movie stars among them.
Celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Caitlyn Jenner and Neil Patrick Harris have kicked open the closet door with little to no damage to their careers. In some cases, they’ve found themselves more in demand after revealing their sexual preferences or gender identification.
Yet there’s one glass ceiling that remains stubbornly resistant to cracks.
No A-list film actor has yet to come out publicly while at the pinnacle of his or her career. Sure, Jodie Foster gave an elliptical Golden Globes speech about being a lesbian, and out actors Ian McKellen and Zachary Quinto helped anchor the “X-Men” and “Lord of the Rings” series, and the rebooted “Star Trek” films, respectively. Yet despite their prodigious talents, none of them has the power to secure a greenlight on their name alone.
In some cases, business concerns, not personal comfort, lead to silence.
“There’s this narrative that people are attached to: You cannot come out because it’s going to hurt your career,” says Ellen Page, the “Juno” star who came out in 2014. “And that’s potentially true. When I made the decision to come out, I wasn’t naive to that.”
Public opinion may be shifting, with a majority of Americans now favoring gay marriage, but the U.S. is not the only market for film. Hollywood has become increasingly dependent on foreign countries such as China and Russia, which boast sprawling populations of moviegoers, as well as draconian anti-gay laws.
“In most territories, actors still sell films. It’s their face onscreen,” says Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “Their films probably wouldn’t play in China.”
There are safety issues to be aware of as well.
“There’s a lot of homophobia in the world,” says Kelly Bush, founder and CEO of ID Public Relations. “In too many parts of the globe, you can be prosecuted or jailed for being gay, you can be murdered without repercussions or put to death by the state. If you’re famous and you’re gay and you travel a lot, you have to be aware that there’s a lot of hate out there, and that makes you more vulnerable.”
While more and more Americans endorse LGBT rights, many have trouble suspending disbelief when it comes to seeing gay actors portraying certain roles. In a survey commissioned by Variety, six in 10 adults say they would be less likely to see an action film with a gay leading man or woman, while four in 10 say they’d be more likely to skip an action film with a lead gay character.
The scale of these productions may make gay action stars wary of making any kind of announcement that could depress ticket sales.
As society changes, that caution will fade, predicts “Star Trek” actor George Takei, who came out in 2005. But Takei acknowledges that right now, the economic risk is big. “You’re spending sometimes hundreds of millions,” he says. “Studios want every dollar to count.”
At least being identified as gay is no longer seen as slanderous. More than a decade ago, Tom Cruise sued men who accused him of having male lovers. Today, stars like James Franco make sport out of keeping fans guessing about their sexual orientation. Others, such as “The Hunger Games’ ” Josh Hutcherson, have said they’re straight, while refusing to rule out the possibility that could change. Neither career has suffered in the process. If anything, younger moviegoers view them as cooler because of their refusal to accept traditional labels.
“Millennials are more accepting,” suggests Howard Bragman, a publicist who has helped actors like Meredith Baxter and football player Michael Sam come out.
Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Milk,” believes a gay A-lister will emerge organically: “A young gay or lesbian actor will come up through the ranks and end up being so good, and someone America finds so winning, they end up in a position to get films greenlit.”
Yet the industry remains resistant to change. Mainstream movies don’t just suffer from a lack of gay talent; they largely steer clear of dramatizing gay life, preferring to leave that to indies such as “The Kids Are All Right” and “Love Is Strange.” Less than 18% of the more than 100 films released by the major studios last year featured gay, lesbian or bisexual characters, and no films had transgender characters, according to a GLAAD study.
That’s in contrast to television and digital programming, where shows like “Modern Family,” “Transparent,” “Sense8,” “Shameless” and “Empire” feature strong lesbian, gay and/or transgender characters. Gay or transgender figures are much rarer in films, and when they do appear in the likes of “The Imitation Game” or “Dallas Buyers’ Club,” they are played by straight actors.
All it takes, industry figures say, is one transformative figure. There was a hesitancy to back tentpole productions with African-American leads before Will Smith became a global star with “Independence Day.” The same could prove true for gay actors.
“It will change,” predicts Rob Epstein, director of “The Times of Harvey Milk” and “Lovelace.” “It has in just about every other sphere. This is the last frontier.”