Sex and the Kinsey guy: while sexual fluidity may attract talented actors like Kinsey's Peter Sarsgaard, it seems to frighten away audiences--and Oscar voters. The actor and his openly gay directors speculate on why.
Now, some male actors whose careers are just starting to really take off might seriously brood for days on end over the decision to bare it all; Sarsgaard loved the idea. "It makes so much sense that I would not only be nude but just be nude a second too long," the 33-year-old observes with real pride. "It doesn't mean I'm hitting on him, but if I just do it a second too long, I can check and see [if Kinsey is interested]. I liked that it would have a dramatic meaning, that it would be active nudity."
And if audiences thought the fiercely passionate kiss Sarsgaard shares with Neeson at the end of the scene was gutsy--again, no big deal. It was a bit strange, he admits, kissing a straight man he's known long enough to be chinking buddies with (they had already worked together on the Soviet-submarine thriller K-19: The Widowmaker), but really, "You just look for qualities that are attractive in [your on-screen partner], and Liam has a lot of attractive qualities. Kissing is kissing."
It's not that Martin's a predator, just blissfully open-minded about sex and insatiably curious to explore it. "I wanted to treat him like he was embryonic, in a way," says Sarsgaard, "like [he] had somehow avoided any sort of cultural stigmas in regard to sexuality, a person who was willing to learn and was willing to accept whatever his sexuality might be. Like, Oh, here's this girl, she's nice. This feels good. Oh, here's a guy. Cool."
This is not a character one sees that much in American cinema, or, for that matter, in American life. Although Sarsgaard calls Martin "probably the healthiest person, sexually, I've ever portrayed," the idea of an unsettled, changing sexuality is--let's face it--still a threatening prospect to the status quo, both gay and straight.
"I think it's one of the unfortunate things you see in the gay community, this kind of insistence on defining yourself," laments Bill Condon, Kinsey's gay writer-director. He recalls the time he asked Clarence A. Tripp, a former colleague of Kinsey's whose controversial book about Abe Lincoln's possible same-sex affairs was just published posthumously, about what Kinsey, who died in 1956, would have made of today's gay rights movement. "He said, 'Oh, he would've been horrified.' [Tripp was] a provocateur, so I think he was partly kidding, [but] the point that he was making is that anyone defining themselves by their sexual acts [alone] is in some way limiting themselves."
In his lifetime, Kinsey kept his and his staffs extramarital sexual explorations a secret; they were revealed only recently in new biographies and, of course, in Condon's film. But it seems the public is just as averse to such sexual adventurousness now as when Kinsey released his widely condemned study of female sexuality in 1953. Kinsey has grossed less than $10 million in the United States and was nearly shut out of the Oscars, which overlooked Kinsey's real-life gay writer-director and on-screen bi-dabbling male leads in favor of a single nomination for Linney, playing me stalwart, strictly hetero wife.
"Given that Neeson and Condon have been smiled upon by the academy before [Neeson with a nomination and Condon with a win]," observed Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, "and that Kinsey is impeccably made in a traditional way, the most plausible explanation [for their snub and for Sarsgaard's] is that Alfred Kinsey's wildly unconventional, self-mutilating bisexual lifestyle was too much for enough academy members to keep the honors away." (In contrast, the iconoclastic independent Spirit Awards, which will hold their irreverent fete for indie cinema on the day before the Oscars, tapped Neeson, Sarsgaard, Condon's screenplay, and the film itself as a potential Best Feature.)
For his part, Condon thinks the clinical nature of Dr. Kinsey as well as a skit-tishness about seeing any movie that deals frankly with sex in a darkened theater filled with strangers had as much to do with his film's unhappy box-office returns as any aversion to the notion of a married man with kids who also happily sleeps with other men. "I hope," he adds. "At the same time, I'll tell you that even at a [recent] Writers Guild screening there were groans during the kissing between Liam and Peter, and that surprises me. It just emphasizes Kinsey's last line in the movie: 'There's a lot of work to do.'"
So what does Sarsgaard make of his character's happy embrace of a sexual identity that's not nailed down? "The question is, At what point are you supposed to nail it down?" posits Sarsgaard, who's been happily coupled with indie-darling actress Maggie Gyllenhaal since 2003. "I hear people say that all the time, straight and gay. If we decide, 'Oh, you should really have [your sexuality] nailed down by your 30s,' doesn't that seem arbitrary? Isn't it all just arbitrary, then? Can't you have searched your whole life and never have figured it out? If we lived in a world where there weren't these ideas about what it means to be straight and gay, if we were all just free and open, then it seems like it would be easier. But I'm not sure that exists."
If it seems like Sarsgaard has given the subject more thought than your average actor, well, he notices it too: "I think sex is something that I've definitely been interested in for a long time." No kidding: In his 10 years as an actor, he has pretty much run the gamut. He has committed rape (on Hilary Swank's character in Boys Don't Cry, his breakout film); he's been raped (by Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, his debut). He's had straight sex layered in hot-sauce-and-ice-cubes kink (in The Center of the World). Most recently he's had gay sex tied fast to knotty Faustian bargains in The Dying Gaul, which made waves at January's Sundance Film Festival.
Sarsgaard certainly has mastered roles that haven't required him to doff his boxers and make with the hot-and-sweaty. In this year alone he's starring in four major films, including The Dying Gaul, the supernatural thriller The Skeleton Key with Kate Hudson, and the paranoia-in-a-jet-plane thriller Flight-plan with Jodie Foster. There's also the highly anticipated Jarhead, an adaptation of Anthony Swofford's best-selling Gulf War memoir that Sarsgaard is currently filming in the desert in California and Mexico with American Beauty director Sam Mendes and costars Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx--hence his hip buzz cut.
As an actor, however, Sarsgaard's fondness for sexually adventurous parts in sexually adventurous films represents a mature, open-minded attitude about sex that has become increasingly rare in, well, just about every facet of mainstream American culture.
"I think sex is a very big issue that's tied in with so many different things," says Sarsgaard. "It's not just that I'm obsessed with sex, like I want to hump everything. I guess I've always been trying to understand it, not in terms of even heterosexual/homosexual, [but] what is this charged situation that we always live in? For me, it's every day--the everyday drama that's happening all the time."
A sentiment after Kinsey's own heart, it's probably what allows Sarsgaard to lure in his audiences with little more than a flicker from his sleepy-eyed stare. "There's something very seductive about every part of his being," agrees Condon. Sarsgaard's Illinois-born Midwestern roots were in line with Kinsey's decision to hire blue-eyed, all-American corn-fed types for his team (all the better to keep interviewees at ease and appearances on the up-and-up), but Condon says he was just as drawn to the actor's "sense of being very comfortable with who he is and very open to everything," an essential factor to capturing the fluid sexuality of his character. "He's the one in this film who goes out and seeks [sex] from people. He's our sexual catalyst."
Of course, as Sarsgaard himself points out, "you're not allowed to be like that now, to go into it in a way that [is] totally naive without any social or political ideas." If anything, men like Clyde Martin have been supplanted in today's world by something more precarious. In writer-director Craig Lucas's enthrallingly tangled The Dying Gaul, Sarsgaard plays Robert, a struggling screenwriter circa 1995 who enters into a high-wire affair with a bisexual Hollywood executive (Campbell Scott, star of the Lucas-penned Longtime Companion 15 years ago). It's a dangerous game even at the outset--Robert's still deep in grief front his lover's recent AIDS-ravaged death--but it's not until the exec's wife (Patricia Clarkson) accidentally learns of the affair that all three relationships become truly ensnarled and, ultimately, tragic.
Nothing quite as brutal has befallen playwright Lucas, who wrote Reckless and Prelude to a Kiss and makes his directorial debut with The Dying Gaul, but it is an equation he understands quite well. "I have known an inordinate number of bisexual men," Lucas says matter-of-factly. "I've had relationships with men who have been married for many years and who have gone back to being married after being with me. I think it happens all the time; it's just not talked about. It's a very, very hard way to be in this world. There's no room for it in our culture."
That cultural hush when it comes to the sexually atypical is also what Sarsgaard feels fuels his character's rage at an establishment that won't really acknowledge what AIDS has wrought upon so many gay men: "He sees it as 'us' and 'them,' and I think a lot of gay people I know see it as 'us' and 'them.' I'm fascinated by that." How so? "I'm included in the big 'we' more of the time, you know, the presidential 'we.' I think if you look at literature and movies, the most interesting stuff is always [about] the people who don't feel like they're part of the 'we.' Those are the best characters, the best novels, the best everything. Opposition, a little friction, creates the pearl, I guess."
Sarsgaard left a childhood spent moving around the Midwest and South to attend Jesuit high school in Connecticut; he actually feels less a part of that presidential "we" than he initially lets on. He and Lucas became good friends while working on The Dying Gaul--the 53-year-old playwright even had to cut his interview short lest he be late for dinner with Maggie Gyllenhaal's mother--an amity Lucas traces to Sarsgaard's affinity for the "them." "He has a sense of being an outsider in certain ways," Lucas observes, "and so I think other outsiders are drawn to hint. He's become one of my dearest friends, and I don't have a lot of friends. I think the world of him."
"I guess as a white heterosexual man living in the United States, I should feel like I'm part of the big accepted group," concedes Sarsgaard, who earned his greatest pre-Kinsey acclaim for portraying buttoned-down New Republic editor Chuck Lane, who uncovered the pathological fabrications of journalist Stephen Glass, in 2003's fact-based Shattered Gloss. "But I've always felt more like an outsider, which is fortunate because intellectually I'm more interested in them also."
He doesn't appear to be the only one either: Sarsgaard is part of a small but heady cluster of talented, well-respected, relatively well-known male actors who seem far less abashed about taking on clearly gay or bisexual roles than their predecessors were even 10 years ago: Colin Farrell in A Home at the End of the World and Alexander; Gael Garcia Bernal in Bad Education (front writer-director Pedro Almodovar, another Academy favorite and past Oscar winner who was overlooked this year); Joseph Gordon-Levitt in this May's Mysterious Skin (which also made a splash at Sundance), and most notably Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in the hotly anticipated gay romance Brokeback Mountain, due from director Ang Lee (The Wedding Bonquet) in the fall.
Sarsgaard is dating Jake's sister, and they're making a movie together, so of course they've talked about Brokeback Mountain, right? "I don't want to talk too much for Jake, but I think Jake first and foremost looks at that movie as a very tragic love story, gay or not gay," Sarsgaard says. "I think that's just from having been in it. You don't really label it when you're in it."
These straight actors are all company Sarsgaard is quite happy to keep, but he's not about to start patting himself on the back for his bravery. "Wouldn't the more interesting thing be," he asks with a knowing laugh, "for an actor who is actually gay to be allowed to play the role? I mean, great, we've come this far. We have me, Colin Farrell, Jake Gyllenhaal--all these people playing these roles. Cool. Now, can you imagine world where gay actors, out gay actors, were playing these roles in these very interesting movies? Sure, we've moved an inch ..." He trails off, leaving Kinsey's final admonition unspoken: There's a lot of work to do.
Vart also contributes to Entertainment Weekly.
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|Title Annotation:||The Hollywood issue|
|Author:||Vary, Adam B.|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2005|
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