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The gay pretenders.

Gay men in Hollywood have long tried to pass as straight. Now in a turnabout, several movies have straight men passing as gay

Straight men just want to have it all--at least in the movies. The timeworn Hollywood formula decrees that the straight guy gets the girl, bests the villain, and walks off happily into the sunset. But now, in a trendlet of upcoming movies, the straight guy gets the added perk of being gay as well.

Take Happy, Texas (opening October 1), one of the more crowd-pleasing hits at this year's Sundance Film Festival, starring darkly handsome British import Jeremy Northam (Emma) and indie stalwart Steve Zahn (SubUrbia). As convicts on the run who find themselves stranded in a backwater town, Northam and Zahn are forced to impersonate a couple of gay beauty pageant consultants who've been hired to groom a ragtag band of aspiring prepubescent beauty queens.

In November's Three to Tango, Matthew Perry--whose character Chandler on the TV sitcom Friends has been suspected to have gay tendencies thanks to his sweet relationship with Matt LeBlanc's Joey--plays an architect who's mistaken as gay by his rich client, Dylan McDermott. Naturally, he plays along with the charade to get closer to McDermott's girlfriend, Neve Campbell.

Meanwhile, the tentatively titled I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, a comedy about two firefighters who pretend to be queer in order to file for domestic-partner benefits, is Wending its way through the development pipeline. Although Nicolas Cage and Will Smith have been rumored as possible leads, a spokesman for the project's director, Tom Shadyac (Liar Liar), says no casting discussions have begun since a screenplay has not yet been completed.

Why are so many straight characters suddenly rushing to don their gay apparel?

"It all came out of wanting to tell different love stories," says Happy's first-time director Mark Ulsley of his own use of the gay card. "We kept asking, `What are the sort of things that come in the way of a couple of characters trying to find love?'" And sexual orientation, both real and mistaken, proved the trick: As the smarter half of the two bumbling convicts, Northam's Harry is hampered in his hetero pursuit of the town's banker, Ally Walker, because he can't drop his adopted gay facade, while at the same time he must delicately fend off the moonstruck advances of the town's sheriff, William H. Macy, who thinks he's suddenly discovered the man of his dreams.

Taking his cues from 1982's Tootsie, in which Dustin Hoffman became a better man for having spent time as a woman, Illsley sees Harry as becoming a better man for having experienced the love of another man. "He learns how to be a gentleman by receiving Bill Macy's courtesies," Illsley says. Northam, who recently went more refined in the film version of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, agrees: "The movie's about two guys who are free from jail but incarcerated within the roles they have to play--only to be liberated by that. It eventually allows them to figure out who they are."

In what amounts to an inversion of In & Out--call it Out & In--Three to Tango has Perry ready to out himself as straight when he's named Chicago's Gay Professional of the Year. "The film's stow is actually pretty close to the way I met my wife," says screenwriter Rodney Patrick Vaccaro, who began work on the project nine years ago, long before straight-gay travesties were in vogue. "I came from a theater background, and a lot of people mistook me for gay. My wife was living with my boss, and we became friends. I really think, for the longest time, she thought I was gay, and we sort of developed a straight woman-gay man relationship before we fell in love and got married."

Hollywood's high concept of feigning gay has its history too, starting with 1969's Vietnam War satire The Gay Deceivers. [See stow page 61.] As gay visibility increased in the post-Stonewall '70s, movies--even TV shows such as Three's Company--began to manufacture more elaborate masquerades in which passing as gay moved center stage.

The lurid 1980 film Cruising marked a much darker walk on the wild side as Al Pacino squeezed himself into leather drag to infiltrate the S/M underground to ferret out a serial killer preying on gay men in New York City. And in the painful 1982 comedy Partners, Ryan O'Neal's grim-faced straight cop--muttering uncomfortable asides like, "I didn't spend ten years in homicide to be mauled by some old queen"--also went undercover alongside gay cop John Hurt to track down another serial killer who hacked his way through West Hollywood, Calif.

And, of course, movie he-men have always enjoyed "faking it" for an easy, usually derogatory laugh. In 1959's Pillow Talk, Rock Hudson's philandering stud tries to disarm a confused Doris Day with a little gay deception, feigning an interest in fashion and recipes and extending an exaggerated pinkie--a dizzying movie moment as the closeted gay actor played off his straight heartthrob image by Clamping it up. From there, the cringing increases. Eddie Murphy bluffed his way into an exclusive restaurant with a flamingly cruel impersonation of a gay man with herpes in 1984's Beverly Hills Cop. And Mel Gibson evaded some hit men by flouncing about as a flamboyant hairdresser in the 1990 turkey Bird on a Wire. Murphy and Gibson didn't exactly receive nods from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation for their put-down "performances."

In Hollywood's current PC climate, the newest crop of gay pretenders are trying hard not to give similar offense--even if that means occasionally airbrushing away some of their gayer touches. "I wrote one dinner-party scene with a lot of gay male dialogue that I thought was authentic," Vaccaro says. "I have a brother who's gay, and I'm sensitive to these issues. But in the scene I had some of the men refer to each other as `she.' One of the producers said, `You can't do that. It's offensive.' So it was cut. But I thought it was charming and accurate."

Certainly what distinguishes Happy, Texas from the gay impostors that preceded it is that its two rough con men on the lam never adopt any particularly "gay" mannerisms. In part, Northam says, that's a function of the plot: They're plunged into the deception so quickly, they don't have time to get their act together. "They're just as they are," he observes, adding, "I don't think they'd know how to act a gay stereotype, even if it weren't offensive." Despite all evidence to the contrary--though they're supposed to be beauty experts, the lugs still look like cons--the town accepts them as gay simply because they've assumed the identity of a two men known to be a couple. And nary a homophobic word is spoken by the local yokels.

If the makers of Happy, Texas succeed in turning that comic premise into a hit, it may in part be because the conundrum of "who's gay, who's straight?" is increasingly confusing.

Sarah Jessica Parker's all-too-knowing narrator addressed the zeitgeist in a recent episode of HBO's Sex and the City. "It's not that simple anymore," she said of pegging a man's sexuality. "The real question is: Is he a straight gay man or is he a gay straight man? The gay straight man [is] a new strain of heterosexual man spawned in Manhattan as a result of overexposure to fashion, exotic cuisine, musical theater, and antique furniture." And even in Happy, Texas a foulmouthed tough guy who can't dance to save his life can be perceived as gay.

From Manhattan to the multiplex, it's getting so you can't tell the straight boys from the gay guys anymore without a scorecard.

Kilday is a freelance entertainment reporter who also contributes to Premiere and Los Angeles magazines.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:movies in which straight men pose as gay
Author:Kilday, Gregg
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 12, 1999
Words:1306
Previous Article:No fruit in his basket.
Next Article:Artful dodgers.
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