Hollywood's Fantasy about Sex and the Stars
Moore, Suzanne, The Independent (London, England)
There is coming out and coming out. Rupert Everett came out years ago as a homosexual. Now this charming man has come out as a former prostitute, or "rent boy", and Hollywood is nervous that this actor's "new-found bankability", a scene-stealing performance in the Julia Roberts vehicle My Best Friend's Wedding, will be short-lived. Why should this be? Are we really so astonished that someone who performs for a living should have performed sexual favours for money; that someone who makes a living partly through selling their sexuality should have sold some real sex? What has the casting couch been used for over the years - knitting?
Only a few weeks ago we were persuaded to believe that the door of the celluloid closet had creaked open slightly, with the sitcom star Ellen cavorting with Clinton. Whereas lesbian chic is a titillating idea for the mainstream press, "sordid" gay prostitution is something else altogether. It is easier to pretend that the line between happy homosexuality, and a kind of gay lifestyle where it is not unknown for people to drift in and out of prostitution and not be stigmatised, is firmly drawn, just as we like to kid ourselves that the heterosexual men who go to prostitutes are not the men we know. When the contents of Heidi Fleiss's little black book were revealed to include the names of several Hollywood stars, no one was very dismayed. Paying for sex is manly; being paid for it is a sign of emasculation.
What, though, do we pay our stars for, if not to stimulate sexual fantasies? Of course, this is not all that cinema is about, but it sure as hell helps. Acting itself is not prostitution, though most great actors will have done things they are ashamed of; and audiences are not all sleazy punters, though most of us will have paid for a quick thrill and felt cheapened by it. But they are parallel careers in that they both involve the mechanics of arousal, desire and the necessary deferral of gratification that keeps us coming back for more. One cannot, whisper it low in case Gordon Brown hears, remove the selling of sex from the selling of cinema, however many tax subsidies you give to the film industry. Yet the dream factory itself cannot cope with the demands of its own market-place. Stars are supposed to be available both as fantasies and in real life. Thus the knowledge that a leading man is gay is considered damaging, as the actor will no longer be credible in romantic roles. Whatever happened to the notion of acting? Or to the suspension of disbelief? The assumption that acting is about playing at being someone else? The persistent rumours about the sexuality of a Tom Cruise of a Richard Gere can only be kept in circulation because we know actors are not always what they seem. Indeed, that is their job. Jimmy Stewart was not what he seemed, as the obituaries this week have shown. As the gulf between the characters he played and his real life was political rather than sexual, no one seemed to mind very much. His appeal was as an "everyman", as someone who wasn't even acting in the first place. "You were looking at a man, not an actor. You could see this man's soul," eulogised the director Frank Capra. Stewart himself was bewildered about what he was doing. "Sometimes I wonder if I am doing a James Stewart impersonation myself." This impersonation often involved playing liberal, easy-going pacifists. …