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Newsweek Writer Keeps Digging That Homophobic Hole Deeper

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Monday May 17, 2010
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By now, you’ve probably heard about the brouhaha over Newsweek writer Ramin Setodeh’s column in which he asserted that out-gay actors aren’t believable in straight roles. The opinion, both in the extensive comments attached to the original article and all over the Internet, has been perhaps the first such case of unanimity.

Not "near unanimity," but unanimity. Setodeh actually managed to get the fractious online world to agree on something: that he is an irresponsible idiot.

Now, I don’t normally throw around words like "idiot." I came from an educational background that taught one to attack ideas, not people. But Setodeh has proven himself incapable of consistent thought - or of real thought, for that matter. That makes him, in my book, an idiot.

After his article blew up in his face, Setodeh’s line of defense was that he was only picking up on a veiled comment on how Sean Hayes’ sexuality influenced his performance in the Broadway revival of the ’60s musical comedy Promises, Promises in a New York Times review. "His emotions often seem pale to the point of colorlessness," he quotes from Ben Brantley’s review. "His relationship with [his costar Kristin] Chenoweth feels more like that of a younger brother than a would-be lover and protector."

Well, OK! Let’s take a look at some of Mr. Brantley’s comments about another well-known and very out (way more out and way longer than Hayes) actor, Cheyenne Jackson.

Here’s Brantley on the recent revival of Finian’s Rainbow: "She is well paired with the easygoing charmer Cheyenne Jackson as the local boy Woody, who is snared almost as soon as he sets eyes on Sharon." Gee, sounds like Brantley swallowed the Kool Aid on that one, huh?

Here’s the review from the same paper of the Encores! revival of Damn Yankees, again starring Jackson. (Note: reviewer Charles Isherwood is a gay man.) "The show’s score contains a couple of lovely if lesser-known ballads, mostly sung by Mr. Jackson’s Joe Hardy, who has no sooner become a slugging sensation than he begins to regret in melody leaving the good wife and the comfy armchair behind."

Again, Isherwood on Jackson in Xanadu two years ago: "Cheyenne Jackson, the star of ’All Shook Up,’ the forgettable Elvis jukebox musical, [EDGE note: where Jackson also got a rave - and was believed as a hopelessly heterosexual Elvis] plays him beautifully as a big slab of prime beefcake in tube socks and denim cutoffs."

I don’t think I have to go farther back to make the point. Setodeh takes a criticism out of context of one actor in one role and assumes that it’s a code. If he’d read the dozens of reviews of trĂ©s out-gay actors on Broadway in the Times (and elsewhere), he would have seen that reviewer after reviewer found them perfectly believable.

Now, however you find Hayes’ in Promises, Promises (for the record, I thought he was terrific - and entirely believable as a love-sick schlub), to extrapolate from this that gay actors aren’t believable is laughably, well, stupid.

When I saw Fiddler on the Roof starring the two gayest actors in the universe, Harvey Fierstein and Rosie O’Donnell, it never once occurred to me what their offstage sexuality might be. I just saw a poor, long Jewish couple in a Russian shtetl. And guess what: So did the rest of the audience. Probably the most believable aspect of the current "Addams Family" on Broadway is the palpable horniness Nathan Lane has for the luscious Bebe Neuwirth.

I’m not a big TV fan, but it’s my understanding that millions of viewers readily accept Neil Patrick Harris as a total horndog, and Portia de Rossi as a sex kitten. Nor did anyone I know, straight or gay, suddenly find Cynthia Nixon unconvincing in her marriage to the adorable Steve in the seemingly endless Sex in the City franchise after she came out.

But really: Why bother? Any rational person doesn’t accept Setodeh’s argument. Because, Ramin, that’s why they call it acting. I can believe Laurence Olivier as a Jew (in The Merchant of Venice) or as a Nazi (in Marathon Man), or as a Jewish Nazi hunter (The Boys from Brazil). You know why? It’s not because he’s British, or because of his size or his build or his hair color or whom he screws in his bedroom. It’s because he’s an actor. (For the record, Lord Olivier went both ways. I wonder what Setodeh would make of that?)

What’s especially egregious about Setodeh is the way he’s been trying to paint himself as a victim. Instead of manning up and admitting his original thesis was hopelessly flawed, he keeps digging the hole deeper by half-assed efforts to defend himself.

Thus, he writes, in a response to an impassioned defense by Kristin Chenoweth of co-star and onstage romantic interest Hayes, "If an actor of the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet today, would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man? It’s hard to say, because no actor like that exists."

Uh, yes, they do. Rupert Everett in An Ideal Husband. Alan Cummings in Circle of Friends and The Anniversary Party. Jackson on 30 Rock. Ian Mckellan in dozens of roles.

I could go on but again, why bother? Let’s forget about Setodeh, because he’s a nonentity. I’ll just mention in passing his worst defense: I’m gay myself! Yes, but that doesn’t mean you have any more particular insight, sympathy or context than, say, that former Times critic Frank Rich. In fact, you have a hell of a lot less than Rich, who has a deeper understanding of the gay experience than you ever will.

The real culprit here is Newsweek. This once-respected newsmagazine is on its last legs. It has been a money pit for its parent company for years, as readership has dwindled to a tiny fraction of its pre-Internet numbers.

Now, the Washington Post Co. has said it will sell the magazine for nothing to any suitor or shut it down. This is what magazines do when they are in their death throes: They hire people like Setodeh to write screeds in hope of creating that elusive property known as "buzz."

Congratulations, Newsweek. You got buzz. Now we can all sit back and witness the very, very sad spectacle of an institution wheeze its way into grave.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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