Gus Van Sant's "Milk" isn't just a mainstream-minded Oscar candidate; it's also a rallying cry.
With Sean Penn starring as Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco supervisor who was gunned down along with Mayor George Moscone in 1978, the movie (which opens Wednesday) makes its message clear: Gay people must be "out" to be counted.
This theme is particularly timely given California's passage of anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 this month, but there's also a certain irony:
Here's a broadly targeted movie with marquee actors (James Franco, Josh Brolin and Emile Hirsch co-star), yet not only is none of the featured players openly gay, but there isn't one openly gay leading man in all of Hollywood. Even as gay people have become far more prominent and comfortable in culture and everyday life in the 30 years since Milk's death, not a single current A-list movie actor is "out."
Could it be that big movie stars simply don't swing that way? That lead actors defy all percentages and likelihood to remain a strictly heterosexual crowd?
Or is the more logical explanation that while Hollywood preaches openness, it is fearful to practice it?
"It's the last frontier, and it will remain the last frontier for quite some time," said Bruce Bibby, who as Ted Casablanca writes the popular gossip column "The Awful Truth" for E! Online. "Some of our biggest moneymakers right now are absolute boy-on-boy kind of boys. It's America's dirty little secret. If they only knew."
We won't play the who-is-and-who-isn't game here.
But it's worth noting that at a time when everyone seems to know everything about everyone, and careers move on in spite of arrests, sex tapes, addiction-rehab cycles, affairs and babies out of wedlock, public acknowledgment of homosexuality remains a formidable taboo among top movie talent.
The most cited reason is money.
Van Sant, who is openly gay, laughingly called this an issue of "merchandising," noting that over the last decade leading men have become "industries within themselves. They're almost like industrial conglomerates."
"Hollywood does not like anything that's going to threaten its bottom line," said Michael Jensen, editor of afterelton.com, a Web site devoted to gay and bisexual men in entertainment. "The idea of a gay leading man in a movie that's going to have a budget around $100 million—getting a studio to be the first one to take that chance is a challenging thing to do."
As for the actors, Jensen continued, "there are already so many reasons for a casting director to turn a person down, and being an openly gay actor trying to get a romantic lead role, you're just giving them another reason."
The absence of gay lead actors—and, yes, we are talking primarily of men—stands in stark contrast to the progress activists say has been made in other areas.
"The images in the media 30 years ago and the images today are vastly, vastly different," said Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). "You had 'Three's Company,' an over-the-top caricature of a gay man, and the other characters ridiculed him. Today a show like that would not be aired. We have 'Brothers & Sisters,' we have 'Desperate Housewives,' 'Ugly Betty.' Those are real portrayals."
A gay character on a TV show is no longer news, though GLAAD has tabulated that just 16 of 663 prime-time characters, or 2.6 percent, are gay. Openly gay celebrities in themselves also are no longer such an anomaly.
Singers Clay Aiken and Lance Bass have come out, as did comedian Wanda Sykes just last week. Elton John remains a huge concert draw and classic-rock fixture, and Ellen DeGeneres is welcomed into millions of American homes on her daytime talk show, just as Rosie O'Donnell was on "The View" and her own show.
"People who watch and adore Ellen DeGeneres don't care one iota that she is gay, and they've known she is for a long time," said Mark Urman, distribution president for Summit Entertainment. "That is a very mainstream audience."
Then again, DeGeneres and O'Donnell have done little acting since they opened up about their sexuality. People accept them for themselves, but it's unclear whether they'd accept them as anyone else.
This leads to a dynamic in which heterosexual actors such as Penn or Tom Hanks (in "Philadelphia") have no problems being believed as gay men—or murderers or mentally challenged characters—yet there's much doubt that an openly gay actor could be convincing carrying a romance with the opposite sex.
“I don’t know why that is,” Urman said. “We know for a fact they’re acting.”
There also may be different standards for women and men. Although Jodie Foster does not discuss her personal life, while accepting an award late last year she thanked "my beautiful Cydney" in reference to the woman widely acknowledged to be her partner. Cynthia Nixon's revelation that she is a lesbian had no effect on her participation in this year's smash "Sex and the City" movie, and if anything, Lindsay Lohan has received more sympathetic press since she began dating DJ Samantha Ronson (and stopped acting so erratically).
Back on the male side, Ian McKellen is probably the most prominent "out" movie actor, having co-starred in the lucrative "Lord of the Rings" and "X-Men" franchises. But at 69, McKellen is well beyond the typical leading-man age, and he's British, which comes with a different set of cultural associations. The dashing Rupert Everett also is British, and his career never took off after he opened up about his sexuality, though making the Madonna bomb “The Next Best Thing” didn’t help.
The greatest male success story may be TV's Neil Patrick Harris, who is openly gay yet plays an enjoyably obnoxious straight man on "How I Met Your Mother." T.R. Knight also continues to fare well on "Grey's Anatomy" despite having essentially been outed by reports of former co-star Isaiah Washington's directing an anti-gay slur at him on set.
But neither star is being asked to sell millions of multiplex tickets. Nor are those actors who have come out well after the peaks of their careers, such as Richard Chamberlain. Rock Hudson acknowledged his homosexuality only after he was terminally ill with AIDS in 1985.
Bibby has written a number of much-speculated-about blind items about a closeted actor dubbed Toothy Tile, who he reported was close to going public with his sexuality until his agents and publicists persuaded him not to—a situation far from unique.
"Toothy Tile is a big star, but Toothy Tile wants to remain a big star, and that's the problem," said Bibby, who is gay himself. "Hollywood is a very creative community, and the creative arts have always been totally homo filled. But it's first and foremost a business. We've got to sell the product out to the masses in the rest of the country where it's not so gay filled."
The question is whether the industry's and actors' fears are justified or whether a megastar's coming out might not be such a big deal after all.
Giuliano hopes his own experience could serve as an example. He'd been the mayor of Tempe, Ariz., for two years when he came out, and he was re-elected four times to serve eight more years.
"I had a very misplaced understanding and a very misplaced fear of what life would be like if I was more authentic and more honest and more out," the GLAAD leader said.
McKellen considered coming out to be positive for his craft, saying in a 2005 interview:
"Acting in my case is no longer about disguise; it's about telling the truth, and my truth is that I'm gay. I'm very happy for people to know that, and then I can get on with telling the truth about the character that I'm playing. That's why I say to other actors: If you really want to be a good actor and a successful one, and you're gay, let everybody know about it."
Urman said that at this point, "I don't think that anything to do with anybody's sexual orientation would or could harm somebody's career."
Bibby isn't so optimistic. "My opinion is it would be painful at first because America has shown it has such a fear of gay people," he said. "It would be very rough going for an actor to find that out, and I don't blame them for not wanting to find that out. They're not politicians. They're performers. They don't want to be held accountable for America's discomfort about homosexuality."
Still, Giuliano, who has seen Van Sant’s film, hopes some Hollywood A-listers follow McKellen's and Milk’s lead.
“The message of ‘Milk’ is as important as it was 30 years ago, which is our visibility matters, and you need to be open,” the GLAAD leader said. “The changes we have seen in our society are because we are more open and the community is more visible than it ever has been.”