So often, conversations about homophobia in Hollywood focus on the visibility of LGBT characters and the challenges for LGBT actors. But neither of those angles focuses on the source of such attitudes, but comedians Billy Crystal and Kevin Hart shine some new light on why Hollywood is slow to “get better.”
Crystal is well known for playing one of the very first openly gay characters on TV, Soap‘s Jodie Dallas. In a recent interview, he talked about how angry he’d be when the live audiences would laugh nervously at sincere moments his character had in the show. But then he added, “And now it’s just, I see it and I just hope people don’t abuse it and shove it in our face — well, that sounds terrible — to the point of it just feels like an everyday kind of thing.”
After facing quite a bit of backlash on social media, Crystal doubled down, claiming he doesn’t understand “why there would be anything offensive that I said. When it gets too far either visually…now, that world exists because it does for the hetero world, it exists, and I don’t want to see that either. But when I feel it’s a cause, when I feel it’s ‘You’re going to like my lifestyle,’ no matter what it is, I’m going to have a problem.”
This discomfort does not sound all that different from Mike Huckabee’s candid description of the “ick factor” a few years ago. It’s the general impression or assumption that there is something disgusting about gay sex or even same-sex intimacy. In the interviews, Crystal seemed to suggest he had a similar concern about portrayals of heterosexual sex, but more as kind of an afterthought and without nearly the same concern. Essentially, he doesn’t generally want to see any sex, but he really doesn’t want to see gay sex.
Comedian Kevin Hart, like Crystal, claims to be “politically correct to the gay community,” but admits to having his own problem with gay roles. In a recent radio interview, he admitted that he turned down a role in the film Tropic Thunder because it was for a “flagrant” gay character. It’s not that he has any “ill will or disrespect,” he explained, but because, “I feel like I can’t do that because I don’t think I’m really going to dive into that role 100 percent. Because of the insecurities about myself trying to play that part.” In other words, 30 years after Crystal played a gay character, Hart still feels he couldn’t do it.
This reflects some of the aforementioned challenges that LGBT actors’ opportunities in the industry. There is a sentiment that if they are open about their identities, they will be pigeonholed into LGBT roles and deprived of opportunities for leading parts. Attitudes like Hart’s and Crystal’s are exactly what reinforce this cycle. If straight actors are uncomfortable with gay parts, for example, those parts may then be relegated to actors willing to play them. This, in turn, can pigeonhole those actors into the bit parts, side characters, and stereotypes that prevent them from proving themselves in other roles.
Of course, there are plenty of counter-examples to Crystal and Hart, such as Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game or Frankie Álvarez on Looking, and there is likewise still an impetus for LGBT roles to be played by LGBT people for purposes of authenticity. Certainly, the acclaim of shows like Transparent and Orange Is The New Black are breaking new ground for transgender characters and transgender actors in a way the industry has never seen before. Nevertheless, these two comedians demonstrate how Hollywood still has a subtle but ongoing problem that impacts actors of all sexual orientations and gender identities as well as the content that makes it to the screen.