Out publicist Howard Bragman and newly out actress Meredith Baxter headlined “Coming Out in Hollywood,” a panel discussion with fellow out entertainers at Los Angeles’ Outfest on Saturday.
“She’s an iconic American actor and Meredith coming out is a really big deal,” Bragman said. “She’s somebody we’ve grown up with, seen on TV and who we all know. Research says if you know someone who’s coming out, it’s going to have a big impact on you, which is why coming out is the single, most political act any of us can do.”
Bragman’s comments were echoed — and debated — by fellow panelists Jonathan Slavin (Better Off Ted), writer-director Don Roos (The Opposite of Sex), Doug Spearman (Noah’s Arc) and moderator Ari Karpel of The Advocate.
Bragman, who has worked with such clients as Baxter and more recently Chely Wright , said he’s faced waves of criticism for helping entertainers come out. “In this world where Brad and Angelina sell these pictures for billions of dollars to People magazine of their kids and their family, I think we have an equal right to show off our lives and our honesty and our family. People said to Chely Wright during her coming out that it was just a publicity stunt — “That being a lesbian thing, you just did it for press” — well, it’s a little counter-intuitive in country music, and Chely answered — “The publicity stunt was pretending I was straight for 15 years.” It wasn’t a publicity stunt; it was her, living her life honestly. It did come out with a book and an album, and I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of. Other people I’ve worked with have come out for commercial reasons. The important thing is that you do come out.”
Addressing whether or not being out hinders their careers, Slavin noted he’s lost out on parts because he’s gay. “People do say, ‘You were great but we didn’t see casting a gay guy for this role.’ It’s just thrown around; it’s sort of the last thing that people can throw at you. Sitting here at a gay film festival, I do find it interesting that in other communities, when black people write a black film about a black experience, they automatically create jobs for black actors. But the same is not true in our community; we write gay films and cast straight people to portray us. I think that our own internalized homophobia, this cult of masculinity that many people in our community worship, we want to see ourselves portrayed by dreamy, hot straight people and that’s not always the most accurate representation. I do think politically that it’s an odd issue.”
However, when it comes to those working behind the scenes in Hollywood, being out has no bearing when it comes to having a successful career, Roos said. “I’ve been out since childhood to people who were gifted with sight and hearing — they knew I was gay before I did. But it never occurred to me at all to be closeted, it never crossed my mind. But there was no risk to be out, none at all. Maybe in your writing career, when I was writing for TV I never wrote an episode of The A Team; I never could convincingly pitch a story to them. Aaron Spelling in the ’80s, everybody was a woman or gay who worked for him. He was straight, but he was very gay friendly. It absolutely helped me to be honest about who I was. I don’t think I’ve ever been hurt financially or career-wise by being gay; just the opposite, I’d say.”
Addressing the Newsweek article that criticized actors like Sean Hayes (Will & Grace) as being difficult to accept as a straight leading man in the Broadway production of Promises, Promises, moderator Karpel — who wrote Hayes’ coming out piece for The Advocate — noted that if a gay man can’t play a romantic leading man because he’s gay and can’t come out of the closet and talk about his sexuality, then Tom Hanks can’t play a gay man in Philadelphia and flaunt his relationship with Rita Wilson . “It feels like there’s this double standard that we as a gay community have allowed to come up. We have our own baggage that we bring in terms of our perceptions of who’s effeminate and who’s not.”
Roos noted that often knowing the details of an actor’s personal life can take them out of contention for parts that may directly conflict with their personal beliefs and that he’d rather not know if an actor is gay or not.
“I think everybody should be out to their circle but it’s more difficult if you’re a romantic lead,” Roos said, adding that when casting a project, he would rather not know the details about the lead’s personal life. “It would be hard for me to cast Natalie Portman as a woman rancher because she’s this crazy vegan. I want to not have conversations about is he gay or is he not gay; I want to know as little as possible.
“I think the relationship between an audience and an actor is a very complicated thing, especially in a romantic lead,” he continued. “When you’re in a movie theater, what’s on the screen isn’t necessarily appealing to your best instincts. Most of the audience is going to be homophobic, they’re mostly violent in their hearts and that’s what they’re responding to on the screen and you can’t wait to have a career until the audience is not homophobic. That’s never going to happen. … In a romantic role, it can be very distracting for the audience to not be able to give themselves to a particular character. Like when I was watching Philadelphia — I knew he was straight.”
Slavin disagreed and said it was time the industry as a whole took risks in casting gay actors as straight leading men.
“Don’t you think that there were people who said to Sidney Poitier that an audience is never going to accept a black man as the lead of a film? At a certain point, you have to just cast (gay actors) and grab the reins and move forward and see what happens,” Slavin said. “It is about taking risks and taking risks and not waiting until it’s safe. We’re accommodating a narrow-minded mentality.”
Bragman agreed and said it all boils down to personal choice but if it were up to him, he’d urge everyone to come out for their own personal happiness.
“If there are superstar male actors who are in the closet and they’re worth $100 million and they have this fake life, there’s nothing sadder,” Bragman said. “I always meet these young twentysomething actors who say they could never come out because they’re the leading man-type. I always say that you have a better chance of winning the California Lottery. In the end, you’re going to be much happier if you come out, but you have to do what is inside your soul.
“The number of working actors who are out of the closet is something you can count on your hands and toes, it’s still a miniscule number but it’s getting better every day since Meredith came out,” Bragman said. “It’s been the biggest time for celebrities coming out in history — Meredith, Chely, Sean, Ricky Martin, etc., but it’s just scratching the surface.”
Baxter noted that acting roles haven’t gotten any easier since she came out. “It’s just been a long, slow period. It’s been tough but it was tough before I came out. It just hasn’t gotten better as someone had actually predicted it would be.”
When asked about the casting for The Kids Are All Right, and why lesbian actors weren’t hired for Annette Bening and Julianne Moore’s parts, Baxter and Bragman agreed that you find the best talent available for the part, gay or straight.
“If we had enough parts for openly gay people, we wouldn’t care about some of these parts,” Bragman said. “The job is to mix it up. We have to help our openly gay actors so people recognize them and so they can get those lead parts. There are these talented actors here and a handful of other out actors and they’re changing history. When I look at the Emmy nominations, they looked like the GLAAD Awards; we’ve made some remarkable progress.”
Added Baxter: “Many years ago there was a lot of flack in the in the industry about Laurence Olivier who played Othello in black face and people were really upset; was it not possible that there was a black actor of stature and talent who could play that role? Did you have to put a white man in black face. Eventually that evolved and you don’t see that anymore. I think that you have the appropriate actors playing the appropriate roles but please consider us. I’d love to be in the running, but don’t keep me out of the running because (I’m gay).”