Lily Tomlin on being out in Hollywood

Photo of Lily Tomlin, smiling with green necklace

There’s been a good deal of discussion, in the last few months, about the experience of queer actors in Hollywood. Should they come out? Will it damage their careers? What responsibility do queer actors have to rest of the queer community?

Now, Lily Tomlin has weighed in, observing that while things have improved for queer actors, coming out in Hollywood is still a big risk. “There’s still a tremendous emphasis by studios and producers; they will be worried if an actor isn’t bona fide straight in their estimation, then the audience won’t believe them in a straight – a romantic – role,” the actress and comedienne said this week. Tomlin is currently in Sydney as part of the city’s annual gay and lesbian Mardi Gras, and in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, she observed that while life in Hollywood is easier now than it was fifteen years ago, being perceived as gay – or as too gay – can still materially damage your career.

Tomlin isn’t alone in this belief. A few months ago, openly gay actor Rupert Everett expressed the belief that an out actor can only go so far in Hollywood. “The fact is,” he said, “that you could not be, and still cannot be, a 25-year-old homosexual trying to make it in the British film business or the American film business or even the Italian film business. It just doesn’t work and you’re going to hit a brick wall at some point.” Everett said that he wouldn’t recommend to other gay actors that they come out in Hollywood. “It’s not that advisable, to be honest.”

Glee’s Jane Lynch, who’s also out, agrees that there’s a wall for queer actors in Hollywood. It’s harder for openly gay actors to get cast in leading roles, she says, because straight audiences find it harder to identify with them. “Most of the world is straight and we want the audience to project their hopes and dreams for love and romance onto those actors,” she told After Elton. “And if it’s not in some way possible, maybe never probably, in their mind that it could never happen, then they’re not going to do it. You know, most people are straight.” And she’s right: one of the things I observe when I’m watching romantic comedies is how few queer characters there are, and how infrequently openly gay actors and actresses are cast in lead romantic roles. When queer characters do show up, they’re sidekicks or sassy best friends whose romantic lives are played for laughs. And I’m willing to bet that if Kate Hudson or Katherine Heigl came out tomorrow, they’d be a whole lot less bankable as leading ladies than they currently are.

As for responsibility to the queer community, the strongest statement has come from Alan Cumming, who you probably know from the X-Men movies or from his awesomely-named line of bath products. Cumming is not on board with the stay-in-the-closet school of thought, and believes that openly gay actors can serve as role models to young LGBT folk around the world. “I always think about a little gay boy in Wisconsin or a little lesbian in Arkansas seeing someone like me,” he told The Guardian last month. “And if I cannot be open in my life, how on earth can they?”

What it comes down to, they all agree, is the bottom line. Studios only invest in actors who they think will bring in money. And actors can’t bring in money for studios unless audiences show up to watch them. Right now, studios don’t think that we, audiences, will show up to watch openly gay actors in leading roles, and sadly, they’re right. Tomlin thinks this is changing, saying that audiences are “much hipper and more accepting of more diversified life” than we used to be. But as with women’s magazines, and reality TV, and other flawed and damaging forms of media, if we want our media to change, we need to consume media consciously. We need to vote with our eyeballs, and most importantly, with our wallets, for the kind of media we want to see. The studios make the movies, but they make what they think we want to see. The buck stops, ultimately, with us.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted March 3, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    That’s the great wisdom you’d expect from somebody that voiced the brilliant and quirky Ms. Frizzle

  2. Posted March 4, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    “Right now, studios don’t think that we, audiences, will show up to watch openly gay actors in leading roles, and sadly, they’re right.”

    Are they? Is there any research to support this belief? I don’t recall people boycotting “The Lord of the Rings” because Ian McKellen played Gandalf. Maybe it’s different for romances, but I’m not convinced.

    • Posted March 5, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s relevant that Gandalf wasn’t a lead role and Ian McKellen is overwhelmingly cast in non-sexualized parts. So, he’s not much of a counter-example.

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