Sunday, October 4, 2015

Matt Damon – both right and wrong on coming out

Daniel and I saw The Martian yesterday.  It’s easily the best science fiction film to be released since last year’s Interstellar.  It’s also the rare example of a film which is neither ascetic nor padded, with the right balance of character moments and action.  Go see it.

We would have not seen it had we been paying attention to the activist types who were calling for the film’s boycott after Damon was quoted in a Guardian article opining that LGBT actors who came out of the closet were less likely to have blockbuster careers – citing Rupert Everett as an example.  (I would point out that the less than stellar career Everett has experienced is more likely due to his prickly personality and limited acting chops – has he ever been able to play a heterosexual man convincingly?)  I’m more than willing to pass on a bad film which bastardizes our history, like Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall – particularly since there’s a vastly superior film of the same name from 1996.  I’m less willing to boycott an excellent film like The Martian – particularly when the activists, or more precisely "hacktivists", conveniently forget that Damon has been a stalwart friend to the gay community for decades and has proven his willingness to play gay roles.  How quickly some of us are willing to tar & feather our own friends.
I would advise Damon that it’s always risky to give members of another community advice – no matter how well-intended.  I’ve no doubt that Damon was maneuvered into addressing the subject by the Guardian interviewer – in a never ending quest for “click-bait.”  However, no straight man, even an ally, should advise LGBT actors on whether to come out, just as no white person should be telling people of color how to run their community – nor should men be trying to regulate the reproductive rights of women.  But before I digress, let’s return to the subject at hand.
Damon was certainly factually correct when he opined that openly LGBT actors are less likely to have the blockbuster careers of their heterosexual or closeted counterparts.  Here’s where his logic breaks down, however.  It took generations of African-American film and television actors, from Hattie McDaniel, to Ossie Davis – often playing thankless roles, before Sidney Poitier could break out as someone with appeal beyond the African-American community, and another generation for mega-stars like Denzel Washington and Will Smith to appear. 
Such progress will only be made in the LGBT community as more stars “come out” as openly gay.  It has already happened throughout much of corporate America – as evidenced by Tim Cook, CEO of Apple.  The march toward equality in the work place started with Frank Kameny, who lost his job in 1957 after coming out.  Doubtless, Kameny, an astronomer for the U. S. Army, could have had a lucrative career if he’d kept his nature hidden.  But he chose principle over money, went on to lead the Washington, DC branch of the Mattachine Society, and by his example inspired others to come out.  In the 1970s, Harvey Milk’s example inspired the next generation of lesbians and gays to come out.  Tragically, Milk paid for his activism with his life – but stirred many more to action.  It was people like Milk who inspired me to come out in 1985 – while still in high school.  And openly gay people of that generation spurred on the following generation – which has led to the further mainstreaming of LGBT people in American society.
Each generation stands on the shoulders and accomplishments of its predecessors.  The number of openly LGBT actors is increasing so rapidly that news of another actor coming out tends to elicit a collective shoulder shrug and “So?”.  But Hollywood executives don’t think like ordinary Americans, and if given the choice of an openly gay actor and apparently heterosexual one, the executive will bet his money on the hetero.  So, in that sense, Damon is right.  There’s also the legitimate question as to whether movie stars will exist a generation from now: movie theatres are closing left & right, and the most interesting stories are now being told on television – which has entered a new Golden Age thanks to cable and streaming options. 
But for now, forget the angry activists and go see The Martian – a true epic made for the big screen, and the collective experience of old fashioned film-going.


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