‘Brokeback’ and ‘bravery’

I’m getting tired of people lavishing praise on Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal for being “brave” enough to star in “Brokeback Mountain,” like it was the acting equivalent of rescuing a crippled child from a burning building.

It’s a great film, don’t get me wrong. Ledger’s and Gyllenhaal’s performances are both fantastic, and I don’t deny it must have been difficult to shoot the more intimate scenes. But a brave performance — being vulnerable, doing something outlandish or unusual in front of the camera, etc. — is not the same thing as being “brave” for taking the role in the first place.

What’s “brave” about it? I keep reading, “Oh, so many people didn’t want to touch it, it’s so risky, even in 2005 it’s still controversial to play a gay character, blah blah blah.” But that line of thinking doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

I think there are two fears that are supposedly being overcome when actors go gay for the movies. One is that audiences will start to believe the actor is gay in real life. The other is that playing a homosexual character will somehow damage the actor’s career.

But here’s the thing: If the actor is famous, people don’t believe he’s gay just because he played a gay character. (In some cases, if it’s a new, unknown actor in a gay role, audiences might assume it, simply because they don’t know anything about him.) And as for the second fear, I can’t think of a single actor whose career has been hurt by playing a gay character in a film. Can you?

Here’s a list of some (presumably) straight actors who have played gay, bisexual or transsexual characters in films. (There are more than these; this list is more or less off the top of my head.) See anyone who suffered because of it? See anyone you now believe is gay in real life because of it? I didn’t think so.

Antonio Banderas (“Philadelphia”)
Matthew Broderick (“Torch Song Trilogy”)
Steve Buscemi (“Parting Glances”)
Michael Caine (“Deathtrap”)
Matt Damon (“The Talented Mr. Ripley”)
Jeff Daniels (“The Hours”)
Colin Farrell (“A Home at the End of the World”; “Alexander”)
Colin Firth (“Where the Truth Lies”)
*Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia”)
*Ed Harris (“The Hours”)
*William Hurt (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”)
*Greg Kinnear (“As Good As It Gets”)
Jude Law (“Wilde”)
John Leguizamo (“To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar”)
*John Lithgow (“The World According to Garp”)
*Al Pacino (“Dog Day Afternoon”)
Guy Pearce (“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”)
River Phoenix (“My Own Private Idaho”)
Dennis Quaid (“Far from Heaven”)
Christopher Reeve (“Deathtrap”)
Keanu Reeves (“My Own Private Idaho”)
Paul Rudd (“The Object of My Affection”)
Wesley Snipes (“To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar”)
Terence Stamp (“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”)
Patrick Swayze (“To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar”)
Hugo Weaving (“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”)
Robin Williams (“The Birdcage”)

* Indicates the actor got at least an Oscar nomination for this role. So yeah Heath and Jake are brave — brave like a fox!