7 straight, cis actors who took on queer roles – from acclaimed to offensive
From Cate Blanchett to James Corden, straight actors playing queer roles continues to be a hot topic of debate.
All the way back in 2005, a little film called Brokeback Mountain was released in cinemas.
It immediately won rave reviews, as critics heaped praise on its straight stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal for daring to depict gay male intimacy.
Brokeback Mountain is still regularly brought up in debates about whether straight and cis actors should take on LGBT+ roles. At this stage, that discourse feels as old as time itself – there is no clear cut answer, no simple solutions to be found.
It’s made all the more complicated by the fact that so many straight actors have taken on queer roles and done a truly spectacular job. On the flip side, we’ve all seen straight men and women camp or butch it up and reinforce harmful stereotypes in the process.
We take a look back at some of the straight and cis actors who have dared to play LGBT+ characters in films – and we give our verdict on whether they got it right or wrong.
1. Cate Blanchett – Carol
Cate Blanchett has a huge queer following, and we’re pretty sure most LGBT+ people would want her to play them in a biopic about their lives.
She might be widely loved by queer people – but that didn’t absolve her from criticism for playing Carol Aird in Todd Haynes’ acclaimed, Oscar-nominated film Carol.
The film saw Cate Blanchett play a middle-aged, wealthy lesbian who is trapped in a loveless marriage with her husband Harge. Then, one day, she catches the eye of shop assistant Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) in a department store – and both of their lives are changed forever.
Carol quickly generated awards buzz when it was released in 2015 – and naturally, that meant Blanchett and Mara were left fielding a lot of questions about their reasoning for taking on lesbian roles.
The verdict: Looking back, it’s hard to see how Carol Aird could have been played by any other actor. Cate Blanchett was utterly convincing as a repressed lesbian, and the heartache and longing she brought to the role lingers for hours after watching. The debate about straight actors and gay roles rages on – but Cate Blanchett proved that she was up to the task.
2. Heath Ledger – Brokeback Mountain
So much of the commentary surrounding Brokeback Mountain was homophobic in nature when the film was first released. Ledger and Gyllenhaal were repeatedly asked invasive, titillating questions about their intimate scenes, and the end result was that the film’s artistry got a little lost in the mix.
But Brokeback Mountain is remembered today as a modern classic of queer cinema – and with good reason. Both Ledger and Gyllenhaal delivered stunning performances in the film, and they were utterly convincing as star-crossed gay lovers.
However, it’s Ledger who really steals the show here. His poised, crafted performance as Wyoming sheepherder Ennis Del Mar is enthralling to watch. He captures the vulnerability and emotional stagnation brilliantly of a character who chooses to remain closed in what is ultimately a destructive attempt at self-preservation.
The verdict: As is the case with Carol, it’s hard to imagine another actor playing Ennis Del Mar. Heath Ledger displayed a remarkable commitment to understanding and truly conveying what it was like to be a closeted gay man in a climate that was far from accepting.
3. James Corden – The Prom
Netflix’s The Prom is a singing, dancing musical extravaganza with Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells. In short, it should have become a modern-day queer classic – but James Corden did his best to consign it to the dustbin of history.
The Prom tells the story of a group of down-on-their-luck Broadway actors who retreat to a high school in Indiana to try to salvage their reputations. Their cause is Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), a teenager whose prom has been cancelled to stop her from bringing her girlfriend and upsetting conservative values.
James Corden lands into The Prom like a scalding hot cup of coffee to the face. His performance as the very femme, very flamboyant Broadway actor Barry Glickman is toe-curlingly painful to watch.
The whole thing is made so much worse by a repugnant Hollywood storyline that sees his gay character reconcile with his homophobic mother – because that’s just what queer audiences needed to see.
The verdict: James Corden’s attempt at playing a gay man feels oppressive and – dare we say it – offensive. His camped-up effort made a lot of queer people want to, justifiably, march on Hollywood with pitchforks. This is an example of a role that would have been better with almost any other actor.
4. Kate Winslet – Ammonite
There was much excitement in film circles when it was announced that Kate Winslet had been cast as a lesbian palaeontologist in God’s Own Country director Francis Lee’s sophomore feature Ammonite.
Ammonite sees Winslet play Mary Anning, a real-life 19th century palaeontologist who falls in love with a younger woman called Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) who ends up in her care.
Both Winslet and Ronan gave it their all, and both were convincing as repressed 19th century lesbians – but this film was missing a much-needed spark.
The result was that Ammonite – once expected to be an awards frontrunner – bowed out with something of a whimper when it was released during lockdown.
The verdict: Kate Winslet played Mary Anning brilliantly – but the lack of chemistry between her’s and Ronan’s underwritten character put a nail in the coffin early on. Ammonite has a lot to offer, and it’s certainly not all bad – but issues with the screenplay made it hard for Winslet to truly impress.
5. Trevante Rhodes – Moonlight
In 2017, Moonlight became the talk of the town when its hard-won Best Picture Oscar was accidentally handed to La La Land.
It was an incredible moment, destined to go down in history – but it has also distracted from the film’s legacy as one of the best films of the 21st century. Not only is Moonlight an extraordinarily powerful film, it is also one of the best queer films ever made.
Moonlight is a coming-of-age story about a boy called Chiron as he comes to terms with his burgeoning sexuality while growing up in Liberty City, Miami.
Chiron is played by three separate actors – Ashton Sanders and Alex Hibbert played the child and teenage versions of the character – but it is Trevante Rhodes who really impressed as the adult Chiron.
The actor, who is straight, told Interview Magazine in 2016 that he used his gay friend’s experience to inform his powerful portrayal of a gay Black man who has worked hard to repress his sexuality.
The verdict: If anything, Trevante Rhodes deserved more praise for his performance as adult Chrion in Moonlight. In the film’s final scene, Rhodes captured brilliantly the experience of a gay man who has worked tirelessly to repress his sexuality. Five years on, it’s still awe-inspiring to watch – it’s a deeply moving ode to love and intimacy between queer men.
6. Timothée Chalamet – Call Me By Your Name
Call Me By Your Name instantly garnered awards buzz when it debuted in 2017 – but it also sparked yet another discussion about whether straight actors should play gay roles.
The film saw Timothée Chalamet playing Elio, a teenager growing up in Italy whose life is changed forever by a formative – and somewhat unhealthy – relationship with an older graduate student called Oliver (Armie Hammer).
Both actors won praise for their performances, but many started to question why straight actors were still winning praise and acclaim for taking on gay roles.
Today, Call Me By Your Name is still widely regarded as one of the best queer films of recent years – but if we’re being honest, it was Chalamet who stole the show as a twink trying to figure out why he was so attracted to Armie Hammer. His moving performance, and his on-screen chemistry with his co-star, cemented his position as an honorary member of the LGBT+ community.
The verdict: Call Me By Your Name raises a lot of questions – namely about the unhealthy, obsessive relationship at its core – but it still stands up today. That’s in no small part thanks to Timothée Chalamet, who played a gay teenager with ease and grace.
7. Hilary Swank – Boys Don’t Cry
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Boys Don’t Cry was a significant addition to LGBT+ cinema when it arrived in 1999. The film, starring Hilary Swank as trans trans man Brandon Teena, immediately won praise for its handling of a tragic, real-life story of anti-trans violence.
The film even led Hilary Swank to her first Oscar for Best Actress. Speaking on stage at the time, Swank suggested the film wouldn’t have been made just three years earlier because of its trans themes.
Looking back, it’s clear that Swank gave the role her all – but at the end of the day, she was never the right person to play Brandon. As a cis woman, she was the wrong fit – and her casting only reinforced harmful ideas about trans identities.
If you’re still in doubt as to why trans roles should be played by trans actors, watch Disclosure, the extraordinary Netflix documentary that examines the links between anti-trans violence and harmful depictions on-screen.
The verdict: Hilary Swank proved her acting abilities in Boys Don’t Cry – she gave a powerful performance, and she clearly had a great deal of empathy for the trans man she was portraying. But trans roles need to be played by trans people, and Brandon deserved to have his story told by someone whose identity more closely matched his.