James Corden sets out his character’s stall as a camp, effeminate gay man who subscribes to almost every stereotype imaginable (Picture: MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX)
Recently, it’s felt like everything Ryan Murphy does is golden.
In 2016, he launched Half, an initiative to make Hollywood more inclusive of women, minorities and LGBTQ+ people – reporting fast progress in creating representation within his work.
He produced Netflix’s remake of off-Broadway hit The Boys in the Band with a cast of exclusively openly gay actors and made headlines with the ground-breaking FX series POSE, which has the largest cast of openly trans actors in TV history.
Adapted from the 2018 Broadway musical of the same name, Murphy’s film follows four washed-up Broadway stars (Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells) as they try to help a young student who simply wants to attend her high school prom with her girlfriend despite the head of the PTA (Kerry Washington) – who just happens to be the girlfriend’s mother – banning it.
The set-up is interesting, with the resultant clash between delusional liberal and hypocritical conservative morals leading the adults to lose sight of the young girls who just want to be themselves.
Whether the film resolves that issue or not is entirely secondary as I barely noticed the plot, instead spending the 131-minute run-time grinding my teeth into dust as James Corden minced around in a sequinned blazer and a variety of scarves.
Within the first few minutes of the film, Corden sets out his character’s stall as a camp, effeminate gay man who subscribes to almost every stereotype imaginable. His hips swing as he sashays across the screen led by his upturned nose, clicking his fingers sassily to punctuate his sentences.
There is no depth to his affected portrayal of Barry Glickman, whose characterisation reads like a pantomime dame in all aspects other than lacking the make-up and dresses.
This makes it hard to separate Corden, the straight man, from his character’s words and actions – his subsequent jokes at the expense of ‘musical theatre gays’ end up amounting to barbed jibes making me wince.
These types of jokes are commonplace in queer culture, traded as light comical insults between gay men – but in Corden’s mouth they sound hauntingly similar to playground taunts.
There have thankfully been huge strides forward in terms of actors playing characters that correspond to their race, disability or gender identity (Disclosure on Netflix providing incredible learning experiences regarding the latter) – but the portrayal of sexuality has never particularly bothered me.
Of course, I wish we saw more queer people inhabit queer experiences, and I find the trend that labels straight actors ‘brave’ for playing a gay character frustrating – but on the whole, I’ve never found myself questioning it before.
I enjoyed Call Me By Your Name – in which Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer played lovers – and I found Sean Penn’s portrayal of Harvey Milk in Milk particularly moving. It’s worth noting the other side of the lane too, where queer actors have played straight people without my batting an eyelid.
Why, then, do I find Corden’s character so offensive?
It’s not to say that camp, effeminate, effervescent gay men don’t exist – they most certainly do, but when these are the stereotypes constantly weaponised by straight people to make gay men feel shamed into inferiority, it stings to see them presented on screen in what we’d expect to be a safe space – particularly with the film’s target demographic.
The answer is not to cast based on sexuality, but on context (Picture: MELINDA SUE GORDON/NETFLIX)
Corden’s out-sized character clumsily reinforces the classic, reductive trope of the ‘gay best friend’ with the traumatic childhood and a passion for fashion – which is uncomfortably paired with yet another troubling stereotype as he whisks a lesbian who lacks style (because of course) off on a shopping spree.
This is where I think the issue lies – it’s not necessarily the fact that Corden is a straight actor, it’s the fact that his characterisation rests upon lazy cliches that have been used as a tool to oppress queer people for decades.
The answer is not to cast based on sexuality, but on context. In the Broadway musical upon which this film is based, Barry Glickman was played by Brooks Ashmanskas. Ashmanskas originated the role, which was reportedly developed around his naturally charismatic, flamboyant personality.
In interviews at the time, he referred to the importance of the LGBTQ+ community to him personally, noting that the 1980s AIDS epidemic had given him ‘a very deep and lovely perspective on what it means to be gay’.
Ashmanskas understood the context within which his character existed – whereas Corden doesn’t flesh him out further than an extended limp wrist.
The blame for this casting and characterisation doesn’t just lie with Corden – Murphy’s production team were the ones who created and cast the role. Nor is this issue one-of-a-kind – we are already nervously awaiting Disney’s first openly gay male character (to be played by straight actor Jack Whitehall).
The solution is simple: I would urge straight actors to pause and consider whether or why a part may be better played by a member of the LGBTQ+ community. For instance, in Whitehall’s case, what could have been a landmark step forward for the community has sadly been taken from us.
Other reasons may include avoiding the appropriation of lived queer trauma, but in Corden’s case, it’s slightly more complex.
The sad irony here is that The Prom aims to chart the yearning of minorities to feel represented, as well as highlighting the need to put LGBTQ+ voices above those of celebrities.
I was certainly left feeling both issues keenly – but not as Murphy intended.
You can listen to Michael Chakraverty’s newly-released podcast menkind here.
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