Congrats, Christopher Plummer: Playing gay + dying = Oscar

By Tom O'Neil
By Tom O'Neil
Jan 31 2012 18:00 pm
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Christopher Plummer looks like a good bet to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for several reasons. He gives a critically hailed performance in "Beginners," he's a beloved veteran overdue for academy glory and – perhaps most important – he's a straight actor portraying a gay man who dies a hideous death on screen.

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That last factor seems to be a slam-dunk way to snag an Oscar these days. No openly gay or lesbian actor has ever won an Academy Award for portraying a LBGT role on screen, but straight actors get rewarded for showing the guts to do so – as long as the characters come to a tragic end.

William Hurt was the first star to win for a lavender role. In "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (1985), his character Molina – a flamboyant, movie-obsessed prison inmate – gets shot and his body is hurled into a dumpster.

Getting shot is also the screen fate of the last straight actor to win for going gay on screen – Sean Penn as assassinated gay activist Harvey Milk in "Milk" (2008).

In 1993, Tom Hanks won for portraying a lawyer who dies of AIDS in "Philadelphia."

Charlize Theron ("Monster") bagged Oscar gold in 2003 as a lesbian serial killer who's executed by lethal injection in prison.

Even transgender roles seem to fall into this Oscar classification. Consider Hilary Swank getting beaten to death as Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry" (1999).

There's one case of a straight actor portraying a gay man that doesn't quite fit the pattern. Literary gadfly Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) doesn't die hideously on screen at the end of "Capote," but the novelist did so in reality, of course, succumbing to overindulgence in drugs and booze.

Now that leads to this year's example: Christopher Plummer. No spoiler alert is needed before mentioning that he portrays an old man felled by cancer soon after he comes roaring out of the closet in "Beginners." The story is told in flashback, so movie viewers know his fate as the movie starts to unspool.

What does it all mean? One possibility is that academy voters – as wildly rumored -- are stubborn, old conservative men with  ancient views of homosexuality that, literally, die hard in Hollywood. The Oscars may prove that not much has changed in more than half a century since homosexual characters killed themselves in infamous films like "Advise and Consent" and "The Children's Hour" (1962).

 
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