Emmy spotlight: Ben Whishaw is the pinnacle of queer excellence in ‘A Very English Scandal’

When Ben Whishaw won a Golden Globe earlier this year for his performance as Norman Scott in “A Very English Scandal,” it was exciting for fans of the actor and his performance, but it was also meaningful to witness. Whishaw publicly came out as gay in 2014 and here he was five years later accepting an award for playing a gay man. In 2019 that might not seem like a big deal, when we’ve had queer performers like Sarah Paulson and Kate McKinnon winning Emmys and cisgender heterosexual actors winning Oscars for playing LGBTQ characters, but it is statistically very rare for openly queer actors to win awards for playing openly queer characters. After winning at the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards and the BAFTA TV Awards, though, Whishaw could be on his way to a rare Emmy victory later this year, and that would be the pinnacle of queer excellence.

Whishaw plays Norman in the Amazon Prime limited series, an openly gay man living in 1960s England where he meets politician Jeremy Thorpe (Hugh Grant), with whom he strikes up a secret love affair. Thorpe soon discards Norman after growing tired of him but this comes back to bite him as Norman threatens to reveal their affair to the public. Thorpe, fearing public shame, then orders men to do away with Norman. Throughout the three-part series, Whishaw portrays Norman as a man just trying to survive from day to day, the desperation clear on his face. But there is also a level of daring confidence to Norman. He doesn’t care what people think of him and he knows how to use his power. Whishaw’s Norman is possessed with an alluring sensibility where you can see why Thorpe was so drawn to him, because we are, too.

Norman has such strong convictions, from his insistence on telling the truth about what happened with Thorpe to his desperate pleas for a new National Insurance card. Whishaw referenced Norman in his Golden Globes acceptance speech, calling him a “queer hero” and by the end of “A Very English Scandal,” it’s hard not to see him as such. It is refreshing to watch a gay character like Norman, who isn’t just a saintly victim or a bitchy queen or a narcissistic mess. Throughout “A Very English Scandal” he is all of those things, but he’s also so much more. He’s a person like everyone else who found love, had his heart broken and stood up for himself all the while his former lover tried to kill him. We’ve all been there! The extraordinary circumstances Norman finds himself in and how he chooses to react to it, unafraid of the establishment’s threats and the public’s jeers can make for an inspiring watch, and Whishaw delivers a masterclass performance through it all.

“Pose” star Billy Porter made headlines for his comments on the effusive praise and acclaim straight actors receive for playing gay characters. “Straight men playing gay, everybody wants to give them an award,” Porter said, at “The Hollywood Reporter” actors roundtable, noting the double standard when it comes to gay actors. We’ve seen that as recently as Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) winning an Oscar and Darren Criss (“The Assassination of Gianni Versace”) winning an Emmy, while performances by LGBTQ actors playing LGBTQ roles go largely unacknowledged. It would be a shame to see this continue with Whishaw, but all those precursor wins could indicate a queer victory up ahead.

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