James Corden proves why straight actors should think twice before playing gay | Benjamin Lee

The star’s spectacularly misjudged performance as a gay Broadway actor in Ryan Murphy’s equally tone-deaf Netflix musical is a new low for Hollywood

Whenever the debate over whether straight actors should be allowed to play gay characters has reared its head (and with time, that’s gone from every year to every week), I’ve found myself largely dismissive. As a gay viewer, I crave authenticity within queer stories, preferring them to be at least co-written by queer creators and am forever wanting the spectrum of shared experiences to be more diverse and, crucially, more specific, but when it comes to those inhabiting queer characters, I’m less fussed. I’ve never believed that sexuality should restrict role choice, acting is acting and all that, and history has shown that this more fluid mode of thinking and casting has paid off time and time again.

With more rigidity, we’d never have seen Tom Cullen fall deep in lust and then love in Andrew Haigh’s intimate romance Weekend or Trevante Rhodes’ heart-swelling last act interplay with Andre Holland in Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winner Moonlight or, more recently, Noémie Merlant’s intense chemistry with queer co-star Adèle Haenel in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. On the flipside, if we’re to be strict with this lane-sticking, then we’d have been denied the chance to see Jonathan Groff compellingly lead two seasons of Mindhunter or Neil Patrick Harris turn into Rosamund Pike’s believably creepy stalker in Gone Girl. But last week, in the space of 131 torturous minutes, something started to shift, my head flooded with Noomi Rapace in Prometheus frantically screaming “We were so wrong” on an endless loop.

I was watching, or more accurately enduring, The Prom, Ryan Murphy’s calamitous Netflix adaptation of the sweet-natured, if rather forgettably soundtracked, Broadway musical from 2018. It’s the tale of a quartet of self-obsessed stage actors who descend upon a small Indiana town in the hopes of boosting their public image by trying to force a homophobic school system into letting a student attend the prom with her girlfriend. It’s a nifty idea (loosely based on a true story), ripe for sly satirical jabs at the emptiness of celebrity gesture and on stage it was a breezy, well-performed watch. On screen, what should have been a quick-witted, heart-warming Christmas crowd-pleaser, is instead a rather mortifying, star-stuffed misfire in almost every conceivable way (garishly lit, incoherently edited, incompetently filmed), an extravagantly wrapped lump of coal dumped on Netflix for the holidays. But in among the wreckage, there’s one particularly egregious mis-step that suddenly makes all of the film’s other problems seem minor, like being less bothered about your first date’s tardiness after finding out he’s a prolific serial killer.

While Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington and Keegan Michael-Key emerge mostly unscathed (Streep, predictably, does the heaviest of lifting), it’s somehow the film’s only Tony award-winner who struggles: actor turned talkshow host turned actor James Corden. On stage, the role of a flamboyantly gay larger than life Broadway star was embodied by flamboyantly gay larger than life Broadway star Brooks Ashmanskas, who the character was reportedly written around. For the film version, one would picture perhaps Nathan Lane, given not only his experience and persona but his age, closer to that of Streep, who plays his partner in crime (even a straight actor like Stanley Tucci could have delivered). But in one of the most befuddling casting decisions arguably ever, Murphy, an openly gay writer-director-producer who has consistently provided centre stage opportunities to LGBT actors (from Chris Colfer in Glee to the ground-breakingly diverse cast of Pose to his recent all-gay update of Boys in the Band), decided to hire Corden, a straight actor yet to truly prove his worth in film (he was somehow the most embarrassing element of last year’s Cats, a film made solely of embarrassing elements).

Sexuality aside, Corden’s aggressively charmless performance would be seen as a disaster in its own right but it’s his regressive and clumsy attempts to try and camp it up that edge it into something far more heinous. When critics first got to see the film, it was the bum note no one could ignore. “Offensively miscast” said Newsweek’s Samuel Spencer, the Telegraph’s Tim Robey wrote that it made him “embarrassed” to be gay while, most dramatically yet accurately, Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson called it “one of the worst performances of the 21st century”.

Meryl Streep and James Corden in The Prom.
Meryl Streep and James Corden in The Prom. Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/AP

While there are still some very steep hills to climb, we’ve slowly stumbled our way towards a better place for LGBT representation, a slightly more expanded spread of characters and experiences given room to breathe on the big and small screen. It’s not exactly fair to turn on something as frothy as The Prom and expect this new level of nuance but within a project that’s so proud of its politics (with a laughably high-minded “this is the film we need right now” marketing campaign attached), one shouldn’t be faulted for expecting something a little less tone-deaf. Corden mindlessly crashing his way through the film, mincing and often lisping for gruesome effect recalls exactly the kind of caricature we’d hoped was locked and buried in the past. It’s as if he himself has looked back but even further, back to the playground when the straight bullies would pick on the gay kid by performing outsized impressions and as a result, there’s a sort of meanness to the performance, as if he’s ridiculing what I imagine will be a large percentage of The Prom’s audience.

While I fully doubt that was the intention, there’s so little thought or even craft in his work here that I’m not sure if there was any intention involved at all. But while Corden is inexcusably bad here, more blame should lie at the feet of Murphy for not only choosing to cast him in the first place but for then allowing him to gayface quite so grotesquely. He knows better and has shown that he cares about furthering queer representation and stories, reflected in the aforementioned Pose or his sensitive HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, and it’s confounding then when given a bigger canvas by Netflix, he would choose to regress to a time before he even started in the industry. It’s ironic that for a film all about the importance of remembering and heralding LGBT voices above the shallowness of celebrity, Murphy commits the same sin as the Broadway dummies he’s supposed to be ridiculing (the lesbian couple supposedly at the centre of the story barely get a look in).

I still believe that straight actors have the ability to play gay but in order to do so, there should be not only a basic internal conversation (Am I right for this? Can I do this well? Would a gay actor, or perhaps on this occasion almost anyone else, do this better?) but also, at the very least, a vague sign of a connection to a community outside of their own (Corden’s idea of gayness is rooted not in reality but in 70s sitcoms). The backlash Corden has faced, and will continue to, should be a wake-up call to many who haven’t thought these things through with enough time or care and a warning that for those who don’t, there’ll be tomatoes rather than roses waiting …

  • The Prom is now showing at select cinemas and will be released on Netflix on 11 December

  • This article was amended on 9 December 2020. An earlier version incorrectly suggested Aubrey Plaza was straight when she is bisexual. This has been corrected.

Contributor

Benjamin Lee

The GuardianTramp

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