Photo: BEImages/Gregory Pace.
Hollywood’s relationship with Christian Grey and the 50 Shades franchise has been fraught with controversy from its inception. The Internet wasted no time in reviving its obsessive speculation over who will play the eponymous sex god since Charlie Hunnam dropped off the bill. Matt Bomer’s name swiftly re-entered into the periphery, as did Ian Somerhalder’s and model-turned-actor Jamie Dornan. And, yet, it’s Bomer's name that’s been mentioned again and again...and not without controversy.
Last year Bret Easton Ellis tweeted the opinion that Bomer is, by and large, the wrong fit. Despite a petition with nearly 90,000 signatures to cast the White Collar actor as Christian Grey, Ellis’ comments from August 2012 still loom over the franchise. “Matt Bomer is totally hot and a very good actor,” Ellis tweeted. “He is NOT right for Christian Grey and it complicated the role.” Why? Because Bomer is gay. “I don’t care how good of an actor you are but being married to another man complicated things for playing CG,” he continued. “It’s about an intensely straight actor wanting to absolutely screw Ana Steele.” He finishes his rant claiming it’s “absolutely ludicrous.”
The current intention behind 50 Shades is to create a franchise hopefully mimicking the success of its original material (it is an elaborate Twilight fan-fiction, after all). It is important to note that the success of this series is very much ground in the desire for fantasy, and has also become a venue for women to discuss their sexuality. Bret Easton Ellis puts this in more straightforward terms: "I am NOT discriminating Matt Bomer because of his sexuality. Fifty Shades of Grey demands an actor that is genuinely into women. Get it?!?" Though, to be fair, as another openly gay man in Hollywood, he is glad that the discussion is even happening. "I actually think it's cool that women want Matt Bomer as Christian Grey. It means that we've moved beyond stereotypes and that gay is hot..." However, the most poignant part of the rant ends with a fact that the Hollywood insider knows too well: 50 Shades Of Grey is going to be a big-numbers gamble. As Ellis added in another Tweet, "[Bomer] is great for other roles but this is too big a game." It is a big game, after all.
One of the things that made Twilight so commercially successful was the off-screen romance between Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. The fantasy love between Bella and Edward was more palpable because the audience saw not only the characters onscreen, but also Stewart and Pattinson as their characters offscreen. Let's be clear: Matt Bomer is an incredible actor, and his ability to play a role — of any sexual orientation — isn't being contested. (In fact, another openly gay man plays a skirt-chaser in one of TV's top shows, with Neil Patrick Harris playing the unflappable Barney in HIMYM.) This isn't just about Bomer playing straight, but it is about Bomer playing straight while having a lot of on-screen sex with a woman, and asking large groups of women (50 Shades' bread and butter) to believe in the lust. Instead, the casting (or even hypothetical casting) of Bomer raises a serious question: Would Hollywood ever bank on an openly gay heartthrob in such a (hetero)sexually explicit, fantasy-laden role?
“If there is resistance [to Bomer]…the studio could possibly be tied to old-fashioned worries that an openly gay male can’t bring in the box-office playing a hetero, romantic lead character,” says Sean Griffen, Chair and Associate Professor of Film & Media Arts at Southern Methodist University. These old-fashion worries Griffen refers to are Hollywood's homophobic past. In The Celluloid Closet, the seminal documentary of Hollywood's relationship with homosexuality, Harry Hamill explained the caution his agents yielded before signing on to Making Love. He explained that "playing gay" would ruin his career. Quentin Crisp then clarifies the reason homosexuals, despite their presence in Hollywood, were discriminated against had to do with the audience's imagination. "When we imagine what people do, we imagine ourselves doing it." It's a notion that, according to Claire Potter, Professor of History at The New School University, believes is outdated in America today. However, Potter continues to unpack her statement: "The biggest market for Hollywood’s product is global, and Hollywood product has to be able to cross boarders and cultural regions where homosexuals are read quite differently.”
Are we really lagging so far behind on progress? And, if so, who is to blame? Out-of-touch Hollywood producers who won't think beyond dusty-old marketing gimmicks, or the viewers themselves, who by now, should have the ability to separate fantasy from reality? If Hollywood is prepared to think beyond the bottom line and go with Bomer, we may just get the chance to find out.