Netflix’s The Prom is a delightfully queer musical about a young woman facing discrimination by her small-town Indiana school board who would rather cancel the high school prom than allow a lesbian to experience a teenage rite of passage. Fortunately, she is unexpectedly gifted a group of powerful allies in the form of performative charity work from some of Broadway’s biggest stars. It’s a movie about acceptance, love, personal identity, and recognizing that those who cause harm to others based on whether or not they’re straight are on the wrong side of history.
So of course, the only Golden Globe nomination went to the straight James Corden and his offensive performance playing gay.
Corden isn’t the first straight identifying actor to be rewarded for taking on the oh-so impressive feat of playing a gay character. Tom Hanks earned his first Oscar for Philadelphia, the alleged Jonathan “I'm sorry for Silence of the Lambs being so homo/transphobic” Demme film, Sean Penn earned an Oscar for playing the real-life Harvey Milk, Annette Bening was nominated for The Kids are All Right, both Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett were nominated for Carol and rather than continue listing random celebrities, here’s a list from The Advocate of 60+ others who have also been nominated.
There is an unfortunate trend in film and television where playing queer characters and telling queer stories are apparently seen as too great a challenge for anyone other than high-profile straight actors to tackle. Films in the early nineties might have had a cultural excuse to hide behind, but we're well past the point where we should be seeing said trend continue.
Based on the Broadway show of the same name, The Prom is directed by the openly gay Ryan Murphy, who absolutely should know better. Plenty have justified the casting of James Corden by noting his popularity with most of America as the host of The Late Late Show and his viral “Carpool Karaoke” segments, but this is also a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep. It’s highly doubtful that casting someone boasting Bustopher Jones: The Cat About Town in Cats as one of their most recent acting credits was really going to dictate whether or not someone was going to watch The Prom.
Corden plays Barry Glickman, a character made famous by Brooks Ashmanskas who won the Tony award for Best Actor playing the exuberant and effeminate role. Sadly, rather than take a nuanced approach to dramatic flourishes or theatric vocal inflection, Corden’s delivery feels like someone imitating an episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Barry Glickman is no longer a layered character—he’s a caricature of what straight people think gay men are supposed to act like. That choice becomes most apparent when Glickman experiences his dramatic moments, and suddenly his larger than life characteristics are nowhere to be found. There are plenty of gay men who are as flamboyant as Glickman, but their flipped wrists and tossed scarves are embedded in their personalities, not as an ‘-ism’ that looks like a cheap imitation of Big Gay Al on South Park only to be used when it’s convenient or comedic.
It would be cringe-worthy albeit dismissible if Glickman were nothing more than a sassy caricature, but the character’s entire dramatic arc and the heart of The Prom hinges on his own strained history with his family as a former Midwest gay kid. In a touching exchange between Corden’s Glickman and Streep’s Dee Dee Allen, Glickman reveals that after he came out, his parents threatened him with conversion therapy or be kicked out. So, he left. Allen pleads with Glickman to make amends with his parents or he’ll regret it to which he replies, “I’m not the one that should have regrets. I was the kid.”
Glickman’s character serves not just as comedic relief, but as the central throughline of why it’s so damaging to not affirm queer kids, and why it’s so important for queer children to have community elders to look toward for guidance. The things Barry Glickman says are important. The experience he has is real for so many actual LGBTQ+ individuals. And yet despite casting queer actors for the other queer roles in the film, a straight man is the one given the opportunity to deliver the guidance and words of wisdom that could and should resonate with queer people of all ages.
The messaging is too important to come from the mouth of a straight person because it diminishes its impact and guts it in the process.
Acting is a job, and as such, it’s illegal for casting agents to ask actors to disclose their sexual orientation. For small-scale projects casting from hordes of audition tapes, it’s somewhat understandable if a role for a gay character goes to someone that isn’t gay. (Hey straight people: stop going out for gay parts, maybe?) But this is a massive Netflix release with high-caliber actors that are likely offer-only at this point. Were Tituss Burgess or Nathan Lane or any of the multitude of other openly gay actors nowhere to be found?
Back in 2014, a SAG-AFTRA survey conducted by UCLA’s LGBT think tank Williams Institute revealed that over half of LGBTQ+ performers have overheard directors and producers make anti-gay comments about actors, and believe that directors and producers are biased against LGBTQ+ performers. The report included quotes from performers like, “I’ve seen gay men read for straight roles and when they left the room, the casting director indicated that they would not be taken seriously in the straight role because they were gay.”
The reality is that straight people are hailed for playing queer roles, queer people are seen as not an option for straight roles, and if the straight people are taking up all of the queer roles, queer actors are left with less opportunities. Save your “but what about Neil Patrick Harris on How I Met Your Mother" arguments—we’ve heard it, and we’re tired. All of this is compounded by other intersections like age, race, and gender identity, which makes Murphy’s decision to cast Corden in this role, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s decision to nominate him for a Golden Globe all the more egregious.
Giving Corden this nomination sends a message to directors and producers that not only is the practice of casting straight actors in gay roles acceptable, it’s worthy of awards.
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