Cruise Control

Why Is It Libelous to Call an Action Actor Gay?

Tom Cruise sues the way Robert Downey Jr. violates his parole. Downey can't pass up a snort and Cruise can't resist a tort. He's litigated several times to stop rumors that he is impotent, sterile, or (worst of all) gay.

Cruise's latest legal brief was filed last week, after a French publication alleged that his estranged wife, Nicole Kidman, had discovered him grappling with a star of gay wrestling films. (Note to sheltered readers: This is a genre in which the loser usually gets a phallic consolation prize.) The porn star insisted he had never given any interviews about Cruise, the magazine apologized, and the plaintiff was left with another round of unwanted publicity about his sexuality. Such are the wages of suing someone who calls you gay.

Recall that Oscar Wilde's ordeal began when he sued his lover's father for casting aspersions on his heterosexuality. Denying the obvious is always risky business—though not in the case of Liberace, who went after a gossip columnist for describing him as "fruit-flavored" and "mincing," among other fairly accurate terms. This was 1956, and Liberace was smart enough to file his claim in Britain, where it's much easier to prove defamation. Unlike Wilde, he won, and no one dared to utter the G-word in his presence until an autopsy revealed that he had died of AIDS. Then Liberace met the fate of many famous closet cases, becoming the subject of a TV movie that reveled in his homo ways.

Tom the tort man
photo: Tristar Pictures
Tom the tort man

Discretion is no help to the dead. Nor is it usually necessary for the living these days. Yet some queer scandals are still, well, scandalous.

Eddie Murphy never had a George Michael moment when he was stopped in the company of a trannie prostitute by the police. A dude who gets done is in much less trouble than one who goes down, and the unspoken fantasy was that Michael got caught in a men's room giving head. But even a toilet troller can avoid ruination by a tactful silence, the next best thing to a staunch denial that you're gay. The closet doesn't necessarily demand plausibility. You can be as queeny as Liberace, or claim, as Murphy did, that he wasn't looking for sex but merely being "a good Samaritan" by giving a trannie a lift. No matter how odd the explanation may seem, it will suffice if it keeps the complexities of sexuality from being apparent. Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue—or so they say.


But we live in an age when everyone is invited to be out about nearly everything. So how can anyone cry libel for being labeled gay? The answer is that, for many gay people, the code of candor still does not apply. The military is the most obvious institution where silence equals survival, but there are major areas of civilian life where homosexuality is a profound liability. The closet is alive and well in every profession where masculinity is a tool of the trade.

Does this justify Tom's tort-mania? After all, other movie stars have been content to brush off rumors about their sexuality. Richard Gere wasn't fazed by the urban legend linking his intestines with a rodent. (Remember all those gerbil jokes?) Still, after a London paper reported a rumor that Gere was about to come out, he and his wife felt compelled to place an ad assuring the world that their marriage was real. Tom Selleck successfully sued to stop rumors after an activist group plastered the streets with posters proclaiming he was "absolutely queer." Why do certain actors inspire such claims? In some cases, it's because they are true. In others, it's the role these hunky properties play. As masculinity becomes a hot-button issue, the anxiety over sexuality intensifies, especially for actors who specialize in "man's man" roles.

"A lot of it has to do with the sexualization of men's bodies," says film writer David Ehrenstein, whose book Open Secret is a thorough account of Hollywood's queer controversies. The body of a man's man was traditionally covered from the waist down. Women were the objects, men the subjects, of desire. But today the term t&a applies to both sexes. An actor like Jude Law does a nude scene in nearly every film, Ehrenstein notes. "He's married, but he's a completely freewheeling sexual being—and he knows that guys dig him."

A certain androgyny has always heightened the allure of heartthrobs, so it's no surprise that a gay man like Rupert Everett can play a woman's lover (especially if she's Madonna). By the same token, a demi-dyke like Anne Heche can do the nasty with Harrison Ford. After all, lesbian scenes are part of the straight man's pornographic repertoire, and it's not uncommon for straight women to fantasize about gay men. In the arena of film romance, flexibility may actually be an asset. Which is no doubt why Ben Affleck and Matt Damon could kid about being lovers (while denying it). This twofer tactic heads off rumors and bolsters the image of the hip straight guy.

But imagine if Russell Crowe cultivated a similar persona. Would he still be believable as the millennial version of a man's man? This is the heart of Cruise's suit: The implication that he is gay could destroy his credibility in action films. It's a nasty claim, but the essence of libel is a false statement that hurts someone's ability to make a living, and it can be argued that no one wants to see a top gun draw like a bottom; certainly not the men who gravitate to movies like Mission: Impossible. The action genre is one of the last bastions of what Ehrenstein calls "the cordon sanitaire" between straights and gays. It's a line that can't be crossed without raising the fear of pollution that attends all homophobia. How can any real man identify with a goddamn pansy?

Of course, identification is only part of the problem. There's also the anxiety that arises when a gay actor takes on the aggressive persona of an action hero. A homo who holds a gun triggers the scariest straight-male fantasy of all: being raped. This nightmare is what animated the tumult over gays in the military—remember the shower-room panic? It's what haunts gay men who work with young people: the belief that they will force themselves on boys. This image of the gay predator is grounded in a system that measures masculinity by immunity to rape. Male melodramas like Oz show how central rape is to the straight fantasy of homosexuality. Say what you will about progress, but most gay men still shuffle (whether they realize it or not) so that straight guys can keep their fear of violation at bay.


Ehrenstein is convinced that just as gays have broken other barriers in Hollywood, they will soon be starring in action films. I look forward to Queer as Bond. But I won't call my liberation complete until straight men cease to fear me, and I'll know that time has come when a libel suit like Cruise's comes across as the consummate paranoid act. In the meantime, I'm intrigued by Ehrenstein's twist on a classic activist tactic. "I'm starting a new free-speech campaign," he says. "I think the words 'Tom Cruise is gay' should replace 'Have a nice day.' Take back those four magic words. Own them."


Research: Michael Corwin


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