All That Glitters Isn’t Gold(en Globe-worthy): The Prom-blem with James Corden
Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’, is an appreciation of the unnatural and exaggerated: the logically nonsensical. Though Ryan Murphy’s latest film, The Prom (2020), does not shy away from the hyperbolic ─ veering away from reality in the temporal mess of its (somewhat jarring) opening ─ in some ways, it goes too far. In his performance as a gay man, James Corden (who, need I remind you, is a straight cis-man) draws on all the wrong stereotypes, to present a caricature plucked straight from a high-school homophobe’s single-celled brain. As if his casting wasn’t disappointing enough, the Hollywood Foreign Press has recognised his performance… with a Golden Globe nomination.
The body of work Ryan Murphy has cultivated over the years would lead us to expect far more of his projects. After all, this is the man who gave us multiple revolutionary shows, such as Glee, American Horror Story, and Pose, all deeply embedded in gay culture, not just in their camp glory, but also because they platform authentic LGBTQ+ stories previously unseen on television. The Prom attempts to capture lightning in a bottle once again, relying on songs which begin as blandly melodic, becoming predictably anthemic towards the climax of the emotionally volatile storyline.
Although this film is aimed towards LGBTQ+ audiences, the narrative would tug at the rusty heartstrings of even the homophobic mobs who protest outside Lady Gaga concerts. At its root, it depicts the struggle of exclusion most of us have faced; trying to make sense of how factors central to your existence justify other people’s malice towards you. The film depicts what we all learn with age: namely that such acts are unjustified, and are reflective not of ourselves, but rather of their perpetrators.
On the surface, The Prom had all the necessary ingredients to replicate Murphy’s trailblazing formula: it portrays positive ways of dealing with struggles, and the rainbow which comes after the rain. In this regard, the film serves as a much-needed beacon of hope for those seeking respite from the discomfort of the small-minded hometowns they have been forced to return to in the pandemic. After all, few things instill comfort like Kidman’s flawless Botox job and the airy tone of Streep’s pompous, detached-from-reality character, reminiscent of her role as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Corden storms on screen like a dark cloud, his character serving as a walking, and unfortunately talking, insult to gay men, all while desperately trying to convince us that his accent is… American?
I thought that by 2020 we’d have all grasped that there was a liiiiittle more to being gay than loosening up your wrist muscles, wearing skinny jeans, and being the designated shopping partner. And for the love of God/Cher, if you’re going to stereotype so heavily, at least try to make it somewhat original, or at least… funny. Setting your phone password as Beyonce’s birthday? Really? The cliches are not only uninspired but completely unrepresentative. The fact that these tropes are being portrayed by a heterosexual actor makes them actually quite offensive. It is a simple case of laughing at, instead of laughing with, and in Corden’s case, the gays are not even in the room. Viewers are smart enough that we don’t need to be spoon-fed outdated stereotypes to understand that a character is gay – them liking the same sex is enough, no further ‘proof’ of their sexuality is necessary.
The main subplot of Corden’s character centres around his reconciliation with his mother, who had thrown him out of the house upon his coming-out. It is bewildering that one of the most prolific gay directors of our time felt comfortable having a straight man portray this deeply emotional experience. This is a sensitive topic for many queer people, and requires an authentic portrayal. What does Corden know about coming out, or being shunned because of it? Nothing, which makes this storyline seem like just another gimmick.
In a piece for the Guardian, Benjamin Lee does not take issue with this, pointing out that casting straight actors in queer roles has paid off time and time again, in films such as ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’. While I do agree that straight actors can play gay roles very well, I find those performances to be outliers. Furthermore, there’s nothing preventing gay actors from doing just as good of a job, if not an even better one, if given the chance, considering the added authenticity they would bring to the role. The LGBTQ+ community feels protective over such roles, especially in an adaptation such as this one where audiences are already familiar with the characters.
Straight actors shouldn’t be telling these stories, because it allows them to profit off something they haven’t gone through the hardship to earn. When a straight actor gains success from portraying a gay role, they are in fact standing on the shoulders of the gay community, without whom these stories wouldn’t exist. This builds resentment throughout queer communities, as we are forced to platform the performance of a straight man in an effort to gain visibility for gay storylines, instead of having the opportunity to support a queer actor, for whom this role could have been a vindicating moment.
Although white gay men are among the most represented minority groups in film and TV, we have not yet reached a point where this representation is sufficient. This is because it is often one-sided, showing the same exaggeratedly camp gay character again and again. Of course, while such characters must be represented in order to fully represent the gay community, this is best done by gay actors, such as Dan Levy in Schitt’s Creek, who can present an honest portrait of their experience. When portraying a marginalised character, the actor speaks on behalf of that community, and therefore has a responsibility to convey the messages appropriately. A straight actor’s impersonal connection to LGBTQ+ issues inevitably makes their portrayal inauthentic, and when playing an effeminate character, it reads like mockery. Amplifying the same harmful stereotypes which serve to ridicule gay men, historically used by straight men resembling him, Corden’s delivery was tone-deaf, and he has no legitimacy to fall back on, which makes it all the more infuriating. His insufficient link to LGBTQ+ struggles inevitably meant he cared less about perfecting his character: to him, it was just another role. For the Golden Globes to award this attitude ─ even with just a nomination ─ is harmful, and shows how detached Hollywood is from the wider public, and specifically the communities it is (finally) attempting to represent.
The fact that Ryan Murphy overlooked the countless Broadway-trained gay men, to give this central role to James Corden, is enraging. As someone so far removed from the discrimination his character would face, Corden is unable to understand the feelings of those who face prejudice, and allowing him to speak on their behalf is a slap in the face. Inauthenticity has characterised Corden’s whole move to the US, going from ‘the bloke down the road who you find in the pub seven days a week’ to the suited-up metrosexual persona he portrays on The Late Late Show. Perhaps there is one thing he can be commended for: his attempt to relate to a story so detached from his own experience. But that damn well doesn’t warrant a Golden Globe.
After graduating from Law in one of the worst years for the job market, Ivan chose to dedicate his time to the things that really mattered: coming up with the perfect tagline for his eventual appearance on one of the Real Housewives franchises. He finds inspiration from a wide variety of films, some of which serve to build up his bank of pretentious discussion topics at dinner parties. To unwind from these strenuous tasks, he day-drinks to Kylie Minogue’s virtual concerts, but will also occasionally read Thomas Hardy, for balance.