May 13, 2010, 06:13AM

As its ship sinks, Newsweek grasps at gay straws

Who will buy?

The May 5 announcement that The Washington Post Co. is throwing in the towel on Newsweek and offering it to the highest bidder has caused waves of concern to splash across the media landscape, but a rather deafening response from potential suitors. According to the New York Observer, “people familiar with the situation” are claiming that Thomson Reuters and Politico owner Allbritton Communications, and possibly News Corp. and Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, are in the running—but so far, nothing concrete has happened.

Again, quoting one of the more lachrymose tunes from the Broadway show Oliver!: Who will buy?

I reference a musical advisedly, as concurrent with the “Newsweek’s broken” storyline is the ongoing outrage over an April 26 column by the magazine’s Ramin Setoodeh, “Straight Jacket,” that took Sean Hayes to task for being insufficiently hetero to successfully portray the decidedly non-gay character of Chuck Baxter in the current Broadway revival of Promises, Promises.

“Heterosexual actors play gay all the time,” reads the column’s subhead. “Why doesn’t it ever work in reverse?”

To illustrate his point, Setoodeh complains, “It’s weird seeing Hayes play straight. He comes off as wooden and insincere, like he’s trying to hide something, which of course he is.” Setoodeh also takes a swipe at Jonathan Groff, the openly gay Broadway star now on Glee, where “there’s something about his performance that feels off. In half his scenes, he scowls—is that a substitute for being straight? When he smiles or giggles, he seems more like your average theater queen, a better romantic match for [the show’s] Kurt than Rachel... He is so distracting, I’m starting to wonder if Groff’s character on the show is supposed to be secretly gay.”

He also drags in Rock Hudson, explaining that today it’s hard to buy his hetero swagger in films like Pillow Talk when we know the details of Hudson’s real life. “If an actor of the stature of George Clooney came out of the closet tomorrow,” Setoodeh writes, “would we still accept him as a heterosexual leading man? It’s hard to say. Or maybe not. Doesn’t it mean something that no openly gay actor like that exists?”

The reaction to Setoodeh’s column has been, predictably, outraged. Hayes’ co-star Kristin Chenoweth blasted the piece as “horrendously homophobic,” and Glee creator Ryan Murphy called for a boycott of the publication until it apologizes.

For his part, Setoodeh has revisited the issue, finally acknowledging that he is gay, whining about all the personal strife he’s had to endure in the aftermath, and trying to reiterate what he says is his main point, that there’s no gay actor of Clooney’s stature working today.

Setoodeh may have a real point somewhere in his tangled logic, but he delivers it in an incredibly flat-footed manner—one that his editors, by rights, should have flagged and either asked for a rewrite or spiked.

His original piece excuses openly gay actors like Cynthia Nixon and Portia de Rossi from his argument, since they’re lesbians and “straight men think it’s OK for them to kiss a girl and like it.” In addition, de Rossi and Neil Patrick Harris don’t count because they “inhabit broad caricatures”—unlike, say, Chuck Baxter, who busts out into Burt Bacharach songs.

The invocation of Rock Hudson is particularly weak. Yes, it was a different era, but contemporary audiences watching Pillow Talk in 1959 likely weren’t sniggering at the idea of Rock pretending to be attracted to Doris Day. By the same token, would Setoodeh’s ability to buy Hayes’ or Groff’s portrayals be so compromised if he wasn’t aware of their sexuality?

Harris may be playing caricatures, but his performances of hetero characters in Broadway’s AssassinsDr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and the Harold & Kumar pictures (where he’s playing a caricature of a caricature) are not lessened by the knowledge that he doesn’t really like girls in “that way.”

As for Clooney, he’s 49 and single. (He was married once, for a few years—just as Hudson was.) Who’s to decisively say which way he, or any of Hollywood’s other big names, swings? And why is it so important?

Setoodeh’s cloddish arguments are at least keeping Newsweek in the spotlight at the moment, a place it hasn’t been since the Sarah Palin jogging cover of last November. But it’s not the kind of attention you want when you’re trying to convince someone to buy your supposedly “serious” publication and keep it going. Meacham and his editing staff need to prove that they’re keeping their eye on their content while they’re peddling the weekly.


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