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CHELLMAN: Cast queer actors in queer films

The Queer Community deserves better than hetero-normalized films like “Call Me By Your Name”

<p>Though “Call Me By Your Name” has been praised for its queer narrative, the film fails in its attempt at queer representation.&nbsp;</p>

Though “Call Me By Your Name” has been praised for its queer narrative, the film fails in its attempt at queer representation. 

Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name” has been called “a film to rush to, and to then savor every minute of.” Nominated for three Golden Globes and four Academy Awards, the movie follows 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Timotheé Chalamet) over the course of his breathtaking and surreal summer romance with Oliver (Armie Hammer), his father’s graduate student assistant. Though “Call Me by Your Name” has been praised for its queer narrative, the film fails in its attempt at queer representation by casting straight actors as its two LGBTQ protagonists. Such a casting decision cannot be relegated to the realm of “artistic choice” or accepted as inherently benign. Rather, such choices are detrimental to queer actors struggling in a discriminatory industry and lose important opportunities to validate the queer experience. 

Many criticisms of “Call Me by Your Name’s” romance extend beyond the realm of casting decisions. Elio and Oliver’s relationship proceeds with very little dialogue or interiority, leading some critics to call it “sanitized” and “disingenuous.” Their relationship also avoids almost any reference to queer culture; neither men are involved in queer life, nor does the film –– set in Northern Italy in the 1980s –– draw on the queer political issues of its time. Perhaps the greatest indication of its more fundamental errors is the film’s evasion of sex altogether. “The gayest film of 2017” shies away from the physical intimacy central to its protagonists’ love affair.

In so many ways, “Call Me by Your Name” seems sheepish or ashamed of its queer narrative when its audience deserves courage and confidence. But these aspects of cinematic shyness represent the symptoms of the film’s more systemic failing: neither of the film’s protagonists –– Chalamet and Hammer –– identify with the queer community in real life. 

This should not be easily ignored or quickly forgiven. First, LGBTQ actors remain in desperate need of recognition and respect. Although around 50 straight-identifying actors have been nominated for an Academy Award, an Oscar has never been awarded to an openly queer actor. Hollywood, moreover, remains a deeply discriminatory industry in which queer actors struggle to find roles and, even when casted, face various forms of abuse on set. With queer narratives like that in “Call Me by Your Name” so tragically rare, we cannot afford to waste opportunities to celebrate LGBTQ actors. The issue also extends to the perspective of the audience. It means something for a queer viewer –– perhaps closeted, perhaps without access to openly LGBTQ role models in the world around them –– to watch a queer story and understand that it is anchored in reality. Our culture venerates celebrities, and queer people could use some veneration.

I am not only concerned, however, with missed opportunities for representation. Ultimately, casting straight actors in movies with queer narratives corrupts those movies entirely. Cloaked in the semblance of LGBTQ validation, these films corrode the self-confidence and self-acceptance of their queer audience by inherently endorsing nothing but heterosexuality as our social “normal.” Queerness in these movies becomes a mirage –– a fantasy to be nominally acknowledged but perpetually undercut by the hegemony of straightness. These movies imply that queerness is only “palatable” through the lens of heterosexuality. They imply that queerness cannot exist on its own but must live, parasitically, on the back of a more acceptable way of being. And they imply that what queer audiences should admire, respect, aspire to and even love is what they are not and what they can never be.

It is easy to cover these problems up and pretend that they’re something else entirely. Some argue that acting is all about becoming someone different. Some –– like the film’s director –– argue that actors should be chosen based on their chemistry and personality, not identity. Clearly, actors do not need to identify with all aspects of the characters they portray. We do not need astronauts to play astronauts or museum curators to play museum curators. But not all aspects of our identity are equal, and most people would agree that there are certain sacred parts of ourselves that undergird everything we are. These identities demand personal experience to portray.

My point is not that “Call Me by Your Name” is unimportant. The proliferation of any queer narrative helps to legitimize queer experience. The point is rather that we deserve so much better. We deserve to take two steps forward without taking another step back toward what we are not. We deserve to swoon at a queer romance without feeling like we’ve bitten into a poisoned apple. We deserve to see ourselves in all our beauty and truth on screen, and we deserve something other than the “powerful universality” that Guadagnino sought in his film. We deserve ourselves.

Jack Chellman is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at