Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Gay Actors vs. Newsweek. The Controversy Continues

So that controversial Newsweek article "Straight Jacket" -- which suggests that no gay actor can ever successfully play a straight character -- is still rocking the internet. Or at least Twitter. The article's author Ramin Setoodeh is also the Oscar blogger for Newsweek and I swear my fury at him has nothing to do with the fact that I'm terrific at Oscar blogging and have been for a decade but I never get employed by household name magazines to write about them ;) I swear it. I didn't actually know he was their Oscar blogger until today.

Mr. Setoodeh is gay himself -- as he and his new enemy Kristin Chenoweth were both quick to point out -- but that's really neither here nor there in this discussion because homophobia knows no sexual orientation. It can exist in anyone. And whether or not he intended the cynical piece to be self-serving (he's certainly more famous now), that's the effect. So it's hard to listen to him whine about how angry people are at him.

In his latest piece, a response to the attacks that have come swiftly down on him for the piece (including from celebrities like Kristin Chenoweth, Glee's Ryan Murphy and Cheyenne Jackson), he claims that it's been entirely miscontrued and tries to reconfigure the article as being only about two things: the Tony nominated performance of Sean Hayes in Broadway's Promises Promises and that there's no test case for a major male movie star coming out and how the audience would respond and why is that and wouldn't they reject it?

ShareI use the word "reconfigure" because those were only two of the points he made in the article (and one of them isn't a point but a leading question) and they were the two that offended me the least. I haven't seen Promises Promises but when I saw Damn Yankees I felt that Sean Hayes wasn't playing the role much differently than he played "Just Jack" on Will & Grace and that that was a problem in a new context. So maybe he is all wrong for that part... who knows? And it's true that a major male movie star hasn't really come out in their prime to test any of these theories. But so what? Just because something hasn't been done before doesn't mean it won't be done fact it almost always means the exact opposite.

Here's what I wrote in response (albeit cleaned up for grammar as I get sloppy when I'm angry)
This is a dodge when what's needed is an apology.

I take no issue with citing one actor for a specific role --- there have been and will always be specific roles for which any actor is not well suited. The problem is that the primary example, Sean Hayes in Promises Promises, is used to paint a large and unflattering picture of gay actors with broad strokes.

It's pretty horrifying to suggest that Sir Ian McKellen, widely regarded as one of the greatest actors in the English language, is unsuited to 90% of the great roles throughout history. Who in their right mind (I mean a mind without homophobic impulses) would suggest this?

And the examples are obviously cherry-picked to draw a conservative "stay in the closet!" picture for actors who haven't come out. I haven't seen one single thing to suggest that audiences want Cynthia Nixon replaced as Miranda in Sex & the City now that she's come out of the closet. I mean, really!?

More troubling still is the not-so veiled suggestion that some of the greatest movie stars of all time suddenly have worthless filmographies. I'd venture that anyone willing to enjoy Hollywood classics won't see the work of Montgomery Clift for example and think 'Damn... this movie is pretty good but IF ONLY HE HAD CHEMISTRY WITH LIZ TAYLOR.' As if A Place in the Sun doesn't offer a striking fascinating chemistry between two of the greatest stars who ever lived.

So in short (too late) I think we still need an apology.

According to Newsweek logic, these terrific beloved actors pictured above (among hundreds of others) are unsuitable for about 90% of the roles they've ever played. What a shame! So many classics and memorable entertainments must now be dismissed because these people are queer. [/sarcasm]

Anyway, sometimes you just have to vent. I must let this go now. Are you still thinking about this controversy or are you just waiting for it to go away?


Unknown said...

I was watching the author on Joy Behar last night, and I could not believe how clueless he was about the criticisms being made of him, or even the content of his article. He thinks he was just raising a question when, if you read the article, he was clearly answering it in a way that enabled homophobia.

Anyway, there comes a time in reviewing any thinker (I use the term loosely) when I have to conclude they're just an idiot with a value system so out of touch with reality that the only solution is to ignore them and move on (see also Rhonda Byrne, Rick Warren, Ayn Rand), even as they keep speaking and digging themselves deeper, and we're well past that point w/ Setoodeh.

verninino said...

I'm imagining Tom Cruise in a Rock Hudson biopic directed by Pedro Almodovar with cameos by Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth Taylor and Tilda Swinton as Doris Day.

"And... Action!"

Vovlagia said...

The real problem is arguably asexual actors playing straight or gay people in highly sexualised contexts. Acting = Sense Memory. If, say, you have no to near no sexual interest in women, it's going to be very hard to act out sexual interest. Perfect example: Think hard about Cusack vs. Malkovich as Craig Schwartz in Being John Malkovich. That Cusack can't seem sexually or emotionally interested in his wife is good, but having what is, with Cusack's delivery, just romantic interest in Maxine be shorthand for sexual interest later on is questionable at best, almost movie wrecking at worst. (And I love the movie.) Cusack was WRONG for this part. Malkovich has to pick up the pieces of a mis-cast for the parts of the movie where he's really Craig, including trying to impersonate Cusack's cadence, and, thankfully, manages to sound sexually interested in Maxine. Malkovich, in short, saved the film. (If it was Being Tom Cruise, the thing would have been a total disaster.) Homosexual people at least have memories of sexual interest and there's no reason to think that they can't play straight people.

Chris Na Taraja said...

Great article, and great response.

I guess Rock Hudson was not suited for all those romantic comedies in the 50's too.

And I'm not even going to touch Tom Cruise!

ShoNuff Lives said...

this is why more actors need to come out, so that the self-hating drones who write crap like that can move on. kids are still thrown out of their homes for being gay, yet some actors are afraid of not getting million dollar paydays. if more actors who are living fairly openly officially came out, this would be less of an issue.

great response, though, on the faulty logic. bad casting will forever be a problem, but its overcomable. sean hayes has no range, but he could easily be a romantic foil for some other outrageous comedian (like, say amy poehler, parker posey, or ana gasteyer). its the role & the foil that matter, not the personal behavior.

Flosh said...

It seemed pretty clear to me on reading the first piece that, though he painted with far too broad a brush, he was specifically dealing with gay men playing heterosexual characters in romantic roles, a la Hayes in Promises Promises and Hudson in Pillow Talk. While this is a bias on the author's part, it's not any different, or to me worse, than a friend who doesn't like Russell Crowe in anything because he threw a phone at that guy years ago and is, therefore, an asshole.

While we might wish that people were 100% open-minded to all actors in all roles no matter the circumstances, that's not how things usually pan out. Breaking out the pitchforks seems a tad over the top as far as responses go.

The fault here seems to me not in confessing to a bias, but in applying that bias generally across a diverse range of performers, to the point where it becomes absurd.

McKellan and Clift are maybe the best argument against this, but hell, how about Rock Hudson in Seconds? It's not as if his career began and ended with campy 50s romantic comedies.

The smart thing would've been for the author to just walk it back, and admit his mistake. But it doesn't sound like he's doing the smart thing. Oh well.

Volvagia said...

The ultimate asexual movie:

An Edward Gorey adaptation starring John Cusack written and directed by Jhonen Vasquez.

Volvagia said...

And, yeah, I know it's sad that there aren't more film culture artifacts to create an "ultimate" movie for asexuals. As is, well, there are only two actors who arguably are such. One (John Cusack) may have found it out around 95-96 (pre-GPB), but decided to not tell the public yet. The other (Tom Cruise) probably experimented with gay sex to find out neither gender sexually interested him in the late 80s to discover later that those experiments made people think he's actually gay. Cusack could reveal it with dignity if he gets huge. Cruise jeporadised it with experiments that prevent any sort of public unveiling that ends with acceptance from most of the fans he has left. Yet, they're still both currently trainwrecks as far as "arguable" cases go.

Volvagia said...

And as for Gorey and Vasquez:

Gorey admitted that he was, but he's such an obscure name it doesn't matter at all.

Vasquez, though he doesn't admit it, only writes characters who are such for some reason or another. Whether it's aliens with shut down libidos, a homicidal maniac who doesn't discount the possibility of tearing off his genitals, robots or children, a vast majority of his major/sympathetic characters are, in some way, asexual. Any character with sexual motivation is always a minor, thinly sketched a-hole. And the thing about authors? There's always a piece of themselves in the characters. When it's the same piece, that's really telling. And again, he's so obscure it doesn't matter at all.

Hayden said...
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vg21 said...

Thank you, Nathaniel, we can always count on you! I am shocked how ignorantly the author reacted to the criticism about his thoughts.

And I would even turn the question around - how come that straight actors playing homosexual roles is not opposed the same way? That's the same issue and I don't think there is any problem in either case if it's a good actor in the role.

I loved your collection of gay actors and the reference to their roles :). So great ones!!

Hayden said...

The biggest issue I have is that the article called into question whether gay actors can act, period. I mean, the purpose of acting is to embody a character who is in some way different than yourself. Public perception is so irrelevant: everybody knows that Nicole Kidman is Australian but that doesn't stop us from buying her best performances as Brits and Americans.

His reaction to the criticism is puzzling. It would be one thing if he was advocating against playing against-type in all cases (which, again, is antithetical to the point of acting) but he's simultaneously praising Jake Gyllenhaal as he tears down Hayes, then acting as if he hasn't presented a double standard. And it's a double standard he wants us to think is universal, but he's based the entire logic of his article on his own opinion.

The only way he tries to pin this problem on the "real world" instead of his own narrow purview is to say a lack of examples to contradict his homophobic assertion is therefore proof that it's true.

notanotherblog said...

Setoodeh falls into the trap that every OTHER second rate journalist/blooger (not you, obviously, Nathaniel <3) falls under. Instead of waiting for the three = trend, they rely on syllogisms.

"Sean Hayes 'sucks' at playing a straight. All gays suck at playing straight."

I'm not defending Setoodeh at all. What he said was still anti-gay and it's hilarious watching him deny that. Vigilance isn't the right word but we owe it to correct sloppiness like his.

notanotherblog said...

P.s. The worst part about this drama was I had to go to Perez to read Chenoweth's reaction to Setoodeh.


hayden -- exactly. it's like he can't write OR read. How he can he read his own work and think it's about what he says it's about. and asking leading/damning questions is no real way to start an open dialogue.

notanother -- good points and thank you.

verninino - you are crazy! that's why i love you. we need to queue up another Jeanne Moreau flick if you have any time off!

vovlagia -- while you're taking us way off track the Cusack example is interesting because some actors (who knows why) aren't particularly good at sexually expressive roles... or the are in some cases and totally aren't in others. Like Daniel Day-Lewis who everyone agrees is a fine fine actor... but he doesn't really play romance and internal sexuality all that well, does he???? with one or two notable exceptions.

Runs Like A Gay said...


It is obscene that he can get a contract with Newsweek when you haven't had one for any major publication. This is something that I am sure will be rectified at some point in the future.

I fundamentally disagree with Setoodah's opinion. When an actor inhabits a role it is their job to project the emotions of the character not of them as an individual. It is highly unlikely that Bud Cort really develops a romantic yearning for Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude, or that Brian Cos is really a peadophile as presented in L.I.E but we buy the characters motivations because of the strength of the performances regardless of the actual desires of the actors.

Likewise your example of Montgomery Clift in a Place in the Sun is such a powerful and sexually driven performance we believ he is desperately in lust for Taylor. (I confess I am struggling to think of an example of Sir Ian playing a character driven by heteroseual desires - in most of his roles he appears to be asexual or sexuality is somehow related to other goals, such as the seduction of Lady Anne in Richard III).

In order to prove his theory Setoodah presents examples of gay actors giving bad performances in straight roles (I haven't seen Promises, Promises so can't comment and I believe the Rock Hudson comment is irrelevant as the style of the movie is to feminise the macho hero to some extent) and then uses these to accuse all gay performers. Ignoring all caseswhere they get it right. On the other hand he praises Gyllenhaal for the good performance ignoring the - countless - examples of straight actors getting it wrong.

On the other hand his point about perception is partly justified. It is surprisingly difficult to seperate our perception of the artist with their work - look at the endless debates about the cultural reach of Wagner. When you go into a play or film and know the background of the actors that will change your view of their performances.

Whilst there are relatively few out actors around this does mean when we see one, especially in a role that revolves around attraction to someone of the other gender, we are bound to look for inconsistencies.

The reality is that it will take a major star in romatic roles to come out for this trend to change.


it might take a major star coming out to change that fully. BUT here's the thing. why treat it like it's fact, when any fine actor can fully convince in a role that they aren't totally unsuited for?

People will ALWAYS have prejudices against other people... so it's stupid to act as if those prejudices are everyone's prejudices.

I just can't believe someone would dismiss Neil Patrick Harris and Jonathan Groff and Portia deRossi for recent performances which IN NO WAY aren't good performances, you know? Groff is fantastic on that show and he's *SUPPOSED TO* make you question his sexual motives with Lea. You're not supposed to be fully comfortable with their romance, you know?

I just think this guy is an idiot and he's making bad arguments that a lot of peopel are already susceptible to (like casting directors) because of their own fear and what kind of a person are they for doing so?

i guess in the end people who actively do things to make the world a worse or more uncomfortable place for other people strike me as very dangerous or at least very sad people.


*deep breaths*

Christine said...

I could see his point if he were saying that he doesn't buy gay actors when they play straight characters AND he also doesn't buy straight actors when they play gay characters. Stuff like that can happen when you know a lot about an actor's private life and they play way against type. George Clooney is never going to get away with playing a mousy, timid guy, for example. But his argument as it stands doesn't make any sort of sense.

I have to disagree with the DDL point though. Sure he was strangely terrible in Nine and doesn't do romantic or sexual characters often, but when he's done them, he's done them well (My Beautiful Laundrette, Unbearable Lightness of Being, Age of Innocence, Last of the Mohicans). But I get the point about some very good actors being unsuited for romantic parts.

Also, until this whole discussion I, um, had no idea Montgomery Clift was gay. Somehow, I think I'll still be able to enjoy his performances.

ShoNuff Lives said...

i think the biggest problem with the author is that he's simply a bad writer and should not be employed by a name publication/website. he doesn't understand how to use the language he's writing in, nor the implications of the words he puts together. just too much missing upstairs, and real analysis requires real thought.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Setoodeh is clearly working out his own issues with his sexuality in this piece. Or rather, working WITH his issues. I note that the opposite argument wasn't made, and likely because Ledger and Gyllenhal were fairly convincing in Brokeback Mountain; and Swayze, Leguizamo, and Snipes were even better in Too Wong Foo, despite being straight. It's an absurd argument that doesn't have anything to do with the actors involved.

I'm always a little surprised when Sir McKellen is brought up as having any sexual orientation whatsoever. He's an Actor's Actor, I think, and like Peter O'Toole I don't think of them as having any life outside of the silver screen - or the stage.

To drag things a little off topic in order to increase the love for Sir Ian, I submit to you a little story.

My friend Jay went to Juilliard for acting, and during the time he was there, Sir Ian showed up to do a Q&A with that year's crop of actors. Everyone was asking Serious Acting Questions, as might be expected, and Sir Ian was answering honestly, as also might be expected (see above re. actor's actor). Jay raised his hand near the end of the session and said, "Sir McKellen, since you've embodied both characters on screen, I think you're the most qualified person on earth to answer my question." Sir Ian shifted a little in surprise and said, "That makes me a little nervous. What question?" Jay went on, "Sir, if Gandalf and Magneto were to get in a fight, who would win?"

Sir Ian McKellen, champion of the RSC and consummate performer, stood up and glared down at my friend for a moment, then said, "Well, young man, that would depend. Are you thinking of Gandalf the Grey, or Gandalf the White?"

Iggy said...

Yes, I knew his face was familiar, he was at those Newsweek Oscar Roundtables.

I miss the reaction of straight actors to this. I don't know why but I'd like to know what Meryl streep or Sean Penn, for instance, think about it.

I haven't read his response (don't want to), but I've seen the clip embedded at Towleroad. I don't know what's sadder, that the 3 sitting at that table are each more outlandish than the other or that the one with more common sense is that actress from Married with Children (I don't know she was gay, btw).

I wouldn't expect an apology unless Newsweek forces him to do it. It'd imply accepting his own self-loathing, and that's hard.

But the most disappointing thing for me -because examples of homophobia like this one happen too often, unfortunately- in the end it's that one assumes that people working for big media are clever, smart people one can agree with or not. I'd never have expected a douchebag like this can go this far in his professional career.

i guess in the end people who actively do things to make the world a worse or more uncomfortable place for other people strike me as very dangerous or at least very sad people.

Sadly, this is so true. I'd add that those who convince themselves they do it for a good reason are even more dangerous.

Sorry for not being able to connect the ideas in some coherent way, but things like this make me feel defeated somehow and I feel that anything I say is just worthless.

Anonymous said...

Woah woah woah.

When did John Cusack or Tom Cruise come out? I'll give you Jodie Foster but I mean what makes you thik Cruise or Cusack is?

Anonymous said...

Woah woah woah.

When did John Cusack or Tom Cruise come out? I'll give you Jodie Foster but I mean what makes you thik Cruise or Cusack is?


nobody has claimed Cusack of Cruise are out. but there have been rumors about Tom Cruise forever (i don't necessarily believe them myself)

Andrew K. said...

Well, your thoughts are of course excellent. Although I wonder if we should give the man the time.

When I first heard it, the first that came to mind was that the counter argument would be that straight people can't play gay people convincingly - surprisingly no one has gone down that road.

Laika said...

I think that it's Newsweek, rather than Setoodeh, who ought to apologise.

His article is ludicrous, badly argued, full of logical holes, and easily refuted - an unpleasant collision of lazy hack writing and unwittingly self-revealing opinions (I mean, seriously, I've never been a Freudian, but this is just classic projection - I almost feel embarrassed for him.)

However, Newsweek gave him the venue, and apparently gave this quarter-baked excuse for journalism the thumbs up to go out under their logo - a logo that guarantees it a certain level of visibility and even authority. If the article lends even the slightest bit of credence to the fears of casting directors, it won't be because of Setoodeh's article itself, but because those opinions were expressed in a high profile publication with a large circulation.

When it comes to the integrity and the quality of what goes out under Newsweek's banner, the buck stops with the editorial staff. There are many witless fucks in the world, and in the blogosphere, but there is only one Newsweek.

Laika said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
billybil said...

You would hope that Newsweek - a top national magazine - would not support such a careless and arbitrary article - but then I'm ceasingly optimistic.

To hear that the moron (I refuse to remember his name) is trying to back pedal is even further proof that Newsweek's editorial standards are for shit.


And damaging - actors need to access their own truths to be effective actors and telling gay actors that they'll never cut it in straight roles is potentially damaging. Love is love, sex is sex and by God actors of any sexual persuasion have got to believe in their ability to use their truths in their work. I'm not talking "method" here - I'm talking all approaches to acting - any and all actors need to start with themselves to get anywhere.

And to say AFTER THE FACT that Rock Hudson can no longer be enjoyed in his romantic movies reflects such a preoccupation with labeling sexuality that it borders on the repulsive.

Laika said...

Well, what do you know - GLAAD agrees with me, and framed it in exactly the right terms, I think:

"Whatever Setoodeh’s intentions or beliefs, Newsweek is ultimately responsible for having published this deeply problematic essay and consciously or not, promoting and encouraging Setoodeh’s discomfort".

Damn right.

Anonymous said...

I'd read Newsweek was going to fold, and assumed that instead of having new articles, they're just publishing former rejects, scraping the uttermost bottom of the barrel. Or else their ambition is to make their reputation such crap that no-one cares when the magazine folds.

Esther said...

I haven't seen Promises, Promises but I loved Jonathan Groff in Spring Awakening and I think he's terrific in Glee, too.

As an audience member, I'm not watching a play or a musical or a movie and thinking about the actor's sexual orientation or how he can play an Italian Catholic when his background is Eastern European Jewish or how can he be believable as a mass murderer when he's really not one.

Normally, I'm absorbed in watching the story unfold. It's possible if I'm preoccupied I might think about work the next day but that's it. I'm very accepting of who the actor is as a character. I'm not sitting there thinking about who they are in real life.

If I'm watching an actor I know is British or Australian, I'm not thinking "oh, I cannot accept them as an American because I know that's not their real accent." If the actor is good, then that's all I need. And if he's cute, so much the better!

Most of us go to the theatre or movies because we "want" to escape for a couple of hours. Speaking as an average fan, I don't think we're obsessing about an actor's sexual orientation as much as the Newsweek author thinks we are.

Personally, I'm not obsessing about it at all! I'd watch Jonathan Groff or Ian McKellan in anything.

Lara said...

I read the original piece and almost laughed at how badly argued it is and thought that every high school student who just started in debate class could tear the writer's "logic" in seconds apart.
Then I read his "explanation" and I got really angry at his lazy attempt to blame the readers for misunderstanding his article and not reading it in context. Well, I've read it and his context sucks.
Is this guy just really and profoundly stupid or is he one of those smarmy guys who know full well what they're doing but are trying to get away with it? Either way, what a poor excuse of a journalist he is.

Lara said...

And one more thing: in his attempt to somehow validate his argument he quotes NYT's critic Ben Brantley, who in his "Promises, Promises" review mentioned the lack of sexual chemistry between Hayes and Chenoweth, saying that Hayes' character feels more like a younger brother than a would-be-lover (I haven't seen the play so I don't know if this would be my perception as well).

Setoodeh then brazenly goes on to say that Brantley's wording is code for "gay actors can't play straight". Really? Then how does he explain, for example, Brantley's favourable reviews of Cheyenne Jackson's performance in "Finian's Rainbow" and "Xanadu" while explicitly mentioning how well he's paired with his female co-stars?
Well, as I've said it in my earlier posts you can tear his articles so easily apart that there's no fun in it. It's just too easy. And if I were Brantley, I'd sue him.

Janice said...

//He's an Actor's Actor, I think, and like Peter O'Toole I don't think of them as having any life outside of the silver screen - or the stage.//

Then you mightn't want to read his ex-wife's autobiography, Tika - which is beautifully written, but coming from an alcoholic home myself I found it unbearable. (maybe I'm just a coward in that regard.)

Back to the subject - none of this is going to stop the inroads that gay actors have been making lately in coming out and getting work and being accepted (and NPH is a great case in that regard - roles on TV, on a popular 'net series that is now available on netflix, asked to host awards shows. You know the producers of the Emmys, etc would not be asking him on if they thought middle America would switch him off, right?) So this is really just a tempest in a teapot of nothing, in a sense. One more person spouting their opinion on the 'net along with all the other idiots with an opinion.

What's sad to me is seeing this guy get on TV and becoming more famous for it. What happened to the day when competence and intelligence were exaulted, not cluelessness and stupidity?

Maybe he knew exactly what he was doing? Everyone is talking about him now. Alas.

What's also odd to me is this trend we've got going (and I'm painting with broad strokes here, sorry) of people who put something "controversial" out there - an opinion, a piece of work, etc - and then are themselves all offended and "hurt" when other people are offended. This reminds me very much of Lars Von Trier being all hurt and defensive at Cannes at the reaction to Dogville. Screw it, man! You made a film that was designed to provoke strong reactions, so just own it!

And not only are they hurt and defensive, they take it personally. We don't agree with this guy? It's obviously OUR faults, we just don't understand him. I didn't like the movie Australia? It's obviously MY fault, I just don't understand Baz the Great....and so on and so forth.

I'd say this was a trend in the "entertainment industry" but then I think of Sarah Palin, who reacts the same way but she's in - oops, my mistake. She IS in the entertainment industry. (Actually, thanks to the internet, we're all in the entertainment industry in one way or another. Most of us aren't getting paid for it, however.)

Which gets us back to one of your original points, Nat, and yes, you were projecting but it's entirely fair and understandable - how come a thoughtful, entertaining and intelligent blogger/write such as yourself has to beg for money while this douchebag gets his name blazoned everywhere simply for being stupid and witless? I'm sure Newsweek will renew his contract and give him a raise, if anything.

Volvagia said...

Hold up a second: I did not say John Cusack wasn't good at romantic parts. (I think Cusack did amazing work in Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity.) He's a strange example, because he's great at 1/2 of the equation. Why do I think Tom Cruise is asexual as opposed to gay? 1. The couch jumping incident (I personally doubt a closeted gay actor would take that risk.) 2. He wanted Edward Scissorhands to have a happy ending. 3. No babies with Nicole Kidman. I say: If he was gay, he would have at least tried to add babies to his performance of being straight. 4. There's ways to have babies without sex. Just because there's Suri doesn't mean he ever had sex with Katie. Or enjoys it if it does happen.

Unknown said...

God.. what was the name of the first actor, the one next to Ian McKellen?


that's Neil Patrick harris to the far left

Unknown said...

thank you :-)

Gay Actors said...

The movie was so good and Rock Hudson played awesome role.
Liked it!