There's a long standing stigma in Hollywood that the act of "going gay" for a film can solidify someone as an actor and have them be taken seriously during casting. The strange thing is that for the most part, that's true.
Taking a gay role early in an actor's career is one of the longstanding traditions of Hollywood and it shows no signs of stopping. Many big name actors take a role portraying "gays" prior to receiving a big break in a major motion picture. Don't believe me? Tom Hanks' first Oscar winning performance was in Philadelphia. His next was Forrest Gump a year later.
Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger both earned Oscar nominations for their respective roles in Brokeback Mountain, before Ledger went from being the guy in A Knight's Tale to the Joker. Cillian Murphy starred opposite of Liam Neeson in Breakfast on Pluto as a transgender youth before he landed a leading role in Inception. Matt Damon starred as an obsessive homosexual man in The Talented Mr. Ripley a year before landing in the star studded vehicle Ocean's 11, and later the Bourne Identity. Leonardo DiCaprio starred in Total Eclipse before landing roles in Romeo+Juliet and more importantly Titanic.
Greg Kinnear's first major role as a gay man in As Good As It Gets landed him an Oscar Nomination. Hilary Swank took home the gold statue for her role as a transgender in Boys Don't Cry. The list goes on: Charlize Theron for Monster, Sean Penn in Milk, Colin Firth in A Single Man, Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, and William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman.
The list of Oscar winners and nominations for the act of portraying homosexuality is extensive and impressive. However, going gay is often more than just simply creating Oscar bait. It often has an invigorating impact on an actor's career. Who knows if Gyllenhaal, Damon, or DiCaprio would still be household names, or one hit wonders, if it wasn't for their respective "gay" turns. Both Damon and Michael Douglas may be trying to use this career tactic in the upcoming feature on the life of notoriously gay entertainer, Liberace to try an reinvigorate seemingly stagnate careers (Damon hasn't had a hit film since True Grit in 2010, and Michael Douglas hasn't had a hit since Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps).
While not taking away from an individual actor's performance in a film as a homosexual character, there is a distinctly strong correlation between critical praise for a performance and homosexual characters. However, why is the transition from "straight roles" to "gay roles" still receiving as much praise as it did 20 years ago? Many LGBT supporters, like myself, would point to the fact that the exposure of homosexuality and other alternative lifestyles to the world at large is helping people accept LGBT rights more and more with every film, and because of their work in helping gay rights the actors should be rewarded for their efforts.
The problem with that theory is that many Oscar and Golden Globe winning performances as homosexual characters are not always flattering to the LGBT community. From Theron's portrayal of a serial killer in Monster to Damon's The Talented Mr. Ripley to good ole' Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, some of the most praised LGBT characters have been horrible representations of the community itself. Many attribute the praise for "gay" performances to be due to the fact that many movies that feature a gay character are very serious and melodramatic.
It isn't that they are being praised for being gay, they are simply being praised for giving a good performance in a drama about a character who happened to be gay. I believe the real reason that the reason that "going gay" still earns huge critical praise after over 40 years of actors doing so, lies somewhere in the murky middle of those theories. The fact that an actor is willing to "go gay" shows a true dedication to the craft of acting and a commitment to the role that is hard to sustain with a traditional "straight" character. There is no public backlash for Sylvester Stallone whenever he wants to make a new Rambo or Expendables movie,and no one will cry foul at the next Hunger Games movie. Why? Because violence is far more socially acceptable than homosexuality in American culture (and most of the world for that matter). Actors themselves have been protested for their turns as gay in films, and it can be a potential career ender, so by "going gay" an actor is making a clear choice to push the envelope, even just a little bit. In a world where sexual orientation can be the only thing being reported about some actors (sorry Tom Cruise, and John Travolta) many actors are not willing to take the risk that by taking a gay role they may inadvertently "out" themselves accidentally.
Until a day comes when being gay is seen the same way as being straight, the portrayal of gay characters will continue to win critical acclaim and reinvigorate dying careers for the simple fact that every time an actor chooses to portray an "alternative lifestyle" they are choosing to branch out in an area that is, to some, "controversial" and by pushing the envelope they are proving themselves to be serious about acting and proud of their own work, regardless about how others may feel about the subject.