When the review embargo for Ryan Murphy’s Netflix musical “The Prom” broke on December 1, outrage over James Corden’s performance as Barry Glickman erupted almost instantly. “The Late Late Show” host was slammed as the most “insulting” thing about “The Prom” due to a performance that critics called “offensive,” “the worst gay-face,” and “horrifically bad.” But is the backlash really warranted?
Corden stars in “The Prom” as Barry Glickman, a Broadway veteran who gets the worst reviews of his career thanks to a failed star turn opposite co-star Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep). Desperate for a heavy dose of good publicity, the two performers decide to head to Indiana and help a lesbian teenager fight her high school after her sexual orientation bans her from the senior prom.
Below, IndieWire news editor Zack Sharf and associate editor Jude Dry get to the bottom of the outrage over James Corden in “The Prom” and whether or not the late night host deserves the backlash.
Point: James Corden Is Offensively Miscast in “The Prom” (Zack)
There’s no beating around the bush: It’s painful to watch James Corden lean into effeminate gay stereotypes and play up sassy gay flourishes. I understand this is the character originally played in the award-winning Broadway by Brooks Ashmanskas (an out gay man), but Corden appears so awkward and out of place whenever he tries to match Ashmanskas’ flamboyancy. And he does that a lot.
There’s been a lot of chatter equating the outrage over Corden’s performance to the age-old debate about whether or not straight actors can play gay characters, but I don’t believe it applies in this case. The issue here is specific to casting Corden as Barry Glickman.
I, for one, am comfortable with straight actors playing cis gay characters in some situations. (When I say gay characters, I am always referring to cis gay characters. Cis actors should never play trans characters.) Would I prefer to see a gay actor play a gay character? Definitely. Gay actors bring an inherent nuance and understanding to a role that straight actors often can’t. (As a recent example, consider the chemistry between Kristen Stewart and Aubrey Plaza in “Happiest Season.”) That doesn’t mean a straight actor can’t pull it off or shouldn’t be allowed to if he or she is the best actor for the job.
Timothée Chalamet in “Call Me By Your Name” and Trevante Rhodes in “Moonlight” are great recent examples of straight actors excelling in gay roles, bringing a visceral humanity to their characters that transcends sexual orientation. Actors as good as Rhodes and Chalamet can create a universal shared experience between the character and the viewer, regardless if said viewer is gay or straight. It’s almost reductive to say straight actors can’t play gay characters because that implies an “othering” of gay people, or that gay people are so fundamentally different than straight people that one could never play the other. I don’t believe that to be true at all. When I see Chalamet knock the character of Elio out of the park, it powerfully reinforces that we all face heartache and growth in universal ways.
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All of which is to say that, yes, a straight actor could have been cast as Barry Glickman in “The Prom” and done it justice. It just so happens that James Corden is not that actor. He treats Barry’s sassy flourishes as just that; they are never woven into his personality. Corden picks and chooses the moments he wants to dial up the flamboyance on a line of dialogue, or to sass up a hand gesture or an eye-roll. There is no internal logic to the performance.
Barry’s effeminacy crops up when he takes Emma to the mall for a makeover or gets excited as he concocts the plan to travel to Indiana in the musical’s opening number. But they disappear entirely when he’s forced to reckon with his family’s homophobic past. That Barry wouldn’t rely on a dash of comedy to cope with his pain in the film’s most emotional emotions makes Corden’s performance ring false. Corden treats flamboyancy as a selective choice, rather than a personality trait.
The inconsistency means that Corden is playing off crass gay stereotype rather than sublimating them into his character. It’s almost as if Murphy and Corden knew that if the actor leaned fully into the sassy gay man archetype (as Ashmanskas did on Broadway), it would have come off as even more repellent, so they decided to sprinkle those details throughout instead. But that choice only puts an awkward spotlight on how unfit Corden is for the job.
By comparison, look at the way Eric Stonestreet played many of Cam’s most emotional moments on ABC’s “Modern Family.” Here was another straight actor playing a flamboyant gay character, but Stonestreet was so consistent with Cam’s personality that the character’s sass and over-the-top flairs felt authentic to who the character was. Cam was always overemotional, even during the show’s most dramatic beats. What I’m getting at here is that being a flamboyant gay man is at the crux of Barry Glickman’s lovable personality. It’s in his DNA. It’s not some tacked-on bonus that he can adopt and abandon at will, and Corden — as well as “The Prom” as a whole — never grasps this. No wonder some critics are up in arms over it.
Counterpoint: James Corden’s Hammy Star Turn Does the Job (Jude)
Zack, you make some salient points. I think we can all agree Eric Stonestreet is a rare exception to many rules. And yet I enjoyed “The Prom” so much that I’m willing to give Murphy and Corden some leeway. As a lifelong musical theater fan who has gritted my teeth through painful film adaptations of some of my most beloved shows, I think “The Prom” is the rare Broadway-to-screen transfer that got it right. Corden carries much of the plot, and he’s very good. Long before Carpool Karaoke, he was a theater actor in London, starring in Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” in the West End and on Broadway. True, he’s no Andrew Rannells, who really shows off his musical theater background in “Love Thy Neighbor” (one of the movie’s best numbers). But he’s holds his own opposite Rannells and he never embarrasses himself.
Having seen the original show on Broadway, I knew what to expect from “The Prom.” It’s a brash, colorful, cheesy, good old-fashioned Broadway musical. The lyrics are pithy and witty, the story is fun and moving, and the characters are charming and lovably flawed. When “The Prom” premiered in the 2018-2019 Broadway season, it stood out against the typical Broadway melange of jukebox musicals, revivals, and movie adaptations. “The Prom” received a Tony nomination for Best Musical, which it rightly lost out to Anais Mitchell’s radical folk operetta “Hadestown.” Still, not bad for a little musical comedy with no big names attached.
Like every other character in the show, Barry Glickman is a broad caricature. He’s written that way, just as Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) is the girl next door and Angie (Nicole Kidman) is the aging showgirl. He’s supposed to be a second-tier Broadway actor who clings to his Drama Desk Award, always playing second fiddle to the grand diva — yet another caricature, Dee Dee Allen. And Streep brings the same over the top flamboyance to her performance as Corden does, with a few critics calling it a cheap Patti LuPone imitation.
Their point being…? That’s the part! Dee Dee Allen is obviously a riff on Patti LuPone, albeit a “Sunset Boulevard”-era one. Streep is playing the role as written and doing the best performance this material could ask for, and so’s Corden.
In fact, his interpretation of Barry strikes just the right balance of funny and warm. He plays off Streep wonderfully, he can sing and dance, and he has the harder task of carrying much of the movie’s somewhat plodding narrative. Zack, I’m dubious about your suggestion that playing up the flamboyance in dramatic moments would have made his reception any better, or that playing it straight would have done a disservice to the role. He’s a total ham; so’s Barry. It works.
“The Prom” isn’t great cinema — it’s a Ryan Murphy movie musical made for Netflix. This isn’t “Call Me By Your Name.” In fact, it’s a lot gayer. Corden doesn’t get his close-up crying by the fire, thank god, but his tearful reunion with his mother (Tracey Ullman!) works in the soapy context of the rest of the movie. In my opinion, Kidman is the only one who’s miscast. Unlike Corden, she really can’t sing (her breathless talk-sing approach to her one big number is embarrassing), and I found it distracting to see a star like her lingering in the background in most of the scenes. Corden plays Barry with as much humanity as the role requires, and he does it with a pep in his step and a song in his heart. That’s entertainment.
“The Prom” is now streaming on Netflix