In an interview with The Guardian this weekend, Matt Damon wandered into two showbiz controversies at the same time. After reflecting on his experience fielding questions about his relationship with Ben Affleck during the Good Will Hunting era — "It put us in a weird position of having to answer [whether we were gay], which was then really deeply offensive. I don’t want to, like [imply] it's some sort of disease" — Damon then turned to the subject of actors' private lives, a hot topic thanks to Tom Hardy's recent refusal to answer questions about his sexuality.
"It must be really hard for actors to be out publicly," Damon told the British paper, echoing Rupert Everett's assertion that being out hurt his career. "But in terms of actors, I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period. And sexuality is a huge part of that. Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play."
The basic thrust of Damon's comments — actors' private lives should be private — has been one of his favorite talking points over the years. Unlike Affleck, Damon's family stays out of the tabloids, and in the Guardian profile he takes pains to emphasize how un-salacious his life is. By itself, it's an uncontroversial assertion; who, besides paparazzi, is going to argue with it? But in calling for actors to do the work of shielding their lives from the public gaze, Damon is unintentionally echoing the values of the Old Hollywood studio system, in which actors were held at a glamorous remove, and messy details of their private lives were kept hidden by a shadowy studio apparatus. It's an essentially conservative approach to stardom, one that positions actors as blank spaces to be filled in by the audience's own projections. And it's a view that seems out of step with the times, where fans increasingly crave personal (and representational) authenticity from their stars.
But Damon's critics aren't just accusing him of having antiquated views on the nature of movie stardom; they're also pointing out, quite rightly, how Damon's personal code would be impossible for a gay actor in his position to follow. For a straight man like Damon, ensuring that your private life is "a mystery" means marrying a noncelebrity and keeping your children out of the spotlight. For a gay actor, it would mean never kissing anyone in public, never going on a date, never letting your family leave your house. The standards are not the same.
It's a point that Hardy brought up during his own argument for more privacy. As he explained why he reacted so poorly to being put on the spot about his sexuality, "It’s so important to the LGBT [community] that people actually feel safe about their sexuality and are able to speak freely and not be stigmatized or feel like they are being pointed out. Why point me out, assuming I'm gay because I'm ambiguous about it?" An actor is assumed to be straight until he is not — and then the idea that he is not becomes the news.
Damon is not a homophobe for failing to realize this; he's just a little clueless about the way our conversations around identity have progressed. People are going to mess up sometimes — even die-hard liberals like Matt Damon — and they deserve to be called out with respect and empathy. But considering the furor over his recent remarks on race, Damon would be wise to take a crash course in the emerging public discourse. Right now the only person who's f***ing Matt Damon is Matt Damon himself.
Update: During his appearance on Tuesday's episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Damon tried to clarify his remarks. "I was just trying to say actors are more effective when they’re a mystery, right?" he told Ellen. "And somebody picked it up and said I said gay actors should get back in the closet. Which is like, I mean, it’s stupid, but it is painful when things get said that you don’t believe."