While some award show nomination surprises can be for the better if they acknowledge an underrated film or actor, James Corden’s nomination for best actor in a musical or comedy for his role as Barry Glickman in “The Prom” was certainly for the worse. “The Prom” wasn’t at the top of anyone’s predictions for nominations this season, as it was merely a Ryan Murphy-produced, Meryl Streep-lead movie musical with average reviews that most people forgot about rather quickly after its Netflix release. And with Corden’s portrayal receiving sharp criticism from both critics and audiences alike, this leaves the question: Why is James Corden nominated for a Golden Globe, and why should we care?
For starters, almost every character in “The Prom” is, in some ways, a caricature of the tropes people love: The aging chorus girl, the Broadway diva, the secretly gay cheerleader — all things we’ve seen ad nauseum in one form or another. In that sense, Corden’s character is no different. But the purely generic nature of his character isn’t Corden’s problem — it’s the complete lack of thought, rampant inauthenticity and problematic invocation of queer stereotypes that make his portrayal hard to watch and borderline homophobic.
While it’s easy to explain away the performance by arguing that Corden, as a straight man, can’t deliver an authentic performance of a queer character, that isn’t the full story. It isn’t Corden’s identity that’s at fault for his inauthentic portrayal: It’s his thoughtless performance. Not every queer person on television must be played by a queer actor for their portrayal to be inoffensive, and although it would be preferable, limiting actors to only play the exact identities they embody can be a slippery slope. As long as it’s done respectfully and thoughtfully, such as Darren Criss’ performance on “Glee,” the actor’s own identity has little to do with the role itself. Arguably, it’s more important for representation for queer people to be represented behind the scenes in the writer’s room, crafting stories interwoven with their own realities.
However, in stories where the queer experience is central to the character, having an actor who understands the intricacies of the queer experience could only serve to add to the story’s authenticity. In this sense, Corden has no personal stake in the matter of telling a true queer story and thus has little obligation to do it justice, which is plainly apparent in all aspects of his portrayal.
It’s even more important to note that the character of Barry isn’t even Corden’s original creation — it belongs to Brooks Ashmanskas, the gay man who originated the part on Broadway. Corden is receiving nominations and praise for the building of an original character that isn’t even his own design and is a poor copycat of what was the much more nuanced Broadway version. And while imitation may be the highest form of flattery, turning Ashmanskas’ original role into a flat caricature does nothing to serve the interests of queer storytelling.
The adaptation’s storytelling surrounding Barry is sorely lacking as well, especially in the added plot point where he welcomes his homophobic mother back into his life after she had disowned him for being gay. This acceptance perpetuates the narrative that the responsibility is on queer people to accept their homophobic relatives — or anyone else who has hurt them — rather than insisting the people in their lives are fully supportive of their identity, unconditionally so. While Corden is ultimately not to blame for the addition of this subplot, his nomination includes all facets of his role, including this problematic portrayal.
His nomination reeks of members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, or HFPA, wanting to pat itself on the back for acknowledging queer stories in its award show to score some diversity points and avoid being another award show that receives vitriolic hate on Twitter. But the fact is, the HFPA shows no indication that they have any idea what authentic queer stories look like. A nomination such as Corden’s sends the message that all representation is good representation, but for queer people, subpar imitations of queerness from straight actors aren’t cutting it anymore, and the outrage surrounding Corden’s nomination is further proof of that.
Corden’s nomination is one of the many pieces of evidence that award shows and their choice of nominations have no relation to the views of the general populace, and we should stop treating these events as if they have the power to decide which media is worth watching. With that being said, the outrage surrounding Corden’s nomination is not just reasonable; it’s necessary for the creation of proper queer stories told by queer people themselves and for the fostering of appreciation from straight audiences. And if Corden’s nomination is what it takes for straight people to realize the difference between authentic and offensive queer representation, then let’s rage on.