Review by Katie Lynch
The Prom (Ryan Murphy, 2020) is a musical about a group of Broadway stars who cross the country to help a young girl who has been banned from bringing her girlfriend to her school prom. The Broadway alumni are played by Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, and Andrew Rannells, three of whom are openly heterosexual. This of course kicks up the debate over whether queer characters should be played by straight actors. While it would be preferable to see more queer actors playing queer roles, it seems counterproductive to ban actors from playing characters outside of their experience, with obvious exceptions – there is never a need for actors to play different races – and James Corden’s performance in particular is surprisingly emotional and dignified, with a notable and refreshing lack of fat jokes. But with big name straight actors and a sugarcoated message, The Prom has a distinct feeling of being geared towards a straight audience rather than a gay one.
It might be worth comparing it to another Meryl Streep film, the cult classic, Death Becomes Her (Robert Zemeckis, 1992), which is even visually referenced in The Prom, with Streep singing to us from a circular structure on a similarly decorated stage. Despite its heterosexual storyline, Death Becomes Her has been adopted into queer culture for its delightfully campy visuals and over-the-top performances. Queer audiences have found it empowering because its two feuding anti-heroines do whatever it takes to maintain control and agency in their lives. They are fighting against a system which requires them, as women, to uphold certain beauty standards and hyper-femininity, but at the same time they aren’t afraid to be unlikeable, commandeering or dominating – and we love them for it. It screams queerness with its kookiness, its defiance, and its unapologetic women at the fore.
While there’s nothing explicitly gay about Death Becomes Her, there’s very little queerness to The Prom. It depicts the experiences of various gay people, the hardships you might have to endure for the mere fact of being gay, the isolation and devastion of being rejected by your family and peers, but it’s all very safe. Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), the protagonist, is a rich white girl, whose parents kick her out, but luckily her rich grandparents are there to take her in. The film ignores the reality of many queer children who have nowhere to turn after this ultimate rejection, and the biggest hint at self-empowerment is a song with the message to “give it some zazz” – whatever that means. And when a large portion of your story about gay people is dedicated to the various straight characters trying to control the situation, you might want to rethink the priorities of the film.
The Prom is not without value, though; it’s fun, pulls at the heartstrings, and, ultimately, is a feelgood movie. That being said, it is unclear who it was made for. It is a step in the right direction to have more mainstream LGBT+ movies but, when they are so sanitised for straight audiences, it is hard to see the point.