James Corden was fine in The Prom, and the internet won’t convince me otherwise
The internet hates James Corden.
Take this 2017 Reddit thread, which simply asks “Why do people hate James Corden so much?” Or this 2018 piece from LadBible, in which writer Jess Hardiman explains “how James Corden went from everyone’s favourite funnyman to one of the world’s most hated.” Or Angus Harrison’s guide for Americans “who don’t like James Corden.”
Precisely why people hate James Corden is a bit like why people don’t like dark chocolate, or John Lewis Christmas adverts: it pretends to be lovely but is actually bitter and exploitative, it’s the same schtick year after year, it’s fattening or at least saccharine, and some can’t really tell you why — there’s just something distasteful about it. It’s a nebulous but seemingly universal truth.
So, not surprisingly, the internet is in agreement that his performance in the recently released Ryan Murphy musical The Prom is terrible. The Telegraph’s film critic Tim Robey called the performance “gayface” (a pun on blackface, for those who, like me, know “gayface” as being queer slang for a face that looks decidedly homosexual), while former X Factor novelty act Jedward have blasted Corden for “offensively playing every gay stereotype” in the film, as if they haven’t made a career out of doing just that.
At it stands, I do not hate James Corden. I first encountered him in the 2006 film adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, and thought he was fine, though what I mostly remember is how attracted I was to Dominic Cooper. Then I saw him as dopey Smithy in Gavin and Stacey, before watching him present the Brits, have a memorable guest bit in Doctor Who, and so on. When he broke America and emerged as one of the biggest stars of late night tv, I was surprised, but good on him, I thought. I don’t watch regularly watch his show, but when I do, he seems delightful.
So perhaps I am biased when I say that I don’t see what the problem in his performance as the narcissistic gay Broadway star Barry Glickman. Corden camped it up, to be sure, but I would expect any actor in his role to play this obviously over-the-top character, well, over-the-top in a musical comedy directed by the man who gave us Glee. I mean, the guy literally sings the lyric “you be Elphie, I’m Galinda.” Were people expecting the pathos of Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain? Do me a favour.
Initially, I wondered if there is a cultural disconnect at play here. I’m American, but I’ve spent a lot of time in the UK, so I am accustomed to a very particular brand of man (almost always English, and usually posh) camping it up. It’s so common that whenever I’m within a mile of Sloane Square I have to remind myself that he might not be gay, he might just be an Old Etonian, or like Hugh Grant in Notting Hill, or maybe he’s literally Jack Whitehall.
I don’t think it’s that, though, considering a lot of the outrage is coming from British-based critics. Writing in The Guardian, Benjamin Lee bemoaned Corden’s “regressive and clumsy attempts to try and camp it up that edge into something far more heinous.” [Emphasis original.] Writing in Newsweek, London-based critic Samuel Spencer complained that Corden is “offensively miscast.” It seems the indignation is transatlantic.
Perhaps Corden was miscast. Lee lavishes praise on Brooks Ashmanskas, who originated the role of Barry in The Prom’s brief Broadway run, and more than one critic has suggested supporting player Andrew Rannells would have given the role more depth. Buzzfeed even took it upon itself to compile a list of seventeen actors who would have been better than Corden, including Nathan Lane, Neil Patrick Harris, and Titus Burgess.
All would have been great choices. Still, thinking about Nathan Lane in The Birdcage (still one of the best gay comedies of all time), Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, or Titus Burgess as the scene-stealing Titus Andromedon in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, it’s hard to imagine any of them would have interpreted Barry substantially differently. That isn’t to say they, or Corden, are bad actors; they’re among the best Broadway has to offer. But if you look at the book of The Prom, if you listen to the score — both of which are weak by any metric and no doubt partly why the Broadway production closed so quickly — Barry is meant to be camp but also unlikable. The entire premise of the musical is that these washed-up, narcissistic stars come to Indiana not to help Emma, but to garner positive publicity for themselves.
All this considered, I can’t help but to wonder if the outrage isn’t less about Corden’s performance and more about Corden himself. Tellingly, Buzzfeed’s list of fantasy recasts includes only two straight men and fifteen LGBT men. Industrywide, there is a debate raging about whether straight actors should play gay roles, or whether those roles should be filled by gay actors. In this context, I can’t help but to think if a gay man had delivered the exact same performance James Corden did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
That feels problematic, not only because the premise sets Corden up for failure from the beginning, but because I am not sure straight actors shouldn’t play gay. Certainly, there are instances where it is painfully obvious that no one gay went into creating a gay storyline or character. The most jarring examples I can think of come not from film but from soaps, where Kate Oates has created two gay couples — Emmerdale’s Rob and Aaron and EastEnders’ Ben and Callum — who are wildly popular with straight audiences but ring hollow to me as a gay man.
And I do think that often, though not always, gay actors bring a depth of personal understanding to gay roles that straight actors simply cannot access, making their performances even more powerful. You need look only to Ryan Murphy’s other recent Netflix release, the remake of The Boys in the Band, to find an example of this. I’m not sure a cast of straight actors would have been as compelling.
But then there are the straight actors who really nail it. I’m thinking Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, Trevonte Rhodes in Moonlight, Darren Criss in Glee. Of course, the only one of those characters who approach any level of campiness is Criss’ Blaine Anderson, and even he was played as a “straight-acting gay guy,” albeit a decidedly metrosexual one. (Does anyone say metrosexual anymore? Am I showing my age?) So maybe the problem people have isn’t that a straight Corden played a gay character, but that he played him as… too gay?
The complaint is, after all, that he played Barry as a gay stereotype. That’s only true if you intrinsically associate gayness and campiness, though. Campiness is campiness, and I don’t want to live in a world where it’s okay for gay men to camp it up but not for straight men to camp it up, and certainly not for straight men playing gay men to camp it up.
I also don’t want to live in a world where any depiction of camp gay men is considered problematic, because they — no, let me be honest, we — exist. There is no right or wrong way to be gay, and there are as many Ennis Del Mars in this world as there are Barry Glickmans. But we Barry Glickmans do exist, and when we are portrayed not as comic caricatures but as flesh and blood people with rich internal lives and full of humanity, it is refreshing. I’m thinking of Daniel Franzese in Mean Girls (who, in fairness, is an out gay ma), of Ncuti Gatwa in Sex Education (who is not, so far as I know, LGBT), and yes, of James Corden in Prom.
Corden moved me to tears when talking about the pain of being estranged from his family, and when Barry finally met his mother (played beautifully by Tracey Ullman) for the first time in decades, I bawled. Every criticism I’ve read of this film, regardless of how much I agree or disagree with it, has discounted those powerful scenes. That feels unfair.
Of course, much of the backlash Corden is facing is unfair. It is impossible for me to divorce the criticism of Corden from the context into which his Barry Glickman emerges: the perfect storm of an actor people are already programmed to dislike playing a character many feel he never should have been allowed to play.
Meanwhile, no critic I have read has engaged with the elephant in the room: this is a weak script all around, and Corden had the unenviable task of breathing life into a static, cardboard cut-out character. That sounds like a criticism of the film, and maybe it is, but I don’t mean for it to be your takeaway. I thoroughly enjoyed The Prom.
But then, I didn’t expect it to be something it isn’t. It is a bright, shiny, feel-good movie that like a delicious Christmas treat is sweet but not very substantial. It doesn’t need to be, though. It is what it is, and if you accept it as it is, it might delight you, or it might annoy you. But at least it isn’t pretending to be something it isn’t.
Kind of like Barry Glickman himself.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan