The backlash against James Corden’s performance as a gay man in Netflix’s new musical The Prom had already started before I'd had the chance to watch it. One critic claimed it was “gross and offensive, the worst gayface in a long, long time…horrifically bad”, while another chastised the British actor for “leaning into effeminate gay stereotypes every chance he gets”.
This left me with a problem: my desire to be contrarian and my long-standing dislike of James Corden were raging inside me, an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Would I really be forced to write an “In Defence Of…” piece about my sworn nemesis, simply to stand out from the crowd and annoy some people on Twitter? Luckily, it turns out that the backlash is unfounded and James Corden isn’t very good in the film (which I otherwise thought was decent), meaning I can have my cake and eat it.
Based on a musical, which in turn was loosely based on a real-life story, The Prom concerns a troupe of washed-up musical theatre actors who, fresh after being panned for their latest Broadway performance, decide to become activists in an attempt to jumpstart their careers.
After hearing about a lesbian teenager in Indiana, whose high school has cancelled its prom rather than allow her to attend with her girlfriend, they decide to descend on small-town America to save the day. The plot is reminiscent of British comedy Pride, a story about queer activists from London who team up with a group of Welsh miners in their struggle against Thatcher, except it’s so cheesy that it makes Pride look like an Ingmar Bergman film.
WHY DO SO MANY GAY PEOPLE DISLIKE JAMES CORDEN?
Corden has been accused of homophobic behaviour on more than one occasion. For a start, there’s his long-standing schtick of kissing male celebrities, including Harry Styles, which only really works as a joke if you consider the sight of two men kissing to be inherently absurd. Despite this, in 2018 he was shortlisted for an “LBGT Ally” award, presumably for teaching us the important lesson that men expressing affection with one other isn’t just okay — it’s also really funny.
Last Christmas, following a special episode of Gavin and Stacey, Corden was slammed for pointedly singing the f-word in a rendition of “Fairytale of New York”. I was actually pretty grateful for this one, because my family wanted to watch the episode when it aired and the controversy gave me a solid reason to convince them to put on something better. “Y’all would seriously to subject me, a gay man, to a homophobic slur?” I shrieked at them while reaching for my Shrek 2 DVD — thank you, Mr Corden, for saving Christmas.
SO: JUST HOW BAD EXACTLY IS JAMES CORDEN IN ‘THE PROM’?
As previously stated, I’m no fan of Mr Corden. When he turned up halfway through Ocean’s 8, I found his presence so unbearable that I almost got up from my seat and walked out — and folks, I was watching the film on a plane!
But The Prom was the first time I’ve seen Corden play a role which wasn’t simply a version of himself and, in direct correlation to that, it’s the least I’ve ever hated him. The camp, American character he’s playing is much more likeable than… whatever James Corden is. I wouldn’t say his performance is great (the accent is iffy, for a start) but it’s hardly worth writing a furious think-piece about.
WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH ‘THE PROM’ BACKLASH THEN?
The troubling aspect of the backlash, for me, is the implication James Corden playing “an effeminate stereotype” is a bad thing — surely this only follows if you consider “effeminacy” to be a negative trait. The reason this stereotype exists is because there are loads and loads of effeminate gay men, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
James Corden’s character is just an affable, camp, fat gay guy. Sure, it might have been better to find someone who belongs to this demographic to play the role, but if you find such a portrayal offensive itself, I’d question why that is — I would be forced to guess it’s probably due to some form of deep-seated pathology! I don’t think it’s too much of a reach to suggest there’s an element of effeminophobia here (a well-documented form of discrimination, often intra-community, towards feminine men), even though Corden himself is clearly not himself effeminate. I imagine the character would still have been received by some as an “offensive stereotype” had he been played by a gay actor.
Describing Corden’s performance as “gayface”, meanwhile, is more offensive than anything in the film. Even if you accept that a straight man playing a gay character badly is an appalling transgression, this is not equivalent to blackface. Making the comparison trivialises the very real damage that blackface has caused, both historically and in the present day. James Corden starring in a Netflix musical is not oppressing anyone.
Some critics also objected to Corden’s line, “I’m as gay as a bucket of wigs!” What a cliche, right! Maybe, but I’ve watched Drag Race and spent a lot of time on gay Twitter, and I can tell you that that is exactly the kind of inane statement that gay men come out with all the time— maybe if Corden’s character was hot, the line would be declared “iconic” or a “serve”.
IS ‘THE PROM’ ACTUALLY ANY GOOD?
Despite being a gay man, musicals just aren’t my cup of tea (no shade: I just happen to be a straight-acting and non-scene kind of guy, who prefers more blokey fare like Lana del Rey and Charli XCX), so it’s hard for me to judge whether The Prom succeeds on its own terms.
But you know what? I didn’t think it was entirely bad. If a Ryan Murphy-directed musical about a lesbian prom sounds like the kind of thing you’d like, I’d be truly shocked if you didn’t enjoy it. I chuckled out loud a few times, welled up once or twice, and occasionally found myself tapping my toes. Even for a bitter, irony-poisoned old codger like me, it was hard not to feel moved by the film’s emotive crescendos.
“New York actors head to a provincial town to teach its feeble-minded inhabitants about tolerance” sounds like it’s going to be the smuggest, most annoying liberal fantasy imaginable - and partly it is — but it’s also a satire of that same fantasy. To begin with, the characters are self-aggrandising, patronising and out-of-touch, and their efforts to help backfire as a result.
When the group gate-crashes a PTA meeting, Meryl Streep performs the film’s best song, which begins with, “Listen, you bigoted monsters, just who do you think you are? Your prejudice and your repression, won’t get past this Broadway star!” This intervention succeeds only in making things worse, as does Andrew Rannells’ character singing, in a different number, “here’s what I learned at Juilliard: bigotries not big of me, and it’s not big of you”. I thought these scenes were a fairly sharp piss-take of condescending celebrity activism.
The potency of this satire is undermined later, however, when Rannells actually does succeed in persuading a bunch of religious teenagers to stop being homophobic with a jaunty musical number. He achieves this by pointing out all the ways in which they’re hypocrites (it’s basically, “so you have a tattoo, which is forbidden by the Bible, yet you hate gay people? How curious!”)
This song, with its appeal to “common sense”, was so annoying I found myself sympathising with the homophobic bullies. To make matters worse, the film’s queer activism culminates with Meryl Streep reaching for her AmEx card and paying for a lavish prom (“why does being good cost so much money?”). Pride tells its audience that oppressed people can band together and, even if they don’t quite succeed, build meaningful and enduring solidarity. The lesson of The Prom is “befriend a rich celebrity and everything will work out fine”.
But Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep, playing a pair of washed-up divas, are both a good laugh. There’s plenty to enjoy, if you can get past the presence of James Corden. In dereliction of my duty as a serious critic of cinéma, I’m tempted to end with: “sure, The Prom is a little cheesy, but after the crazy, messed-up year we’ve just had, isn’t that exactly what we need?”