Regular readers may be starting to see a pattern in these installments. My Early Gay Crushes can, if simplified somewhat, be divided into two categories, depending on how old and/or mature I was when they happened. In the first category you have people like Zac Hanson, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Joshua Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio. These crushes in some ways happened when I was still too young to appreciate fully that they were actually gay crushes, in the sense that I was not yet fully socialized into believing that having gay feelings was something weird and undesirable. First category may have been confusing, but mostly in a first celebrity crush kind of way.
The second category consists of crushes that occurred at a slightly older age, which meant that I was old enough to understand that while a little out of the ordinary, although I still never forced myself to view them as gay crushes per se. Generally, what sets them apart from the first category are that I (must have) understood, at least to some extent, that these feelings made me gay, but then went on to ignore, deny or suppress them; only gradually coming to terms with the fact that they would never go away. People in this category include Chris Egan and Jesse McCartney.
But once in a while there were those who didn’t fit into either of these categories; among them our subject for today, Jesse Eisenberg. If I nevertheless was to place in regard to those two broad categories, I’d say he’s something like a Category Two Plus. He appeared on my radar in a serious way only after he played Nick in Dylan Kidd’s wonderful comedy-drama Roger Dodger*, at which point I was around nineteen years old. Which means that I was clearly old enough to recognize my feelings as gay, and also intellectually mature (and self-centered) enough to go on endlessly about how confusing (and potentially upsetting) those feelings were.
But here’s were the catch comes in. Jesse Eisenberg may turn out to be the straightest gay crush I’ve ever. I don’t mean to suggest that I didn’t have gay feelings for him. Rather, it has to do with how I managed to de-gay those feelings, even though on some level I must have known very well what they meant: I simply convinced myself that instead of crushing on him, I actually just wanted to be like him. And in hindsight I can see why this strategy kind of worked. One of the prime reasons why I loved Roger Dodger (I still do) was because I identified so strongly with Eisenberg’s character. He played this socially insecure but sweetly funny teenager who seeks out advice from his cynical womanizing uncle on how to get women. In sum, he was everything I either wanted to be, or at least who I told myself I wanted to be. And the fact that everything worked within a hyper-heterosexual context meant that I didn’t need to face up to my silent worship of the quirkily cute Eisenberg. Seeing Nick loosen up around people appealed to me, so I happily embraced its heterosexual framework.
Another major part of why my Jesse Eisenberg crush was not as mentally intimidating as other gay crushes, was how disarmingly average he looked. I know I said this about Zac Hanson once and have later regretted it, but here we go again: Jesse Eisenberg will never be hot, at least not in a classic sense. This in turn made it easier for me to convince myself that I was only after the aura of quirky coolness that he exuded, in Roger Dodger and subsequent movies. Although (to me) he has a specific geeky attractiveness, his sexiness stems more from his charm, comic vibe and all-out likability that any undeniable heartthrob quality. Not at all comparing myself to him, I nonetheless felt like he had to depend on many of the same traits as I did to make his way in the world. There was a deeper emotional connection there somewhere, that I believe I would’ve been more reluctant to embrace if he looked had more like, say, Leonardo DiCaprio. Jesse Eisenberg may be out of my league, but at least I could dream of being like him.
In this regard, I also think it helped that he was practically unknown. With someone like DiCaprio, whose status as a heartthrob and worldwide superstar was undeniable, it was very much harder for me as a hard-working gay-in-denial to convince myself that this was nothing special. Everyone already agreed that for a guy to like Titanic was kinda gay, so denying liking it because of Leo was sort of the last stand. Eisenberg was easier to come to terms with for me personally, in every sense. Loving Roger Dodger never risked framing me as gay, neither in my own mind or in the minds of others, and I could comfortably tell myself yes, I admired him, just not in that way.
This everything-but-gay thing was a deception from the start of course, but as long as I insisted on not bowing to the inevitable – realizing that I was in fact gay – I was very lucky, in that Jesse continued to star in movies I didn’t have to make up excuses for wanting to see (with the risk of inviting soul-searching on my own part). I remember I found him to be absolutely breathtaking in The Squid and the Whale, but once again I told myself that I just really connected with this character. And true enough, I could surely (and perhaps unfortunately) see myself in the role of Walt, the cynical, protective, intellectual free-rider who holds one of the movie’s two real lead roles. Once again, Eisenberg’s character communicated that combination of smarts and self-confidence I felt that I lacked. There was nothing intimidating in wanting to be like him.
Today, I’m not sure if my longstanding personal bond with Jesse Eisenberg adds much to how I watch his movies. Roger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale has a special place in my 2000s movie canon, but that’s mostly because they are truly great movies. My history of undeclared gayness may not add much in the way of depth to the experience. Rather, it may actually have made my experience slightly more shallow. I do enjoy my Jesse Eisenberg. I mean that in every sense. Finally.
* I actually caught a couple of episodes of his short-lived television show Get Real, but while I certainly became somewhat curious, the show disappeared before he could make much of an impact.