By Craig Leask

In 2016 the film Carol which starred Cate Blanchett as a bored housewife who falls in love with an aspiring female photographer (Rooney Mara)  earned six Oscar nominations. The following year Moonlight, a film ultimately about a gay black youth struggling to find acceptance and his identity in a world filled with insurmountable hurdles, became the first LGBTQ-themed movie in history to win Best Picture. At the 2019 Oscars, Olivia Colman won the coveted Best Actress trophy for her portrayal of Queen Anne, a lesbian, in The Favourite, nudging out Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of lesbian writer Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Gay characters have clearly become a natural element in mainstream cinema, but it has not always been this way.

As a gay man growing up and coming of age in the early 1980’s I was hungry for any kind of affirmation of who I was. I gravitated to any newspaper or magazine article that could help answer the many questions going through my head. Where do I fit in? Why I had different (albeit hidden) thoughts and desires? Why I seemed to be an outsider to the “normalcy” I witnessed in the small piece of the world to which I had exposure?  Unfortunately for me and the many, many “mini-mes” out there, with very little public info available and no one to confide in, I could only turn to the movies for affirmation. For the most part, however, movies did not portray anything positive or the least bit supportive of my unique situation. Historically, homosexuality in the movies and on television had largely been depicted through gender-based conventions and stereotypes – flamboyant victims, comically undereducated servants or peculiar neighbors included in a story as someone to laugh at, to pity or to fear.

In films, gay characters were never called out for what they were – the inclination was more implied by their mannerisms and dress. Gay male characters had been generally depicted as having positions which were on the lighter side of manly: critically sharp-tongued waiters, cooing hairdressers or opinionated salesclerks. Whereas lesbian characters were generally identified by their independent attitude, their career choices and their sensible masculine appearance – think the independent (and habitually single) author Nancy Blake (Florence Nash) in 1939’s The Women.

The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as “The Code”, didn’t help matters. As a matter of fact, the Code served as a major catalyst in pushing homosexuals further into a class of deviant outsiders in society.  Established in 1930, the Code was created to regulate government censorship of the movie industry as well as to mitigate any revenue loss from religious based boycotts. At the time of its inception, the code had no restrictions on the portrayal of limp wristed “pansy” characters in films. By 1945, however, following the end of WW2, religious pressure advanced the regulations in the Code, essentially forcing the outright banning of any kind of sexual perversion or deviance in film (which at the time included homosexuality). As a result, gay screen characters could only be represented as villains or victims involved in crimes solely due to a homosexually based mental imbalance. Critics embraced the Code as it effectively removed or condemned all unsavory behaviors and uncomfortable topics from the viewing public.  

Interestingly enough however, it was completely acceptable by the Code to portray cross dressing in the movies, so long as the character was clearly not gay – he was wearing a dress merely for the purpose of disguise or humor.  As an example – I Was a Male War Bride (1949) directed by Howard Hawks and starring the female approved hunk of virility Cary Grant as a French officer who must impersonate the female spouse of an American Soldier in order to return to the US under the War Brides Act. To guarantee Grant’s manliness remained intact, director Hawks ensured Grant’s character was firmly established as a womanizing skirt chaser prior to his cross dressing scenes, then reestablishing his manhood with the implication that Captain Henri Rochard (Grant) and First Lieutenant Catherine Gates (Ann Sheridan) consummated their relationship within the ship’s brig at the end of the film.

And of course there’s Some Like It Hot (1959) featuring leads Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in full drag, doing so, not because they wanted to, but as it was their only available option in hiding from the mob. To pacify the audience, director/writer Billy Wilder ensured the virility of his two leads was maintained by overcompensating for their dresses and full makeup, ensuring each situation was portrayed comically while stressing their lecherous tendencies, their strong male libidos, and their lothario driven personalities.

As a result of the Code, Hollywood was able to successfully mold the image of gay men and women into heartless, sociopathic lecherous and reclusive villains. A perspective which directly influenced public opinion and supported the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness. This depiction in film helped to push the gay lifestyle further underground, identifying being gay as something deviant, a defect to be ashamed of and ultimately something that needed to be hidden from view. Such movies included: Dog Day Afternoon (1975) a true story about an amateur bank robber (played by Al Pacino) who sets out to rob a bank in order to finance his lovers sex change; Cruising (1980) again starring Al Pacino, this time as an undercover cop hunting a murderer within the rough and perverted sexual underbelly of New York City’s gay S&M community; and Dressed to Kill (1980) starring Michael Caine as a cross dressing murderous slasher.

At the same time, Hollywood was just starting to explore a potential market within the LGBT community, with Cinema Centre Films (a division of CBS Television) producing The Boys in the Band (1970), an attempt by Hollywood to target a film to the gay market. Based on the very successful 1968 Mart Crowley play of the same name, the story attempts to present an honest look at the gay / bisexual lifestyle in America at the time. Although this film is seen as revolutionary and captures a pre-Stonewall slice of gay life in Manhattan, my personal issue with the film and the characters is that it presents gay men within the story as argumentative, bitchy and extremely unhappy. While this film was one of the first to not depict the gay community as a group of lonely homicidal maniacs, the film continued to portray gay men in an insistently negative light. Although we weren’t necessarily dangerous misfits, we were without question, exceedingly disappointed and unhappy in our lifestyle. A Ryan Murphy redevelopment of The Boys in the Band was released on Netflix on September 30, with an all-star cast. You can read my colleague Alan’s review of the film here.

Throughout the 1970’s, several films were produced that included gay relationships or storylines which either hinted at a gay subtext (Something for Everyone (1970) and Cabaret (1972) or blatantly in your face (The Ritz (1976) and La Cage Aux Folles (1978) which was re-envisioned in 1996 as The Birdcage. For the most part these somewhat experimental “testing the waters” films were well received and helped to identify and prove there was a growing market within the LGBT segment.

I must be honest in revealing that the first film I saw which truly gave me hope was Making Love (1982). This controversial picture is the first Hollywood studio film to openly and directly market a feature film about homosexuality to the general public. The film follows Zack Elliot (Michael Ontkean), a happily married man as he comes to terms with his homosexuality.  The process developing somewhat of a love triangle between he, his wife (Kate Jackson) and Bart McGuire (Harry Hamlin).

You can imagine my heart stopping reaction to the scene, 45 minutes into the film, which begins with the question “Are you sure you want to spoil the mystery?” and leads to a seductive first kiss, tender disrobing and finally, through a somewhat gauzy lens, two handsome men on the bed, making love. Not the primal, get it off in some sleazy questionable location “sex” that films such as Cruising suggested, but passionate, intimate, natural and tender love making between two consenting adults.

For the love scene, actors Ontkean and Hamlin agreed to the kissing and tender undressing segments, but were uncomfortable with the simulated bed sequence, which had been a late addition by director Arthur Hiller. The solution was found by locating two similarly built stand-ins in West Hollywood to film that particular scene.

Making Love portrayed gay characters in a film who were not victims, psychopaths or comedic, catty simpletons. These people were normal men educated, successful, had careers and functioned within a society that I recognized. For the first time in my life, I could actually relate to the gay characters I was watching on screen. I finally understood I was not alone, there were in fact, other people like me in this world.

I understand now the tremendous risk, chances and courage the individuals involved with this project had to have taken making this film in the early 1980’s, particularly for leads Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin. Fifteen leading male Hollywood actors had been approached and had turned down the lead roles due to reservations about the subject matter and the very real concern over potential damage to their career with the association that came with playing a gay character. It is an interesting worry that if you played a gay character you ran the risk of being labeled gay, whereas if you play a convicted murderer or rapist, there were no real associated after effects – you were merely playing a role in a film.

The success of Making Love helped to pave the way for the 1987 Merchant Ivory Productions release of Maurice, A romantic story of love between two upper class Cambridge University students amid the societal complications and pressures of the early 1900’s. Based on the 1913 E.M. Foster novel (not published until 1971), starring James Wilby, Rupert Graves, and Hugh Grant, the film is revolutionary in its offering of an unrealistically happy ending to a situation involving both, a same-sex relationship and, the perhaps more contentious concept: a love story that crosses firmly established British class divisions.

Rather than build upon the positive success of Making Love and Maurice, Hollywood unfortunately turned its focus to films concentrating on the AIDS pandemic within the gay community. This approach supported a growing homophobic movement, adding further negative public opinion of the LGBT community. Movies such as these are important in documenting that period of history but unfortunately fed directly into the ignorance that if one is gay, then they must have AIDS or will end up contracting AIDS due to their unnatural lifestyle. The first mainstream television movie was An Early Frost (1985) in which Chicago Attorney Michael Pierson (Aidan Quinn) returns to his parents’ home to reveal his sexual orientation and the admission that he had contracted AIDS. This was followed by Parting Glances (1986), Longtime Companion (1989) – so titled as the term given by The New York Times obituary page for partners of deceased same sex spouses – Philadelphia (1993) and It’s My Party (1996).

It’s My Party is another film to which I immediately gravitated. Written and directed by Randal Kleiser, the film is based on the very real planned suicide and farewell party of Kleiser’s ex-partner Harry Stein, an accomplished architect who was dying of AIDS related complications. Staring Eric Roberts and Gregory Harrison as ex-lovers, the film portrays the couple’s positive relationship through flashbacks that are heartfelt and real. There are very few movies that I have found which feature positive same sex relationships, fewer still that come across as believable and real.  Even though the plot is somewhat macabre and the acting not stellar, the obvious love and support demonstrated between the two main characters and the life they had created together is something truly beautiful.

In the 1990’s, following films focusing on the AIDS crisis, Hollywood attempted again to pacify a growing LGBT market with its own version of gay normalcy – this time taking a crack at drag. Not just drag but drag on some campy sort of adventure. These included the Aussie Indie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), the Americanized  version titled To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995) and the aforementioned remake of La Cage Aux Folles – The Birdcage (1996). Although immensely entertaining and creative, the films again stressed gay people as societal outcasts, only able to function when surrounded by their own kind. In all cases, these films preach a strong lesson of tolerance, but unfortunately do not suggest a message of equality.

One bright spot amid Hollywood’s 1990’s drag fest, is the adorably compassionate Beautiful Thing (1996).  The film chronicles the budding friendship and sexual awakening of neighboring working-class schoolboys living in a south London council estate. Based on Jonathan Harvey’s 1993 play of the same name, the coming of age story follows the connection between the bullied Jamie (Glen Berry) and his neighbor, the domestically abused Ste (Scott Neal) as they care for one another’s internal and external wounds and slowly develop a tender bond. The film beautifully explores the initial shame, confusion, angst and longing which comes with first love. Surround these two leading boys with a multitude of eccentric neighbors and a soundtrack by Mama Cass, and you cannot help but being touched and moved by this unexpected story. The film ends beautifully with a message of acceptance and a moving slow dance to Cass Elliot’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me”.

In the 2000’s, there was a large effort to push out independent films targeting a gay audience with low budget fluff.  These efforts more often than not focused on campy, simple sexual plot lines, providing nothing that warranted any real content or a notable change to Hollywood’s perception of the market.  Up to this point, films had either skirted the subject, reduced it to an apathetic and sanitized version of gay relationships or simplified it to an eye-candy treatment, using beautiful leads to camouflage their lack of any depth or real content.

Exactly halfway through the decade, however, on December 9th, 2005, Focus Features released Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, which became the first major motion picture to feature a love story with two leading males. This film, costing $14 million to produce, reaped over $180 million at the box office and secured eight Oscar nominations, winning for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. Suffice it to say Brokeback Mountain proved without a doubt that there was a secure place in the market for legitimate film which respectfully portrays gay characters in real settings and plotlines. In 2018, Brokeback Mountain was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Adapted from Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story of the same name, and starring Heath Ledger (Ennis), Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack), Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams, the film depicts the complex emotional relationship between Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist in the American West from 1963 to 1983. The brilliance of the film is in its presentation of their same-sex relationship as a naturally building bond between the two men – there are no references to politics or LGBT agendas, only the tragic understanding that societal structures and religious standards in 1960s America dictated that two loving individuals can never openly be together. It’s the power of their hidden connection that is the essence of this film, which is beautifully demonstrated in the scene where the two reconnect after four years apart. The indescribable look that crosses Ennis’s face when he sees Jacks truck pull up to his apartment and the unrestrained passion of their reunion – Ennis taking Jack by the lapels of his vest, locked in an intense, breathtaking and passionate kiss, releasing four years of passion. No words are needed. Their passion mixed with aggression, doubt, confusion and ultimately sadness for what cannot be. I would be remis in not mentioning the tragic ending. Ennis, with Jack and his shirts, hanging together, eyes tearing up, murmuring “Jack, I swear.”

This brings us to present day, where we started this article, with the Academy comfortable enough to nominate two women who happened to be playing lesbians, beautifully demonstrating that the sexuality of the character is merely a characteristic of their persona, rather than the focus of their very being.

Honorable Mention

There are so many quality films that have been released and continue to be produced which warrant inclusion in this article but, in an effort to ensure this article does not evolve into the length of a doctoral dissertation, I am including the following small selection of recent films as honorable mentions. There is always going to be backwoods, religious justified bigotry against any group seen as different from the established Norman Rockwell image of society. I chose the films below, as they portray a lesson on life, on relationships and on living, which is universal, regardless of the sex of the film’s lead actors. This is what excites me the most – the sexual orientation of the lead characters is not the focus of the story, and as such is no longer there for shock value or negative humor. It is now the story which is the focus, as it should be, and the sex of the leads is not an issue. The more quality films that are produced with positive messages, the more the world is going to accept the LGBT segment as a normal and integral component of any neighborhood. As I relied on examples in film to help my own development and acceptance, so too will these movies help youth and future generations continue moving toward a more just and accepting place.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko and staring Mia Wasikowska, Julianne Moore, Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo, this “love is love” comic drama follows the conventional family life of two moms (Moore and Bening) dealing with the everyday challenges and tensions of raising teen children in present day suburbia.  Although the storyline of The Kids Are All Right is familiar and relatable, the story stresses the fact that any family, regardless of the orientation of the parents, can struggle with challenges and setbacks and ultimately reconnect along the path of life.

Pride (2014)

I recently stumbled across this Matthew Warchus directed gem staring Bill Nighy, Dominic West, Imelda Staunton, and Andrew Scott. This kindhearted film follows the true story of the UK 1984 coal miners’ strike and the unlikely supporting partnership of a London group of gay and lesbian activists who relate to the entrenched opposition and harassment of miners by Margaret Thatcher’s government. The self-named LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) set off from London, converging on the unsuspecting South Wales mining village to deliver buckets of loose change raised in gay clubs, encountering and overcoming resistance, prejudice and bias along the way. The factual and often humorous film focusses on how two unlikely groups came together in the tempestuous times of the early 80s in the U.K., and through a common cause, developed a mutually beneficial, caring and supportive relationship.

God’s Own Country (2017)

Directed by Francis Lee, and staring Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu, God’s Own Country is a story about the discovery of love and companionship, as well as acceptance. Often unfairly referred to as a UK Brokeback Mountain due to its remote rural setting and subject matter, the story follows the growing relationship between an embittered farmer’s frustrated and melancholic son, Johnny (Josh O’Connor), and a wise and understanding Romanian hired hand (“the only bugger who applied”), Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu).

The film presents a raw and primitive power struggle between the two men, defining their initial meeting and forming the underlying basis of every aspect of their connection: physical, emotional, psychological, and finally, sexual. In the realistic pace and internal struggles presented in the film, director Lee demonstrates his intellectual respect for the viewing audience refusing to suppress or restrain his tender and realistic telling of the unlikely love affair. This mature story presents a lifeline of hope offered only by love, regardless of orientation and how that same love is so often squandered or put at risk. This unexpected love affair proves that people can be united by common experiences much more than they can be divided by language, ethnicity or sexuality.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017)

Directed by Luca Guadagnino and staring Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, this Oscar winning film (James Ivory for Best Screenplay) is based on the bittersweet 2007 André Aciman novel about the enduring impact of a first love. The film explores the magic of falling in love and the gut-wrenching pain of lost love. The fact that this is an experience between two men does not change the message, and Guadagnino treats the gender of the two leads as inconsequential to the overall message – at the end of the day, love is love.

While most romance films are unrealistically simple, melodramatic, and often unimaginative, Call Me By Your Name is refreshingly original and surprisingly relatable. The film effortlessly progresses through the natural tension associated with juvenile uncertainty, flirtation and the anxiety associated with the sexual unknown, to the passion that develops between the two men. The progression is unavoidable, beautiful and with the smoldering newness and awkwardness that comes with inexperienced love. The interesting and ultimately defining concept of this love story is the reaction of Elio’s parents to their son’s sexuality, not to his homosexuality but to his sexuality as a whole. This is particularly evident in the empathetic monologue delivered by Elio’s father (Stuhlbarg) about the pain and heartbreak which comes with love and desire. While the film cries out for internal monologue as to Elio’s internal thoughts, the story is told so masterfully, that attempts for inner explanations would do the film a great disservice.

Aside for winning for Best Adapted Screenplay, Call Me By Your Name was deservedly nominated by the Academy for: Best Picture, Best Original Song (“Mystery of Love”) and Best Actor for Timothée Chalamet.

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