With the 2017 Oscars behind us and “Moonlight” winning Best Picture, let’s take a look at how LGBTQ films have fared throughout the history of the Academy Awards.
The Academy Awards are considered the standard for measuring the quality of films. At the same time, though, which films get nominated are an sign of bigger issues in film and in wider culture. Time and culture relates to what’s considered “good.” It’s also informed by what kinds of people have the power to dictate what is “good.” Politics link to ideas about quality.
Every year, there are raging debates about the films nominated for Academy Awards. Meanwhile, many have criticized the Academy itself for its lack of racial and gender diversity. The Academy’s members were still 92 percent white and 76 percent male according to a report from early last year.
This year, contemporary musical La La Land was set to be the Academy’s favorite. It received 14 nominations, including Best Picture. Critics were likewise delighted with the film’s clever reworking of established genre conventions. This is despite criticisms of its privileging of a white, heterosexual narrative.
Pitted against La La Land in the Best Picture category were Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures. All three focus on the intersections of gender, race, class and sexuality. Remarkably, it wasn’t La La Land that won, but Moonlight.
Moonlight was the hopeful candidate representing LGBTQ movies at the Oscars this year. The film follows the life of a young black queer man and stars Trevante Rhodes and Janelle Monae. In a supporting role is Mahershala Ali, who managed to get the Academy voters’ attention for the Best Supporting Actor award. The film is loosely based on the semi-autobiographical play of the same name by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Positive reviews lauded its portrayal of the intersecting identities of queer black maleness.
The stakes seemed somehow higher this year with the increasingly grueling politics inevitably surrounding these films in the age of Trump. Still, looking at the Oscars from previous years could tell us a bit more about whether and how things have changed. To look at the ghosts of LGBTQ Oscar noms past, I’ll focus on the core categories of Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress. The films sampled are characterized as LGBTQ if they feature characters coded as queer and/or contain themes relating to gender and sexuality.
Warning: there are spoilers for basically every Oscar nominated LGBTQ film from the last 30+ years.
There are also mentions of child abuse, AIDS, suicide, death and other forms of queer suffering.
Queer Film History
In all three categories reviewed here, LGBTQ nominations begin to feature from around the 1980s (except for Some Like It Hot’s Jack Lemmon’s Best Actor nomination). Certain factors are responsible for this.
Throughout classic Hollywood, representations of queer people went about as far as offering comic relief. Post-Hays Code cultural shifts allowed for some variation (see again Some Like It Hot). But there were also moral panics in the air (such as mass paranoia relating to homosexuality in the 1950s).
With the rise of counterculture in the 1960s, the LGBTQ community solidified. Events like the Stonewall riots put queer people into public discourse. But the AIDS crisis of the 1980s posed a setback the progress that had happened. More and more members of the community were allowed to perish by dominant (heterosexual) institutions.
Also in the 1980s came the rise of Queer Theory and the disruption of binaristic ideas of gender and sexuality more widely. The New Queer Cinema movement gained momentum in the 1990s. This also expressed the notion that gender and sexuality might not be as clear cut as thought. It was radical, independent filmmaking produced by LGBTQ people. Among these filmmakers were Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet; Brokeback Mountain), Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation; Mysterious Skin), Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho; Milk) and Todd Haynes (Safe; Carol).
If you pay attention to the Oscars, some of these names should be familiar. This is because, like other independent film movements, NQC was eventually picked up on by the mainstream. Independent film divisions owned by mainstream corporations, such as Focus Features, offered wider distribution opportunities. The mainstreaming of gay culture also explains the increased exposure NQC films received.
So, a lot of the LGBTQ films mentioned here are crossover hits . They are edgy, different, queer, yet accessible to mainstream audiences. Since the 1980s, LGBTQ films have been trickling into the Academy Awards nominations. But are they Oscar worthy?
It’s one thing for an LGBTQ film to receive a Best Picture nomination but it’s another for it to win the award. Of the 18 films sampled here, only 4 actually won. (And that’s counting films which are only very loosely queer.)
Kiss of the Spider Woman set a high precedent and was nominated in the same year as The Color Purple. Spider Woman was the first independent film to get a Best Picture nomination. As I discuss below, it was also noteworthy as a queer film nominated while the AIDS crisis was taking place.
The Silence of the Lambs’ villainous Jame Gumb, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) has been the focus of much discussion. Gumb is a killer of women who dresses in women’s clothes and is coded as a self-loathing bisexual transgender woman. Discussions about the film’s heroine FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) run parallel to this. These have focused on her strong characterization in a feminist context. Foster won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in the film, dedicating the award “to all of the women who came before me who never had the chances that I’ve had.” We nonetheless should keep in mind the film’s complex relationship to issues of gender and sexuality. The representation of the queer-coded villain has, for instance, been characterized as transphobic.
Best Picture award-winner American Beauty features a complicated or queered image of “ordinary” suburban life. It includes a plot about a homophobic father, implied to be closeted, who abuses his son and his gay neighbors. Then there’s Spotlight, which tells the tale of the Boston Globe’s uncovering of child abuse by the Catholic Church. Victims of the abuse tell their stories to help the reporters in the film piece together what happened. Some of these victims are gay.
We have to ask why an establishment like the Academy gets to decide that these are the “good” queer stories.
Unlike The Color Purple at the 58th Academy Awards, Moonlight took away the award for Best Picture this year. Interestingly, both these films involve themes about blackness and queerness, although they’re undoubtedly connected to their individual contexts. The Color Purple lost to Out of Africa, an epic romance about white people in Africa.
Regardless which film won, it’s hard to ignore the general themes of violence, abuse, death and suicide in these films. And since biographical drama is a popular genre on this list, it seems that “good” (according to tastemakers like the Academy voters) LGBTQ films involve the suffering of queer people who actually existed. There’s a sense that queer experiences are undeniably shaped by suffering. On the other hand, we have to ask why an establishment like the Academy, so often characterized as conservative, gets to decide that these are the “good” queer stories.
Best Actor/Best Actress
Jack Lemmon set a high standard for actors and actresses playing queer-coded characters in Some Like It Hot. It took a while, though, for more queer characters to creep into the Best Actor and Best Actress nominations. That said, few of these performers have actually won.
Like the films nominated for Best Picture, many of the films in these two performance categories are biographical dramas. The actors and actresses played LGBTQ people who actually existed. A lot of these people also actually suffered, for instance through dying of AIDS or committing suicide.
William Hurt won the Best Actor award for his portrayal of Luis Molina in 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Molina is in prison for having had sex with an underage boy. He shares a cell with Valentine, a revolutionary (Raúl Juliá) and the two develop an intense bond. It’s significant that a film like this got Hurt the Best Actor award in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Hurt provided a portrayal of a marginalized identity — whose community was at the center of discussions of one of most traumatic epidemics in recent history — which managed to impress the Academy voters.
Perhaps it’s no accident that the next person to win a Best Actor Oscar was Tom Hanks for his role as an AIDS patient in Philadelphia. The film was significant for its acknowledgement of the AIDS crisis and indeed features the slow and painful death of its central character. Hanks’ acceptance speech was a thinly veiled dedication to the men who died of AIDS and those attending the awards that year wore red ribbons.
There’s a trend of transformation in the Best Actress category. Nicole Kidman, who played Virginia Woolf in The Hours (a film which contains both AIDS and suicide) is perhaps more remembered for the stick-on nose she wore than her performance. Meanwhile Charlize Theron’s uglification for her role as female serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster was widely commented on. Hilary Swank was made to look like Brandon Teena, the transgender man who was beaten, raped and murdered at the age of 21, for her role in Boys Don’t Cry.
Looking at transgender characters whose performers have gained recognition is important because trans people remain some of the most marginalized of the LGBTQ community. Indeed, Swank dedicated her Oscar for Best Actress to her character Brandon Teena, despite Brandon’s mother’s refusal to acknowledge his gender.
Eddie Redmayne’s casting as trans woman Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl reinvigorated discussions about cisgender actors playing trans characters. Still, cis actors playing trans characters somwhat of a convention at the Oscars. Felicity Huffman, a cis woman playing a trans woman in Transamerica, is an interesting counterpoint here. Despite TIME’s declaration of the “transgender tipping point” (using Laverne Cox’s existence as proof) in 2014, there is yet to be an Oscar nominated trans actor or actress. Kelly Mantle was said have the potential to be nominated in either Best Actor or Best Actress categories for his gender-fluid performance in Confessions of a Womanizer, although this never materialized.
Sexual ambiguity and bisexuality seems to be more common in the Best Actress nominations than in those for Best Actor. Queer characters portrayed in the Best Actor category tend to be more explicitly declared as gay, with the exception of Brokeback Mountain (which was nonetheless referred to as the “gay cowboy movie” in the media).
Queering the Oscars?
The Academy nominates significant films every year. Sometimes there are breakthrough winners which are talked about as representing historical change. But this doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Remember when Kathryn Bigelow “made history” as the first woman to win the award for Best Director with The Hurt Locker? Or when 12 Years a Slave “made history” as the first film with a black director to win Best Picture? Or when Halle Berry was the first black actress to win the Best Actress award? These landmark wins and nominations are often presented as heralding a new era of diversity at the movies, but that idea alone is politically loaded. This years Oscars are already being marked as “a big night for Hollywood diversity.” What does it mean when the media represent certain films as marking social change and how does that relate to what is actually happening in the world?
Exactly what the Oscars are and what they can tell us about society depends on how they’re talked about in the media.
In any case, a lot of the films discussed here are as relevant today as they were when they were made (just look at the marketing for Transamerica and compare it to recent revocations of trans bathroom rights). This indicates the limitations of the frameworks within which “successful” queer narratives have been and still are talked about. These films often exist within discourses of violence and death. The recognition of AIDS as a turning point in queer history is important. But it is also noteworthy when “good” queer narratives are those that include AIDS-related death.
The role of the biographical drama is also noteworthy. There’s a sense of a construction of LGBTQ history taking place. But again, it’s focus on suffering may be problematic. There is also the issue of who is making these films and who has the right to create this kind of history.
Similarly, we need to consider whether the Academy is worthy of having this much authority on the undeniably political issues of film quality. Do we continue legitimizing the power of the Oscars by discussing the films and calling for change? Calls for a boycott due to the lack of racial diversity in Oscar nominated films sounded loudly this year. On the other hand, boycotts were also held by Trump supporters who claimed the awards were too Liberal. Exactly what the Oscars are and what they can tell us about society therefore depends on how they’re talked about in the media. To think about that we need to pay attention.
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