In celebration of the Academy Awards coming up on Sunday, February 9th, I wanted to create a list of my own favorite films that come to mind because of actors that shined in LGBTQ roles. While Hollywood seems to be slowly progressing in honoring more actors and actresses for their work in LGBTQ-related films, there are few who have won an Oscar for them. Here are the actors who stepped into the shoes of a LGBTQ character and won an Academy Award for their performance.
Olivia Colman, Best Actress in The Favourite (2018)
The Favourite stars Emma Stone as a poor peasant girl named Abigail looking to work in the Queens palace. After earning a job as a maid, she sneaks into the Queens library and stumbles upon Queen Anne herself (Olivia Colman) and her top advisor Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) engaging in a secret sexual love affair. Abigail quickly uses her own sexuality to her advantage to climb the social ladder into Anne’s good graces and usurp Lady Sarah’s position as the Queen’s most trusted advisor. Think All About Eve but in the Victorian era. Both Stone and Weisz were nominated for their performances, but it is ultimately Colman, with her Oscar-winning performance as Queen Anne, who steals the movie and goes down in history as giving one of the most petty, funny, and memorable performances of all time.
Rami Malek, Best Actor in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
The story of gay rock and roll legend Freddie Mercury is brought to life in the big-budget Hollywood biopic about Queen, the British rock band that took over the world and gave us some of the most iconic songs of all time. Malek blew critics and audience members away with his stellar performance as Freddie Mercury and won the Oscar for Best Actor at last year’s Academy Awards. The film also won for many technical categories such as Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing.
Mahershala Ali, Best Supporting Actor in Green Book (2018)
Green Book is a great film about a tough Italian-American man from the Bronx named Tony Lip who gets a job as the driver and security for a black pianist named Dr. Don Shirley, who will be traveling through the Jim Crow Deep South on a concert tour in 1962. The two men have their differences, but slowly develop a loving friendship as Mahershala Ali delivers a powerhouse performance as the in-the-closet Shirley which won him his second Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Ali had just come off another Best Supporting Actor win the year prior for his role in the LGBTQ film Moonlight, which tells the story of a young black man struggling with his own identity and sexuality. When he won, Ali became the first Muslim to win an Academy Award for acting. The film won Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2017 and was the first film with an all-black cast, and/or LGBTQ film to win Best Picture honors at the Oscars. Although Ali’s character in Moonlight is not a LGBTQ one, the film still deserves recognition and a recommendation for its queer subject matter.
Charlize Theron, Best Actress in Monster (2003)
My personal favorite of the entire list, the role of Aileen Wuornos earned Charlize Theron an Oscar in 2004 and made her a household name as an actress who can take on even the most difficult, grisly role and deliver it with flying colors. Aileen Wuornos was a prostitute in Florida who killed seven men in the 1980’s and became America’s most prominent female serial killer. The film opens with a brief history of her childhood and picks up when she is a middle-aged woman stopping in a lesbian bar after her truck broke down on a busy freeway. At the bar she meets Selby (Christina Ricci), a soft-spoken but friendly young girl who buys Wuornos a drink and forms a friendship with her. The two women fall in love and the rest of the movie juggles between Wuornos romantic relationship with Selby and the murders she commits with the men she meets while hooking on the streets.
There was no doubt that Theron would win Best Actress when the film was released. World-famous critic and film scholar Roger Ebert gave the film 4/4 stars, a big thumbs up, and said, “If she [Theron] doesn’t win Best Actress, they [the Academy] might as well retire the award!” Monster is a very dark and disturbing movie that contains a lot of profanity, sexuality, nudity, and a very hard to watch rape scene involving Wuornos and one of her male clients. Monster is not a film for everyone, but anyone who makes it to the end will witness one of the finest, most riveting performances by any actor or actress in the history of cinema. Period.
Sean Penn, Best Actor in Milk (2008)
After winning Best Actor for his performance in Mystic River just a few years before, Sean Penn stepped into the shoes of LGBTQ rights activist Harvey Milk, who was murdered in cold blood in 1978 while fighting for equality in California throughout the 1970’s. The film is directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Dustin Lance Black (winner of Best Original Screenplay) and gained universal acclaim for its strong performances from all actors involved, a powerful message of equality and love, and most of all, Penn’s unforgettable performance.
The film also made waves for coming out right as California passed Proposition 8 which only recognized marriage as being between one man and one woman. At his acceptance speech, Penn shamed bigoted voters, saying, “I think that is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support. We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone!” Harvey would have been so proud.
Natalie Portman, Best Actress in Black Swan (2010)
From Director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Mother!, The Wrestler) comes the story of a fragile, soft-spoken ballerina named Nina who earns the lead in a hit play and struggles with her own mental state as she deals with her overbearing play director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), her demanding mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), and rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) who is in a never-ending pursuit to steal the lead from Nina.
Nina lives in a dream-like state, bouncing between reality and fantasy, in perpetual stress over her own abilities to live up to Thomas’s sky-high expectations and her confusing sexual desires towards her rival Lily. After Nina and Lily try to make peace over a night of cocktails, the two women end up back at Nina’s home for a romantic encounter that may or may not have even happened (Aronofsky is known for confusing his audiences and making them think). Portman is marvelous as Nina, and in 2011 she won her Oscar for Best Actress, beating out Annette Bening who was also nominated for her role as a mother in a same-sex relationship in The Kids Are Alright.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Best Actor in Capote (2005)
Truman Capote was an author of many talents who wrote powerful, historic works such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Miriam, and arguably his most famous, In Cold Blood. Truman Capote was a strong presence in any room, and Hoffman brought out that energy every second he is on screen. He commands the audience’s attention and refuses you to look at anything else. From his sassy persona to his witty jokes, Philip Seymour Hoffman truly was Truman Capote. Like Charlize Theron in Monster, when you watch Capote you forget you are watching an actor playing a scene and instead feel like you are watching the actual footage of this person’s life story. Hoffman was awarded the Best Actor honor at the 2006 Academy Awards for Capote and went on to earn three more acting Oscar nominations during his career for Charlie Wilson’s War, Doubt, and The Master.
On February 2nd, 2014, Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his New York home from a drug overdose; he was 46 years old. His final two films were The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 & 2. Because he died during production, his appearances in Mockingjay Part 2 were edited down and he was digitally inserted in key scenes to keep his character consistent in the story.
Hilary Swank, Best Actress in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Boys Don’t Cry is another powerful film that is difficult to watch. It stars Hilary Swank playing the role of a real-life trans man named Brandon Teena, who moved to Nebraska, fell in love with his partner Lana Tisdel (Sevigny), and fell victim to a grisly hate crime by two bigoted men. The film was shot with low lighting in an attempt to bring out the gritty look of living in rural America and feel more authentic than a typical, over-produced Hollywood film. Director Kimberly Peirce wanted to make a film that put a spotlight on transphobia, homophobia, internalized aggression, toxic masculinity, female masculinity, and criticizing heterosexual norms. The film is meant to be hard to watch because many LGBTQ people don’t end up with a Disney-like happy ending, and stories like this need to be heard rather than swept under the rug.
Upon its initial release, Boys Don’t Cry received an NC-17 rating for its controversial subject matter (rape and murder) and grisly violence but was later dropped down to an R-rating to reach a broader audience during its limited release. The film did receive some criticisms from the people who knew Brandon Teena personally during his life and claimed the events in the film did not accurately portray the events that occurred.
Hilary Swank swept almost every award she was nominated in for her performance as Brandon Teena, and both she and Chloe Sevigny were nominated for their performances at the Academy Awards that year. Swank was awarded Best Actress, and three years later won again for her performance as a female boxer in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby.
- Of note: In 2019, the Library of Congress selected Boys Don’t Cry for preservation in the National Film Registry of the United States for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Jared Leto, Best Supporting Actor in Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Dallas Buyers Club stars Matthew McConaughey as real-life AIDS patient Ron Woodroof. Woodroof contracted the HIV virus in the 1980’ when HIV/AIDS was still under research and extremely stigmatized. He volunteered to be a part of a new experimental movement to treat HIV/AIDS, but when doctors told him only half the patients will receive the treatment while the other half receives a placebo, he begged for the real drug warning he will die soon if given a useless placebo. Doctors told him that cannot happen since the experiment won’t work properly unless the case is double-blind (meaning both doctors and patients don’t know who received treatment and who got the placebos until the experiment is over). Rather than wait to die, Woodroof smuggled unapproved drugs into Texas and sold them to people with AIDS, creating the “Dallas Buyers Club”.
Woodroof meets Rayon (Leto), a trans woman with HIV who partners with him as part of the club. To be cast in this role, Leto lost 30 pounds and shaved/waxed all the hair off his body, including his eyebrows. He spent much time meeting and engaging with transgender people for research and practiced changing his voice for weeks. Cast and crew members said Leto never broke character and stayed in his Rayon role on and off the set for months. Leto claimed he wanted to do right in this role because he lost a friend and roommate in 1991 from AIDS. While critics universally agree that it is definitely McConaughey’s performance that commands the film, Leto still delivers a performance that stays in your mind years after watching it, and both Leto and McConaughey were honored with Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for their roles in Dallas Buyers Club, being the only male-duo to win both acting categories in the same film since Sean Penn and Tim Robbins in Mystic River at the 2004 Oscars.
William Hurt, Best Actor for Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
Based on the novel El Beso de la Mujer Arana, Kiss of the Spider Woman tells the story of two men in Brazil who share a prison cell. Raul Julia plays Valentin Arregui, a revolutionary leftist activist imprisoned for his politics activities against the government; and William Hurt plays Luis Molina, a homosexual man who was imprisoned for engaging in sex with an underage boy. Molina falls for Arregui and forms a friendship with him; what Arregui doesn’t know is that prison guards are slowly poisoning him to let his guard down around Molina, and even offered Molina freedom if he can get information out of Arregui about the leftist revolutionary group.
William Hurt received critical acclaim for his performance and in 1986 he received Best Actor honors at the Academy Awards, making him the first actor in the history of cinema to win an Oscar for playing a LGBTQ character.
Honorable Mentions: Actors and actresses who also won Oscars or were nominated but did not win for their roles as LGBTQ+ characters.
Heath Ledger — Brokeback Mountain
Jake Gyllenhaal — Brokeback Mountain
*Tom Hanks — Philadelphia
Chloe Sevigny — Boys Don’t Cry
Rachel Weisz — The Favourite
Emma Stone — The Favourite
*Liza Minelli — Cabaret
Annette Bening — The Kids are Alright
Benedict Cumberbatch — The Imitation Game
**Christopher Plummer — Beginners
**Alicia Vikander — The Danish Girl
Ian McKellan — Gods and Monsters
Jaye Davidson — The Crying Game
**Maggie Smith — California Suite
*Won the Lead acting Oscar for the role.
**Won the Supporting acting Oscar for the role.
Missing a name on the list? While this is just a list of my own personal favorites that come to mind, leave a comment below if there is a role you love in an Oscar-nominated or Oscar-winning LGBTQ film or a LGBTQ character that was left out!
About the Author:
Brian Moniz is from San Jose, Calif. He studied filmmaking and writing at San Jose State University from 2010–2013 and got his bachelor’s degree in Radio-TV-Film. Throughout his high school and college years, he worked as a music and movie journalist and critic. Having only recently come out of the closet himself in 2014, Brian enjoys writing about LGBTQ issues. His only regret when it comes to his sexuality is that he didn’t come out sooner.