22 June 2009

Out of the Closet Onto the Big Screen, 10 Films for Gay Pride Week


I am second to no one in my love for films from the first half of the 20th century. A greater proportion of classic films were made in the 1930's and early 1940's than at any other time in history. But there was something missing from that era, actually quite a lot. Namely positive roles for African Americans, Asians or Hispanics or any depiction of open homosexuality. Oh sure there were a few characters and actors who were pretty obviously gay such as Franklin Pangborn and sometimes Edward Everett Horton. But same sex relationships were strictly taboo as were such words as homosexual or lesbian.

Change did not come until the 1960's and it was very very slow. Most depictions of homosexuality were negative. Gays were either limp-wristed nancy boys or perverts with "a problem." Positive change came with the confluence of Stonewall and the cinematic revolution of the 1970's, right? You'd think. The Gay Rights movement has been lagging behind others in acceptance through no fault of its own (see the victory of California's hateful Proposition 8 in last November's election). No, non stereotypical gay characters did not start appearing regularly in films until well into the 1980's. Barely 20 years ago.

TV and Hollywood have been taking baby steps, but at least most of those steps are forward and not backward. Here are ten movies from the last 25 years that have had positive depictions of gay characters. Included are three documentaries. One about this very topic of gays in the movies, one about a gay politician and the other about a gay couple. This is by no means a definitive list and I apologize in advance for including only one film that focuses on a lesbian couple. This inequity probably reflects both on Hollywood and yours truly. The films are not offered in any particular order.

Philadelphia (1993). It was a huge moment for gays and Hollywood and the twain meeting when Tom Hanks won the Best Picture Oscar for this film. And his eloquent acceptance speech capped it off. Philadelphia is the story of a gay closeted lawyer who sues the law firm that fired him. He claims his dismissal was prompted by the discovery that he had AIDS. Philadelphia tackled both homophobia and AIDS discrimination. If you've never seen it have a hankie near by; hell, if you have seen it be sure a hankie is handy. While Hanks was fully deserving of the Oscar and all other accolades, Denzel Washington gives a bravura performance as the ambulance chaser who takes his case. His transformation from macho homophobe to compassionate friend is the center of the story.

In & Out (1997). Let's see a comedy about a man who reluctantly comes out of the closet on the brink of his straight wedding. This could be trouble. The potential for stereotypes and exploitative humor is great. But with Kevin Kline starring and Frank Oz directing a script by Paul Rudnick there was no such problem. In & Out explores coming out, homophobia and acceptance and does it all with a sense of humor.

Milk (2008). Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office. Well before that day he was already a mover and shaker in San Francisco politics in particular and the gay movement in general. Sean Penn gave one of the performances of a lifetime (of all lifetimes) in this brilliant bio pic from Gus Van Sandt. While Oscar was more than happy to acknowledge Penn's performance it gave the Best Picture award to the emotionally manipulative Slumdog Millionaire. Sheesh! For more on Milk see my post of last December.

Chris & Don. A Love Story (2007). A documentary about May-December romance that took place among some of the the rich, famous and talented in Hollywood circa the 1950's. The two people in love were gay, which, given our times, is unfortunately not just an oh-by-the-way. It's touching and fascinating. I wrote about it last Summer.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984). Before there was Milk there was this Oscar winning documentary. Indeed the producers of Milk acknowledged their debt this film. The subject of the film should be obvious. I will add that, if nothing else, watching it after seeing Milk makes one appreciate Sean Penn's performance all the more.

The Celluloid Closet (1995). So far the definitive documentary about gay depictions in Hollywood. Lots of clips from lots of films. Obviously the characters and situations discussed in older films were neither openly "practicing" their sexuality nor identified as gay. Some of the film's claims are a bit tenuous but it's a fascinating film nonetheless. An updated version would be appreciated.

Personal Best (1982). Last summer I saw some jerk wearing a tee shirt that said, "I'm for gay marriage if it's between two hot chicks." It is in that unsavory spirit that many men enjoyed Personal Best and its lesbian love story between two female athletes, Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly. That's unfortunate because Personal Best, though somewhat dated today, deserves respect. The romance is actually a menage a trois as Hemingway's character is also involved with her male coach. A good movie about sports (track and field) sex and the meeting of these two athletic endeavors.

Brokeback Mountain (2005). Even as recently as 2005 the Oscars proved that they are still well behind the curve. While Ang Lee was awarded the Best Director Oscar for this gay love story, the Best Picture nod went to Crash (Seriously? Crash, why not just give the statuette to Norbit?). Heath Ledger gave an amazing performance in a starring role and Jake Gyllenhaal was excellent as his lover. Despite all the lame gay cowboy jokes that followed, this is still a touching and powerful film.

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). William Hurt won a Best Actor Oscar as a man imprisoned for "immoral behavior" -- i.e. he's gay in the wrong place at the wrong time. His cellmate couldn't be much different other than also being unjustly imprisoned. He's a political prisoner. They are the classic odd couple but come to understand and learn from one another. The late Raul Julia played the cell mate.

Before Night Falls (2000). Javier Bardem starred as real life gay poet and novelist, Reinaldo Arenas who was born and lived most of his life in Cuba. All was well when Castro came to power, after all Arenas was a revolutionary himself. However when he becomes open about his sexuality he discovered that the revolution wasn't revolutionary about sexual preference (the kind of thing that Castro apologists decide to ignore). The film follows Arenas triumphs, loves, prison terms and eventual emigration to New York. This was my first exposure to Bardem and I assumed he was gay. No, he's just one helluva an actor. Just ask his friend Anton Chigurh.

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