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How gay is Oscar?
The Academy Awards are more than the gay Super Bowl
It’s almost 120 years since the first commercial motion picture exhibition was launched using Edison’s Kinetoscope, twelve decades of films reflecting, in one way or another, life and dreams and nightmares.
However, for much of that time, including the “Golden Age” of Hollywood, films either under threat of censorship from state boards, or were made under the Motion Picture Production Code, a self-enforced set of standards that the industry used to keep itself out of trouble.
Under the Code, the good guys always won. Under the code, there was no mixing of races, sex outside of marriage led to ruin and regret, clergy were never the villains and crime was always punished.
These were spelled out explicitly; implicitly, however, there were two big rules: No using the really bad words, and no homosexuality.
That means that, from about 1921 to 1968, there was almost no homosexuality on the big screen, even while it became more and more prevalent in American society. Certainly, there were exceptions, things that made it past the censors, like Martin Landau’s character in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, who relies on his “women’s intuition.” He may even have been vaguely palatable to the censors because he was a villain and got it in the end, no pun intended.
So, until 45 years ago, stories with LGBT people not only couldn’t really be told (with some comedic exceptions, like Some Like It Hot, in which Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis dress in drag to escape the mob), but since there were no major LGBT stories, none of them could make it to the big dance, the Academy Awards.
The first film with a major gay character to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar was The Lion in Winter, which came out in 1968. Following the familial squabbles of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, his wife, it turns out that one of their sons, Richard the Lionheart, had an affair with the now-king of France when they were younger. Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for her portrayal of the strong queen, but the movie lost out for Best Picture to Oliver.
In 1972, Cabaret was nominated, with Michael York playing a bisexual nobleman in relationships with both a woman (Liza Minnelli) and a man, and Joel Grey played the sexually mysterious, and disconcertingly menacing, master of ceremonies. It lost to Mafia movie The Godfather.
Another Best Picture nominee with an LGBT character was 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, in which Chris Sarandon played the transgender wife of a bank robber, Sonny, portrayed by Al Pacino. Sonny was robbing the bank with his friends to get enough money to pay for Leon’s sexual reassignment surgery. That film lost out to Jack Nicholson’s tour de force performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which also won Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay and Best Director.
Another major film, although one that downplayed its source material’s lesbianism in adaptation to the big screen, was The Color Purple in 1985. In fact, it was nominated for 11 Oscars, and won none of them. The same year, William Hurt won Best Actor for his role in Kiss of the Spider Woman, playing a gay man imprisoned in Brazil by its right-wing government. Kiss was nominated for Best Picture as well, but both films lost out to Out of Africa.
The 1986 film A Room with a View also had queer characters, but since it was an adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel, that kind of goes without saying. It lost to Platoon.
Six years later, however, the gayest film nominated until that point came out: The Crying Game, directed by Neil Jordan. Stephen Rea plays Fergus, an ex-IRA soldier who promises Jody (Forest Whitaker), a British soldier, that he will look in on his girlfriend in London, Dil (Jaye Davidson). Filmgoers on multiple continents were surprised, along with Fergus, to discover that Dil was transgendered, living as a woman while still in the body of a man. Rea was nominated for Best Actor and Davidson, in one of only two major acting roles, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The film was nominated for six Oscars in total, winning only Best Original Screenplay. Jordan was screwed out of Best Director by Clint Eastwood, whose Unforgiven also took Best Picture, and who co-star, Gene Hackman, robbed Davidson of his gold. Unforgiven is the reason I still have not forgiven the Academy for their poor decision-making skills.
In 2005, Brokeback Mountain exploded on the scene, taking Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score, while losing for Best Picture, Best Actor for Heath Ledger, Best Supporting Actor for Jake Gyllenhaal, Best Supporting Actress for Michelle Williams and Best Cinematography. Capote was also nominated, and Philip Seymour Hoffman won Best Actor for his portrayal of Truman Capote. Crash took Best Picture.
The following year, Little Miss Sunshine came out of nowhere to huge success, in part on the strength of Steve Carell’s performance as a young girl’s suicidally-depressed gay uncle. It won Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin, who played Abigail Breslin’s grandfather. That’s not bad for a film that debuted at the Sundance Festival.
In 2008, another surprise success was Milk, starring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. It lost to Slumdog Millionaire for Best Picture, but Penn received Best Actor and Dustin Lance Black got Best Original Screenplay.
For 2010, The Kids Are All Right was a Best Picture nominee, along with nods for Mark Ruffalo for Best Supporting Actor and Annette Bening for Best Actress, and a nomination for Best Original Screenplay. Unfortunately, it did not take home any of the four awards.
While William Hurt’s Best Actor Win for Kiss of the Spider Woman probably makes him the first person to win a Best Actor Oscar for portraying a gay man, he was followed by Tom Hanks for Philadelphia at the 66th Academy Awards.
Hilary Swank won Best Actress for her 1999 role as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, and Charlize Theron followed four years later, playing Aileen Wuornos in Monster.
Bruce Davison was the MNP (most nominated player) in Longtime Companion, his Best Supporting Actor nomination being its only Oscar nod. He lost out to Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.
Three major LGBT films have been nominated for the Oscars for Best Documentary Feature; two of them, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt and How to Survive a Plague, dealt with the AIDS epidemic, while the third, The Times of Harvey Milk, was about the slain San Francisco supervisor. It won for 1984, and Common Threads picked up the award five years later.
Of course, there is more LGBT to go around in the Academy Awards, besides being the gay men’s version of the Super Bowl. Stockard Channing was nominated for Best Actress in Six Degrees of Separation, and Salma Hayek for Frida, and Felicity Huffman for TransAmerica. I cannot even begin to go through the foreign language film nominations, or I’d never get past Pedro Almodóvar. Suffice it to say, in this season of Pride, we’re here, we’re queer, and we’ve taken home some little gold-plated statues.
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