More often than not, cinema about gay characters is limited to respectable film festivals and niche screenings. Not any more. Hollywood backed by brave story telling and independent filmmaking marketed by powerful studios has made being gay the new mainstream this year. 2019’s Oscar nominations stand testimony to progressive and inclusive representation of gay and lesbian characters in mainstream Hollywood cinema.
In the film festival circuit, Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post stood out for reinforcing taboos around gay characters. Boy Erased, with a narrative similar to this movie yet with stark treatment, became an Awards favorite. Similarly, Killing Eve, the TV show from the BBC, utilized a bisexual female serial killer effectively to turn the presentation of a typical cop and killer drama.
Nominated for 5 Oscars, Green Book shows Don Shirley, the genius concert pianist, as a closet gay man living in Sixties America. Naturally, he hides his sexuality and expressing it lands him in trouble with the law, one that has racial bias. But the point of his character- his motives, reasons and choices made in building an uncommon life- do not hinge on his sexuality. He is gay, but before that he is a brilliant artist. Mahershala Ali, who has performed this character with finesse and added depth to his experiences, owns the artful nuances of this character. Green Book might have had it’s own share of controversies with Don Shirley’s surviving relatives calling it incorrect portrayal. But the film achieves a fine balance in integrating a gay man’s sexuality into its narrative.
In Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie Mercury grapples with publicly acknowledging the fact that he is gay. His origin, as an Indian Parsi boy with a conservative upbringing and superstardom as lead vocalist of Queen, made accepting this more difficult. Mercury’s unmatched range as a singer and his talent often got lost in salacious tabloid coverage of his hard partying, homosexual lifestyle. The film doesn’t focus with how Mercury deals with inner conflict with his identity as a gay man; rather, it focuses on his mercurial rise to a global cultural icon riding solely on his talent. Mercury’s death from AIDS had made international headlines in 1991. In fact, the other movie about the high profile female celebrity to die of AIDS, Gia, with a moving, raw performance by Angelina Jolie, has become a cult HBO film; a TV movie. In 1998, it got critical acclaim but never made it to a mainstream release. That Rami Malek has won Best Actor awards at the Golden Globes and SAG, indicates that having a gay protagonist doesn’t intimidate a high budget Hollywood studio in actively positioning it as an awards favorite. It also worked wonders with audiences.
The most uplifting presentation of homosexuality is depicted in Yorgos Lanthimos’ masterpiece, the Favorite. It’s a comedy- drama period film that has ten nominations this year. Queen Anne was lesbian. She found solace in the company of women after losing 11 children. Historical documents make this clear. But the machinations of the court, as two female cousins vie to become an emotionally wrecked and physically fragile Anne, uses typical female tropes of clawing one’s way to power. The women in The Favorite are ruthlessly ambitious, sometimes jealous and hungry for power. The women in the Favorite use their sexuality as a tool and get their hands dirty to win their victories. Yet, the fact that a lesbian queen and her lovers can play games of war and peace with ease in the sixteenth century makes this film stand out for it’s direct tackling of homosexuality. Stars like Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone make it mainstream just by playing these characters.
This tectonic shift- whereby gay and lesbian characters become center stage beyond their sexuality as an issue- has been occurring on TV shows, series on streaming platforms and some films over the past 5 years. Last year, Call Me By Your Name deals with difficulty of acceptance of gay men in Jewish society. HBO had also made the touching, A Normal Heart, featuring Julia Roberts and Mark Ruffalo, dealing with unfair medical treatment of gay patients in Florida. Star power scaled up this film’s appeal. Then there’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace, whereby Gianni’s sexuality reveals prejudice of law enforcement officers. Rather than hint at Versace’s multiple sexual partners, the narrative focuses on his business acumen and artistic mastery. It highlights complexities that quick sexual liaisons brought to some powerful men in America, focusing on lust and envy in the mind of a cold-blooded killer with many complexes. Sophistication in storytelling around gay lives, people and experiences has made understanding them easier. Mainstream cinema and TV have done a significant bit in making this happen.