Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
June is LGBT Pride month in the United States. One might think this is because the Supreme Court typically hands down rulings in June, thus several notable milestone have occurred in it, but ultimately it all began with the Stonewall Riots. The riots began on the morning of June 28, 1969 in response to a targeted raid by the New York City Police Department. It was the catalyst that, over the course of the last fifty years, has expanded and improved the lives of gay men and women in the United States and around the world. With so many adverse opinions held by Americans, full freedom has progressed at a snail’s pace. This is why the June rulings of the Supreme Court (and a few non-June ones as well) have helped define June as the key month for the LGBTQ community in terms of pride. A few of the key decisions: 1958’s One, Inc. v Olesen in 1958 determined that gay publications were not inherently obscene. Romer v. Evans in 1996 established that laws prohibiting the protection of LGBTQ people were in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 finally overturned the Bowers v. Hardwick decision of 1986, eliminating anti-sodomy laws across the United States.
Then there were additional key rulings, all within the last ten years that further defined the equality of the LGBTQ community. In United States v. Windsor in 2013, the Defense of Marriage Act provision blocking same sex marriage benefits was struck down, which was closely followed by Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. That ruling struck down the patchwork of state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage, legalizing it across the nation. The most important decision yet was handed down just three days ago (Monday, Jun. 15, 2020) when the Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v Clayton County (as well as two other pending cases) that workers cannot be fired for being homosexual or transgender. There have been numerous other laws and cases that have harmed the LGBTQ community, and those battles have not yet been won; however, the tide is slowly turning and equal rights to all Americans regardless of their sexual orientation or identity are becoming the norm rather than the exception. It will still take time and that’s why we celebrate Pride month to acknowledge all that we’ve accomplished and to support each other in the push for further equality in the eyes of the law.
There are far more films about the lives, loves, and labors of the LGBTQ community than can possibly be highlighted on a list like this. However, these are the five films I consider most important not just in terms of how they helped changed the conversation, but how they conveyed the normalcy and humanity of a class of people that has faced incredible discrimination and even death at the hands of those who believe incorrectly that being LGBTQ is an aberration of nature. Some other films I considered, but ultimately could not include in this list: The Adventure of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, The Celluloid Closet, C.R.A.Z.Y., The Crying Game, The Favourite, Gods and Monsters, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, In & Out, The Kids Are All Right, Love, Simon, Milk, Moonlight (more on this one at the end), Out in the Dark, Strawberry and Chocolate, Torch Song Trilogy, Victor/Victoria, and The Wedding Banquet.
It’s rather fascinating to me that of the five films I chose, four of them were released in a year ending in the number five.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
In terms of influence, Rocky Horror Picture Show has to be one of the most subversive examples of forward-thinking cinema. Based on a British stage musical, Tim Curry stars as alien transvestite Frank N Furter who runs a spooky household off the main road. When two hapless newlyweds (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) come knocking on his door to use their phone, they are inducted into a strange cabal of fetishists looking to free their inhibitions and bring Brad and Janet along for the ride.
This rock opera asks viewers to embrace openness and freedom alongside their square protagonists as they break out of societal norms and revel in their uninhibited sexual awakening. While not well received upon release, a series of midnight screenings help bolster the film’s counter-cultural profile and ultimately it became one of the most successful films in cinema history simply because it urged its fans not just to “dream it,” but to “be it.” It was a powerful message to young queer and straight men and women alike across the nation and around the world. It allowed them to live out loud and showed that they could throw off the shackles of repression and accept themselves not for who society demands that they be, but for what and who they truly are. Its potent and enlightened message helped raise a new generation of teens and adults to recognize our differences and celebrate them.
The Color Purple (1985)
Criticized for minimizing the lesbian relationship between Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) and Shug (Margaret Avery), Spielberg has acknowledged that he intentionally softened some of the encounters between the two that were more detailed in the novel. That being said, The Color Purple still brought queerness to a mass audience who didn’t immediately turn away from it. Spielberg’s prior films, almost all blockbusters, suggested that he couldn’t handle a difficult and dramatic topic like this one, but we discovered that he more than had the capability to deliver a film of broad creative effectiveness and fine dramatic strength.
The film’s central storyline revolves around Celie and her much older husband who physically and sexually abuses her while the outside world turns a blind eye towards his heinous actions. There are flaws to be sure, but in terms of LGBTQ representation, there are few films in the 1980s that were as successful as this one. While its queer elements aren’t as broadly obvious as they could have been, it remains a solid step forward for gay representation on the big screen, especially being one of the first films to feature queer black women.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Notoriously snubbed by the Academy for Best Picture, Brokeback Mountain was a monumental step forward for queer representation at the Oscars. While nearly everything that had come before it was largely ignored by the Academy, this film put that queerness right out in front. Featuring two tremendous young talents playing winter shepherds who fall in love while alone and isolated in the Rocky Mountains, the film brought director Ang Lee his second Oscar and Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Michelle Williams their first Oscar nominations. Ledger would win his first Oscar posthumously three years later; Gyllenhaal hasn’t been nominated since, but has been on the cusp of nominations a handful of times in the recent past; and Williams now has four career nominations, but no Oscars.
With a gay romance (and accompanying sex scene) at the center of the film, it was a turning point for the LGBTQ community at the box office, where it was a huge hit, and at the Oscars where it lost to white guilt feature Crash in one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history. The film won numerous awards and helped establish that films featuring gay protagonists could be blockbusters and that audiences could accept the community in leading roles, even if the actors playing them weren’t gay.
Todd Haynes explored homosexuality in Sirkian style with his masterwork Far from Heaven. In Carol, he pulled the LGBTQ elements to the forefront, rather than a periphery element as it was in the prior film. Although she is the title character, Cate Blanchett plays support to Rooney Mara as the object of her affection. Blanchett plays a wealthy, discontented housewife and Mara plays a soft spoken shopgirl with an interest in photography. When the two meet at Mara’s counter in the department store to select a Christmas gift, Mara becomes fascinated with this mysterious woman and, after tracking her down, the two begin a torrid affair against the backdrop of sexual repression and anti-LGBTQ sentiments in the 1960s.
Independent cinema has long been kind to LGBTQ themes, including films like The Boys in the Band (1970), Cruising (1980), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), Longtime Companion (1989), and many others. While Carol wasn’t exactly a mainstream film, it was a critically acclaimed drama from a major talent in American cinema and it gave the themes of love, loss, and repression a glossy sheen, looking like something that might have come out of Hollywood during the same period. While I wouldn’t say it broke any molds or moved the opinion of the LGBTQ community forward, it is a great film, a masterpiece that was well recognized by everyone except the organization who needed to give it acclaim the most. Perceived by some as cold, the incredibly warm and passionate film should have gotten a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, but was unfairly excluded.
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Screenwriter James Ivory’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel was a huge hit with critics, under the direction of Luca Guadagnino, in 2017. While the film only secured one critics’ award for best picture (from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association), star Timothée Chalamet won ten awards for his performance, seven shy of top winner Gary Oldman’s tally that year. It was nominated for 21 year-end awards for best picture, making it one of the year’s most acclaimed films.
Chalamet plays Elio, an American teenager who has accompanied his archaeologist father to Italy. Set in the early 1980s, Elio comes of age in the arms of a handsome research assistant (Armie Hammer). Although the nation was hostile to homosexuals at the time, Elio’s professor father holds a much more progressive stance, especially when his mother is openly hostile to the prospects. It was a gorgeous story that asked the audience to understand how finding a kindred spirit and coming to understand your sexual desires was challenging in the period for the simple fear of discovery. Although the younger man doesn’t quite understand how things are, the elder guides him in the ways of passion and caution. Anyone who grew up in the 1970s or 1980s will empathize with the lovers’ plights even if modern audiences might wonder what all the fuss was about. It was a relatable tale told well with terrific performances, a great script by Ivory, and an 11th hour speech from Michael Stuhlbarg that will move you.
While I wasn’t enamored with Moonlight upon its release, I felt it was a wonderful film, just one that was given too much praise. That said, while I am not officially including it in my top five favorite films, I have to acknowledge its significance in relation to film history.
Not only was the film the first (and still only) about a gay relationship to win the Oscar for Best Picture, it was a rare look at the negative environment in which black children are raised that make the prospect of coming out and being accepted something of a near impossibility. Its prominence as one of the best reviewed films of the year and its impressive $27 million haul at the US box office helped cement it as one of the most successful gay dramas in cinema history.
Its importance as a seminal gay work needed to be recognized separately here even if I wouldn’t put it into my personal favorite list. If it can help black men and women find validation in who they are as people, then it will be more than worth its weight in gold.