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Gay representation in films gets a welcome boost this awards season

Gay representation in films gets a welcome boost this awards season
Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy star in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," one of several films this season featuring LGBTQ characters without making their orientation the key story line. (Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox)

When this year’s Academy Award nominations were announced, GLAAD cited 2018 as “a banner year for LGBTQ inclusion in film.” Although the gay-themed “Moonlight” won best picture in 2017 and “Call Me by Your Name” was nominated in 2018, and “A Fantastic Woman,” starring a transgender actress, won the foreign-language film prize that year, it’s the LGBTQ community’s significant representation in this year’s best picture category that heralds a real sea change.

More than half of the Oscar-nominated best picture contenders — “A Star Is Born,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Green Book,” “The Favourite” and “Vice” — feature key LGBTQ characters whose sexual orientation is not the main focus of the film.

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It’s a promising statistic, given that GLAAD’s latest Studio Responsibility Index, which tracked LGBTQ characters in 2017’s major studio releases, reported the lowest percentage since the index began in 2012 (12.8%). There was less welcome news last month when GLAAD removed “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the story of bisexual Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, from its own awards race, citing the latest allegations of sexual abuse leveled against director Bryan Singer, who was fired from the production in 2017.

‘Moonlight’ was just another step, more of a result of the change that we are seeing right now. Progress is a direction, not a destination.


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“The ‘Moonlight’ effect” has been cited of late for the apparent escalation of all things gay, but that film’s writer-director, Barry Jenkins (nominated this year for his adapted screenplay for “If Beale Street Could Talk,” based on late gay author/activist James Baldwin’s novel) disputes this. “ ‘Moonlight’ was just another step, more of a result of the change that we are seeing right now. Progress is a direction, not a destination, but it’s pervasive.”

In “Vice,” meanwhile, Christian Bale’s power-hungry Dick Cheney is immeasurably humanized by his loving relationship with lesbian daughter Mary. “I don’t think there’s a movie without that,” says nominated director Adam McKay, noting that friends of every sexual orientation have been alternately moved and devastated by what he terms “both the coming-out moment and the family turning against Mary. Christian’s wife, Sibi, was really upset, in tears about it, because it’s about basic parenting.”

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” features two gay lead characters, played by Melissa McCarthy and British veteran Richard E. Grant, both of whom are Oscar-nominated. Yet there has been virtually no discussion of their sexual orientation, to the delight of co-screenwriter Jeff Whitty (with Nicole Holofcener). “Audience members must walk out and think, ‘Oh, wait, that was a lesbian and a gay man,’ because their problems have nothing to do with their sexuality,” he says of the main characters, Lee Israel and Jack Hock. “I feel this movie is a bold step forward in that it’s so subtle, and subversive.”

Grant concurs. “There’s no issue made out of the fact that we’re gay: no signature clichés, none of the things we’ve come to expect in movies with gay characters. Lee and Jack’s affection and loneliness drive the thing. In ‘The Favourite,’ it’s the same thing. I didn’t think, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve just seen a trio of lesbians amongst the tapestries.’ ”

Emma Stone and Olivia Colman in "The Favourite."
Emma Stone and Olivia Colman in "The Favourite." (Fox Searchlight)

Executives and financiers were “always wary of the same-sex love story aspect,” “The Favourite” producer Ceci Dempsey recalls of shopping the now Oscar-nominated screenplay (from Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis) 20 years ago. Davis can laugh about its peripatetic journey now. “The lesbian content is built in, part of the narrative and of our general experiences now. It’s not something so unique and different that we even have to comment on it any more.”

Canadian writer-director Marianne Farley’s nominated live-action short film “Marguerite” also features a lesbian angle — an elderly woman coming to terms with her sexuality. Farley insists that continued comment is merited, pronouncing herself “extremely heartened” that the stereotypes are diminishing. “Human beings are so much more than who they choose to love, and under the facade of sexual orientation or race, we all share the same human experience.”

Willam Belli, who plays Emerald in “A Star Is Born,” feels the same way about this film’s depiction of drag queens. “Gaga and Bradley [Cooper] let us be ourselves and help mold the scenes. They saw the potential and embraced it. A lot of times, drag queens are the punchlines or the over-the-top whatever. This showed us being real.”

Hollywood still has a way to go, though. Longtime out British actor Rupert Everett won rave reviews for playing doomed Irish author-playwright Oscar Wilde, essentially the world’s first openly gay celebrity, in 2018’s “The Happy Prince,” which he also wrote and directed. Everett won British/Irish actor of the year at last month’s London Critics Circle Awards but the lead actor prize went to Ethan Hawke for “First Reformed.” Still, in his acceptance speech, Hawke called Everett’s Wilde “one of the most riveting, incendiary, wow performances I’ve ever seen, not just this year, but ever.” But the film was largely ignored in American circles.

Jenkins also cautions against complacency, suggesting that the likes of Baldwin would too. “He’d say, ‘Don’t get too happy.’ It frequently changes, and look no further than the Oval Office to see what we’re talking about there.”

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