In the 88 years that the Academy Awards have been given, not a single gay-themed movie has been named best picture, although a handful have been nominated and several actors have picked up Oscars for playing gay roles.(Clockwise from top left: Focus Features; Bill Matlock / Fox Searchlight Pictures; Phil Bray / Focus Features; Alex Bailey / The Weinstein Company)
Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his performace in 1993’s “Philadelphia,” but the film did not receive a picture nomination.(Ken Regan )
Chloë Sevigny, left, and Hilary Swank star in Fox’s “Boys Don’t Cry” (1999). Swank went home with the best actress Oscar, but the film was not nominated in the picture category.(Bill Matlock / Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Many thought "Brokeback Mountain” (2005), starring Jake Gyllenhaal, left, and Heath Ledger, could put an end to Hollywood’s anti-gay bias and win best picture. Although Ang Lee won the directing Oscar, the academy instead chose "Crash” as best picture.(Kimberly French / Focus Features)
James Franco, left, and Sean Penn are Scott Smith and Harvey Milk, respectively, in “Milk” (2008). The film won Oscars for lead actor (Penn) and screenplay but lost in the best picture category.(Phil Bray / Focus Features)
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan star in “Philomena” (2013), which was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture, but left the ceremony empty-handed.(Alex Bailey / The Weinstein Company)
Matthew McConaughey is seen in “Dallas Buyers Club.” Although the film won two acting awards (for McCounaghey and Jared Leto), the academy wasn’t ready to anoint a story with gay overtones its top prize.(Focus Features)
Rooney Mara, left, and Cate Blanchett star in 2015’s “Carol,” which failed to receive a best picture nomination despite a number of other nominations.(Wilson Webb / The Weinstein Company)
Diversity went missing from this year’s Oscar nominations. The academy has been roundly and rightly criticized for its lily-white hue, as critics have excoriated voters for going two years in a row without including a single African American actor among the nominees.
But this isn’t the only Oscar blind spot. To the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, we should really add a second tag, #OscarsSoStraight.
In the 88 years that the awards have been given, not a single gay-themed movie has ever been named best picture. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had a chance to right this particular oversight in 2016, but now that “Carol” has been snubbed in the best picture category (along with “The Danish Girl”), the pattern of omission won’t change any time soon.
Whether these omissions grow from homophobia or simple obliviousness, the timing is particularly unfortunate; 2015 will be remembered as the year that the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country. It might have been the right year for Hollywood to take notice in its own decision-making.
To be fair, during the first 35 years that Oscars were awarded, it would have been impossible for any movie with overtly gay subject matter to be produced, let alone honored. The Production Code of 1934 declared “Sex perversion or any inference of it is forbidden.” But the code was revised in 1961, and that year, the lesbian-themed “The Children’s Hour” received five nominations (but not in the best picture category). So there has been a full half century for gay-themed films to be honored, and it hasn’t happened.
But you might ask, what about “Midnight Cowboy” from 1969? Jon Voight played a male hustler in John Schlesinger’s Oscar-winning film, but the relationship between Voight’s Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo was strictly platonic, without any hint that either of them might have been gay. (Two years later, director Schlesinger, who was himself gay, made “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which did feature a gay central character played by Peter Finch, but that movie, like this year’s “Carol,” received two acting nods yet missed on a nomination for best picture.)
As society has become more open in recent decades, a few gay-centric movies have been nominated for best picture, though the total number is tiny. Actors have won Oscars for playing gay characters, but some of the movies that featured their winning performances — “Philadelphia” and “Boys Don’t Cry,” for example — never made it into the best picture category.
Ten years ago “Brokeback Mountain” was touted as the movie that would put an end to Hollywood anti-gay bias and win best picture. But although Ang Lee won the directing Oscar, the academy shocked many fans by choosing “Crash” as best picture. The latter film’s dissection of racial conflicts in Los Angeles remains timely, but it was far safer subject matter in 2005 than the thwarted gay love story at the heart of “Brokeback.” And I think in retrospect most people remember “Brokeback” as the more significant of the two films.
There might have been nice symmetry if 10 years after that upset vote, the academy had made amends by giving its best picture award to “Carol,” which has won several other prizes this year, including the New York Film Critics Circle nod as best picture. But Oscar shunned the film in its top category. It’s also worth noting that in the foreign language category, one movie on the academy shortlist — the crowd-pleasing “Viva,” about a young drag performer in Havana — also missed a nomination.
Although Hollywood may be more tolerant of homosexuality than many other communities, these glaring Oscar snubs highlight the prejudices of industry voters. (The Producers and Directors guilds also ignored “Carol.”) Could it be that the lesbian theme of “Carol” is more threatening to the patriarchal academy than “Brokeback Mountain” or “Milk,” which at least secured best picture nominations? As Mary McNamara wrote in The Times, “director Todd Haynes, who in ‘Carol’ told a lovely and lyrical story about two women, was shut out of his category and the best picture group.”
Now some people might counter that for all of its aesthetic qualities, “Carol” just didn’t hit Oscars voters with the same emotional force as the eight films that were nominated. But that’s not the only reason for choosing a winner. Many people felt that 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Graduate” were better movies — more adventurous, more stylish, more sheerly entertaining — than “In the Heat of the Night.” Voters that year clearly wanted to make a statement about race relations, even if it meant honoring a movie that was somewhat inferior to the other nominees. The assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. just days before the awards, which prompted a date change, was also plainly in the forefront of the national consciousness.
Similarly, in 2014, when “12 Years a Slave” won over such films as “Gravity,” “Nebraska” and “American Hustle,” people may again have been voting for social significance. That year saw two films with gay subject matter in the best picture race — “Philomena” and “Dallas Buyers Club” — and although “Dallas” won two acting awards, the academy wasn’t ready to anoint a story with gay overtones its top prize.
The (mostly) white men who dominate the voting missed the boat again this year. Who knows when the next LGBT film with as much artistry and poignancy as “Carol” will come down the pike? I should also point out that acclaimed gay films in the past — “Philadelphia,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk” — all ended tragically. The remarkable thing about “Carol,” and what made it especially notable in the year of the Supreme Court affirmation, is that it is one of the only major gay films ever to end on a hopeful note. That would have given special resonance to a victory from the academy. That victory will have to wait for another year, when Hollywood finally catches up to the rest of the country.
Farber is a film writer and historian and is president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.