June 25, 2014
In honour of WorldPride Toronto and the 45th anniversary of the infamous Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969, it is worth examining a brief history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered characters in Hollywood movies.
This is, no surprise, a sorry little story. Even though one of the earliest experiments in moving pictures featured two men dancing together in 1895, the LGBT community has mostly faced prejudice, slurs, caricature, stereotyping and the worst insult of all: total invisibility in much of mainstream cinema for an entire century.
But things are changing for the better and the greater good. Stonewall kicked the door in and the reverberations of the LGBT Pride movement are a growing crescendo, including now at WorldPride in Toronto. This is the first time this prestigious event has been held in the Americas. Weddings, parties, politics, parades and all sorts of celebrations are being held through Sunday.
As food for thought, here are some iconic LGBT characters we have seen in American and Canadian films. Not all the portrayals are obvious, especially during the height of censorship; some are unsympathetic, but sympathy should not be a requirement; but all are crucial in bringing complexity and humanity to the LGBT community on-screen. In chronological order:
Casablanca (1942): No kidding, Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains at least drop hints. Having rounded up the usual suspects and dispatched the Nazis, they walk off to begin their “beautiful friendship” at the end of the movie.
Glen or Glenda (1953): Ed Wood’s movie is absurdly bad, as is all his work. But Wood was serious about angora sweaters and sexual politics.
Goldfinger (1964): As a bisexual Bond girl named Pussy Galore, Honor Blackman created history and hysteria in equal measure as she piloted her way through Sean Connery’s life.
Midnight Cowboy (1969): Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight survive the mean streets of Manhattan together, although viewers still debate whether the two characters ever were lovers.
Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1971): John Herbert’s landmark Canadian play became a noteworthy MGM film with Wendell Burton playing naive Smitty, who learns about man-love and survival in prison.
Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): Playing song-and-dance scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Tim Curry introduced fetish wear as fabulous fun to an entire generation.
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991): This elegant, time-shifting film may be subtle, but it is beautifully deals with a lesbian love story that crosses decades.
My Own Private Idaho (1991): Gus Van Sant’s landmark film was inspired in part by Shakespeare’s Henry IV and in part by gritty street life in Portland. River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves memorably play hustlers who, during the campfire scene, morph from homosexual victims to gay companions embarking on an odyssey.
The Crying Game (1992): Some surprises last a lifetime. Just ask Jaye Davidson, although he shunned the fame that came with his pivotal role.
Philadelphia (1993): Oscar-winner Tom Hanks got more than an Academy trophy. He also earned kudos for giving dignity and understanding to men suffering from AIDS.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994): With humility, Terence Stamp explored his feminine side to create one third of the flamboyant trio taking a road trip across Outback Australia. With Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce as fellow travellers, Stamp became part of a legendary movie.
The Birdcage (1996): Based on the even better French comedy, La Cage aux Folles (1978), the American version with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane still got the message across: That being gay is still far more normal than imposing rigid and narrow moral values on others.
Boys Don’t Cry (1999): In a heart-breaking tale, Hilary Swank won an Oscar for playing the real-life young woman who poses as a boy and looks for love in Nebraska.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001): As co-writer, director, singer and star actor, John Cameron Mitchell created a punk-rock musical masterpiece. Dealing with transgender issues in a unique way, Mitchell also savagely yet sweetly explored the confusion of a boy-girl caught up in a botched operation.
Brokeback Mountain (2005): The backlash against Ang Lee’s film says it all about the fragility of tolerance and acceptance, but Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Oscar-nominated performances remain iconic.
Milk (2008): Oscar-winner Sean Penn memorably played Harvey Milk, a gay activist who was murdered for his progressive views.
Chloe (2009): Given that WorldPride is in Toronto, it seems appropriate to conjure a Toronto film in which a lesbian fling plays a crucial role, with Amanda Seyfried and Julianne Moore sharing a bond and a bed in the middle of a mystery.
Skyfall (2012): Javier Bardem’s raging bisexual in this brilliant Bond movie is one of the great villains of contemporary cinema. He is not evil because he is gay; he is evil because he just ‘is’ evil.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013): Jared Leto won his best supporting actor Oscar for sheer brilliance, and for tenderly bringing to life the transsexual Rayon.