David Rooney muses on three decades as a gay reviewer — from toxic stereotypes and the ubiquitous “f-word” to the thrill of Almodóvar and New Queer Cinema, Oscar’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ burn to the ‘Moonlight’ milestone and beyond.
Dirk Bogarde smacked my ass in 1986.
I was in my 20s, and no, this is not a #MeToo story: I’m actually pretty sure it was an inadvertent hand-to-bum while I was showing him to the bathroom as his designated minder during a London bookstore appearance for a volume of his memoirs.
In any case, the frisson of that physical contact catapulted me back through my queer screen education.
Former matinee idol Bogarde, who lived for almost 40 years with his “manager,” Anthony Forwood, never came out and destroyed his personal papers before his death in 1999. But for LGBTQ people exploring their sexual identities at a time before queer theory, before the outing of Rock Hudson, before Ellen or Will & Grace, let alone Pose, Bogarde was a cultural touchstone.
In Basil Dearden’s 1961 thriller Victim, he played a closeted London barrister who risks his career taking on a band of blackmailers. In Joseph Losey’s The Servant, a psychodrama rippling with homoerotic subtext, Bogarde played the manipulative butler seductively flipping the power balance on James Fox’s aristocrat. And in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice he was an ailing composer fatally obsessed with an enticing but elusive young male beauty.
Those roles could almost be the Stations of the Cross of my life as a gay man: Fearing exposure through high school in regional Australia; angling for the upper hand in early mismatched relationships; and occasionally getting maudlin over some unattainable youth. (Hush, I’ve grown out of that.)
Vito Russo’s indispensable 1981 book The Celluloid Closet (given first-rate documentary treatment in 1996 by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman) chronicles LGBTQ visibility onscreen, from coded characters through harmful stereotypes to the early stages of more even-handed representation. At the risk of being that old fart sanctimoniously reminding today’s queer kids how good they have it: You may not truly know what it was like to be a curious preteen starved for gay role models.
Movies for many of us were a gateway to understanding both ourselves and our complicated collective history. In almost three decades of writing about film, I’ve found the evolution of queer representation onscreen to be a shuffle of rewards and frustrations, particularly where Hollywood is concerned.
Moments of queer kinship illuminated my late teens and early 20s in repertory movie houses. But those included few, if any, straightforward affirmations. There were gay thrill-killers (Rope), sociopaths (Strangers on a Train) and cases of suicides either failed (Tea and Sympathy) or succeeded (The Children’s Hour). Queer figures from history often ended up veiled in sexual ambiguity (Lawrence of Arabia) or muddied by straight plot pivots (Queen Christina). Cases in which an actor’s sexuality intersected with his screen characterizations provided their own unique mind meld, feeding my crush on Montgomery Clift in Red River and Suddenly, Last Summer.
Some of my fondest associations from those years are guilty pleasures, like Sidney Lumet’s 1966 film of the Mary McCarthy novel The Group, in which Candice Bergen’s Lakey returns from Europe looking chic AF in a bowler hat with a butch sugar mommy called the Baroness. Even Larry Hagman’s vile slurs couldn’t dim her coolly self-possessed allure.
Lumet was working in a more characteristic vein with 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon. I’ll never forget the jolt of Al Pacino’s febrile performance as a gay bank robber desperate to finance the gender confirmation surgery of his lover, played by Chris Sarandon. That kind of frankness in a mainstream American movie was a revelation.
There was also the anomaly of 1970’s The Boys in the Band, William Friedkin’s stage-bound film of the Mart Crowley play about a birthday party that turns sour. By the time I caught up with it, the movie already seemed a dated dish of vitriolic camp, and like most gay men, I flinched at its perpetuation of the stereotype of the bitchy, self-loathing queen. But the property’s stock has risen in the decades since, becoming a curious artifact that depicts corrosive infighting and even an ennobling scarred resilience bred by external intolerance. (A sensitive 2018 Broadway production completed that rehabilitation, with an ensemble of out gay actors, including Zachary Quinto, Jim Parsons and Matt Bomer, who will reprise their roles in the upcoming Netflix remake.)
For a long time, I was more tuned into the queer output from England. Visibility didn’t always equal positive representation, but if nothing else, the grotesque lesbian stereotypes of Robert Aldrich’s 1968 The Killing of Sister George were here and queer, get used to it. And I for one can’t resist the eternally acidic Coral Browne in aging predator mode as the merciless Mercy Croft.
Beryl Reid, who played the cigar-chomping title character, the following year was the hapless nymphomaniac caught between her leather-fetishist gay brother and a pansexual hustler in the spry screen adaptation of Joe Orton’s stage farce, Entertaining Mr. Sloane. These depictions may have been unsavory, but they were also fiercely unapologetic.
Those were breakthrough years for queer representation in British film, notably in John Schlesinger’s return home following Midnight Cowboy. While the encounters of Jon Voight’s hayseed hustler in that film are clouded in shame and self-doubt, the bold love triangle of Sunday, Bloody Sunday in 1971 bristled with startling candor. Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch played characters both in love with Murray Head’s bisexual artist; the sizzling kiss between Finch and Head was a shocker in its day. Another milestone was the full-frontal male nudity in a homoerotic wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in Ken Russell’s 1969 Women in Love.
The debate about how gay communities were portrayed onscreen was amplified by the 1980 release of Friedkin’s notorious Cruising. Those were the clone years of mustached gay dudes taking their style cues from Tom of Finland. Not my scene, but I shared the queasy silence of a Sydney audience at a screening packed with men in rough-trade uniform. Hostile reaction to the film has since mellowed, but the protests that greeted this lurid thriller starring Pacino as an undercover cop chasing a serial killer through the New York S&M gay scene were loud and angry at the time — partly inflamed by the suggestion that exposure had “twisted” the straight cop’s sexuality.
Maybe it was a corrective to the Cruising effect that LGBTQ representation in American movies started taking a more conciliatory turn. That was when earnest melodramas like 1982’s Making Love began appearing, about a doctor who leaves — gasp! — a Charlie’s Angel for a male writer. Fox made a big deal of this being the first gay-themed studio release marketed to general audiences, but that push fizzled when box office sank after its solid opening. While Arthur Hiller’s film is slick soap, at the very least, it paralleled gay and straight relationships without condescension.
A more enduring example is Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts from 1985, which reframes what could almost be a thread from The Women — uptight New Yorker meets free-spirited casino worker while at a Reno ranch to finalize her divorce — through a lesbian lens. Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances the following year is also notable as one of the earlier films to contextualize AIDS with clear-sighted compassion, remembered for then-newcomer Steve Buscemi’s wrenching performance as a dying rock singer.
On the down side, that period yielded some of the most noxiously homophobic American films of the post-Stonewall years, among them buddy cop comedy Partners and deranged lesbian stalker thriller Windows. Neither one made me as angry as 1977’s The Choirboys, which drew the L.A.P.D. as a hotbed of gay-baiting hatred and remains my gold standard for repugnant intolerance, possibly because I was in the process of coming out when I saw it.
But anti-gay pejoratives like “fag” were freely tossed about in American movies, even in the John Hughes comedies we all loved. That casual homophobia continued well into the ’90s; learning to tune it out was tough.
For more progressive, honest and even militant representations of queer life, I turned frequently to international screens in the ’80s. Germany had been primed by the towering queer films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the previous decade — The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Fox and His Friends and In a Year of Thirteen Moons among the standouts. Still, it was surprising how far into the mainstream Frank Ripploh took the raunchy secret lives of gay men with his autobiographical 1980 comedy of manners, Taxi Zum Klo.
But Pedro Almódovar trumpeted a new kind of queer voice in the decade that followed, stomping out any trace of shame with gloriously sexy, wildly funny melodramas like Law of Desire. It’s hard to imagine anyone beyond John Waters getting away with the brilliant black comedy What Have I Done to Deserve This?, in which Carmen Maura’s heroically beleaguered housewife sells her son, a precocious male Lolita, to the gay family dentist. (Almódovar’s four-decade career reached a pinnacle with last year’s emotionally incandescent Pain and Glory, which cast Antonio Banderas as a reflective stand-in for the director.)
The ’80s was an especially fecund time for queer film in Britain — from the sensual Another Country (with Rupert Everett as a fictionalized version of the gay future MI6 Soviet defector Guy Burgess) to James Ivory’s stirring adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Maurice to Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, an inventive, playfully anachronistic bio-drama of the bisexual Italian painter.
But no British gay film of the period moved me more than Stephen Frears’ politically and erotically charged My Beautiful Laundrette, with Daniel Day-Lewis in a breakout turn as a street punk who rejects his racist peers when he falls in love with a South Londoner of Pakistani origin.
French cinema, too, provided succor for LGBTQ moviegoers hungry to see their lives reflected onscreen. The French film I recall with most affection from pre-2000 is André Téchiné’s semi-autobiographical story of sexual awakening set against the end of the Algerian War, Wild Reeds. The profoundly affecting drama measures the dizzying force of same-sex desire in a rural setting, a theme to which Téchiné would return 22 years later in the criminally under-appreciated Being 17.
Periods of flourishing creativity in film history have often emerged out of oppressive climates, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it took the conservative double whammy of Reagan and Thatcher, coupled with the pain of the AIDS crisis, to really shake up the landscape for LGBTQ movies in America. The radical currents of the New Queer Cinema movement couldn’t come fast enough.
The ’90s was also when I started covering film festivals, which sometimes meant being among the first audiences to take in works that shredded heteronormative convention with an artistry often less in debt to American filmmakers than to queer European auteurs like Fassbinder, Jarman and Chantal Akerman. Not all the movies hold up, but each was important in chipping away at constricting notions of how LGBTQ lives could be shown onscreen.
Among those were Todd Haynes’ stylistically adventurous Poison; Tom Kalin’s haunting retake on the Leopold and Loeb case, Swoon; Rose Troche’s invigoratingly scrappy lesbian rom-com Go Fish; Cheryl Dunye’s historical investigation The Watermelon Woman; and Gregg Araki’s nihilistic road movie The Living End. Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, starring a heartbreaking River Phoenix alongside Keanu Reeves as Portland street hustlers, was another game-changer, even if the director had first surfaced earlier, in 1985, with his shoestring debut Mala Noche, an aching ode to same-sex infatuation.
And although they came toward the end of the ’90s, Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry and Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art made meaningful contributions in terms of trans and lesbian screen representation, respectively, in a decade that changed everything. Other films that fed those years of creative ferment and political awakening included documentaries like Jennie Livingstone’s Paris Is Burning, with its deep dive into New York drag ball culture.
But Hollywood continued to take a disappointingly cautious approach to LGBTQ subject matter. Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia deserves credit for putting a human face on the AIDS pandemic though lost points by pretty much neutering the gay couple played by Tom Hanks and Banderas.
The last 20 years have seen heartening strides toward greater inclusivity, albeit with setbacks. It was hard to interpret the theft of what should have been a 2006 best picture Oscar for Ang Lee’s ravishingly melancholy cowboy romance, Brokeback Mountain — passed over for the schematic Crash — as anything but a painful reminder of the purportedly liberal Academy’s traditionally narrow gauge. Or its perhaps partly unconscious homophobia. That snub was redressed 11 years later, when Barry Jenkins’ shimmering contemplation of African American masculinity, Moonlight, took top honors, a triumph previously unimaginable for a lucid study of queer black identity.
Filmmakers who made their names in the ’90s have continued to deliver, including Haynes with his meticulously crafted drama of forbidden desire, Carol; Cholodenko with The Kids Are All Right, an eminently relatable look at the parenting headaches of a lesbian couple; and Ira Sachs with his touching portrait of an older gay couple facing adversity, Love Is Strange.
And new talents have emerged across the globe, tackling queer themes with a bracing freshness that has heightened the fulfillment of being a gay critic. Andrew Haigh’s exquisite Weekend traces the accelerated arc from quick hookup through intense attachment to rueful goodbye with both deep feeling and unfussy realism; the authenticity of lived experience informs every frame of Dee Rees’ Pariah, about a 17-year-old African American Brooklyn lesbian’s coming out; Alain Guiraudie uses graphic sex to plant a seismic erotic charge in the Hitchcockian Stranger by the Lake; Andrew Ahn maps the conflict between gay identity and cultural conditioning with piercing empathy in Spa Night; and Céline Sciamma upends the patriarchal conventions of the period drama with formal daring and pinpoint emotional precision in last year’s hypnotic Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Among the most delightful Sundance finds of the past few years was Sean Baker’s Tangerine, as much a warmly funny girlfriend movie as an unpatronizing look at transgender sex-workers. Likewise, God’s Own Country, Francis Lee’s ruggedly tender rural romance between a bitter Yorkshire farmer and the Romanian worker who cuts through his isolation with revitalizing directness.
One of the most singular queer films of recent years is Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman, a pulsing human drama that traces the emergence from grief of a transgender singer shunned by her dead lover’s family. Making a resounding case for trans rights without a word of direct advocacy, the Chilean production won that country’s first Oscar for best international film.
Another instant LGBTQ classic that went all the way to the Oscars is Luca Guadagnino’s intoxicating plunge into summertime first love, Call Me by Your Name, which jumpstarted the career of the gifted Timothée Chalamet and generated an arsenal of heartthrobby memes. It felt like something of a cultural shift that his gay character’s sexuality did nothing to dim the ardor of young women swooning all over social media. And as the 17-year-old protagonist’s father, Michael Stuhlbarg masterfully delivers a monologue toward the end of the film — lifted almost intact from André Aciman’s novel — that is a poetic version of the words of understanding many of us craved from our parents in those formative years.
While Stuhlbarg was robbed of an Oscar nomination, Olivia Colman was royally served the following year, pulling off an unexpected win for her petulant Queen Anne in The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’ tragicomic 18th century lesbian love triangle. The two films couldn’t be more different in tone — Call Me by Your Name‘s sensual open-heartedness vs. The Favourite‘s sublime sense of irony and brisk cynicism — yet both took stories of same-sex love and desire far beyond the LGBTQ “niche.”
The sheer multiplicity of themes and styles, of representations across the queer identity spectrum in the past 20 years, is staggering to a critic who still remembers the long drought of near-invisibility, when even a brief appearance by a gay neighbor in a lame comedy would make me sit up with a misplaced sense of gratitude. Things are far from perfect; gay-panic humor still gets a pass way too often, especially in studio bro-coms. But thankfully, it’s a different world, where queer teens can see their experience reflected in pleasurable mainstream entries like Love, Simon or Netflix’s recent The Half of It.
It’s a mark of the expanding canvas of LGBTQ films that even a subject as delicate as pre-sexual queer awakening has been explored in three exceptional movies in recent years: Sciamma’s Tomboy, Sachs’ Little Men and Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals. How great that a queer kid still grappling with identity issues might find one of these films and realize they’re not alone.
A version of this story first appeared in the June 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.