Warning: Some spoilers below!
To win an Oscar for a queer role, you pretty much have to have AIDS (Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club), be a psycho (Charlize Theron in Monster), be the victim of a psycho (Sean Penn in Milk), be a grandiose criminal (William Hurt in The Kiss of the Spider Woman), become unhinged (Natalie Portman in Black Swan), be a doomed bisexual in deep denial (Liza Minnelli in Cabaret), or be a closet case who also is victimized.
Yes, there are exceptions—Philip Seymour Hoffman won Best Actor for the 2005 film Capote, about famed author Truman Capote, who was neither nutjob nor victim—but generally, it helps to be a baddie or be in a bad way to get the awards’ attention. It surely helped the brilliant Hoffman’s chances that Capote was fairly desexualized in the film; the very same year, neither Heath Ledger nor Jake Gyllenhaal won for Brokeback Mountain, which also lost Best Picture, reportedly because a lot of Oscar voters were too squeamish to deal with the physical interaction between the two males. Some of them supposedly couldn’t even get up the nerve to watch the DVD screener.
So, let me update my thesis and say that the Oscars love when you’re a weirdo, a victim, or neutered. In Gyllenhaal’s case, his character’s severe victimhood couldn’t trump the fact that he had gay sex onscreen, and as a result, we now know the Oscars’ pecking order of gay desirability.
And those are not the only sympathetic queer characters who didn’t provide Oscar gold for the actors. Also nominated but went home empty-handed were Daniel Massey for Star!, Estelle Parsons for Rachel, Rachel, Peter Finch for Sunday Bloody Sunday, Cher for Silkwood, Tom Courtenay as the effeminate title character in The Dresser, Whoopi Goldberg and Margaret Avery for The Color Purple (Spielberg reduced their relationship to one kiss, but Whoopi said she got grief for it), James Coco for Only When I Laugh, Robert Preston for Victor/Victoria, Vanessa Redgrave for The Bostonians, Greg Kinnear for As Good as It Gets (A victim, but the two Oscar winning straights help him get back on his feet), Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls (he played a writer who’s repeatedly imprisoned and dies of AIDS—I’m surprised he didn’t win), Julianne Moore for The Hours, Chloë Sevigny for Boys Don’t Cry, Catherine Keener for Capote, Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl (he had already won), Colin Firth for A Single Man (he’s a sad professor, but he does decide against killing himself), Salma Hayek for Frida, Kathy Bates for Primary Colors, Rooney Mara for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara for Carol (sad, but not tragic enough), Richard Jenkins for The Shape of Water (not tragic at all), Annette Bening for The Kids Are All Right (ditto), and Timothee Chalamet for Call Me By Your Name.
Some of those characters were victimized for their sexuality, which, of course, is a large part of why the actors got the nomination in the first place, but it surely wasn’t enough for the win. In Chalamet’s case, his character had sex with a guy, and no one in the film seemed all that upset about it. Elio (Chalamet) was only disturbed when it was over! And even that led to a coming-of-age! The same-sex relationship was pretty much wonderfully okay, which was so refreshing, though it simply is not the kind of thing that gets the acting gold.
Meanwhile, out gays playing gay (Rupert Everett in My Best Friend’s Wedding) usually don’t even get nominated, and if they do (Ian McKellen for Gods and Monsters), they don’t win. But if you’re a straight person doing a lesbian/gay/bi role, that helps your Oscar chances because you’re commended for your alleged courage in tackling the assignment, as if it takes so much bravery to accept a great role.
Similarly, if you’re cis playing trans, you’re rewarded for your incredible fearlessness in doing so—Chris Sarandon was nominated for 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, when it really was daring (and he was great), John Lithgow was up for The World According to Garp, and Felicity Huffman got a nom for 2005’s Transamerica—though the only real bravery involved these days is in dodging all the inevitable complaints about your casting.
Hilary Swank, of course, won Best Actress for playing real-life trans man Brandon Teena in 1999’s heart-wrenching Boy’s Don’t Cry. She was powerful, but let’s not forget that Brandon was ultimately raped and murdered, which provided a horrifying crux for the film’s drama. (A carefree trans character simply doesn’t win.) And the lure of the gender-switch always appeals to Oscar. In cisgender play, Linda Hunt (who was not an out lesbian at the time) won for playing a man in The Year of Living Dangerously, Gwyneth Paltrow won for playing a woman who’s disguised as a man in Shakespeare In Love, and Glenn Close and Janet McTeer were nominated for the same in Albert Nobbs.
The truth is that the Oscars love cis heteros playing queer types—both good and bad ones—and in the process, they’re projecting the way they want to see us. They also like heavy emoting, and some people argue, “Where’s the drama in a story if you don’t go to those extreme routes?” Well, films like Call Me By Your Name and The Kids Are All Right managed to find drama without relying on familiar tropes of closeted psycho victimhood. And straight characters have certainly won acting Oscars without resorting to any of that—without dying, being murdered, being incarcerated, being beaten, or killing people. Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Geoffrey Rush, Jane Fonda, Viola Davis, Helen Mirren, Barbra Streisand, Katharine Hepburn, and plenty more copped trophies for playing decent heterosexuals who overcame obstacles. And flat out heroes led to Oscars for Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster, Gary Oldman, Gary Cooper, Anne Bancroft, Gregory Peck, Sally Field, Sidney Poitier, and on and on.
But again and again, they nominate actors playing roles that fall into favored genres—like the possible pedophile priest in Doubt, played by—him again—Philip Seymour Hoffman. Maybe Hoffman would have won his second Oscar if the priest was definitely proven to be a perv. After all, 2015’s Spotlight, about same-sex molestation being exposed in the Boston Archdiocese, glided to Best Picture. The next year’s Best Picture was Moonlight, about a black boy’s very rough coming of age as gay, but while Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor for playing a drug-dealing father figure, the actors playing gay weren’t even nominated.
One other exception to the rule was Christopher Plummer winning for Beginners, in which he was a late-blooming gay who became more honest with himself (though, naturally, he had to die). But let’s think back on another Best Supporting winner, George Sanders as acid-tongued scribe Addison DeWitt in the 1950 backstage, backstabbing-classic All About Eve. Addison is hardly presented as gay, but it always seemed obvious to me that he is. He’s involved with rising star Eve Harrington, but they’re not exactly passionately in lust; it’s a battle of wills, with Addison pulling out all the vicious stops along the way to own and cripple her. He comes off like a big, old nasty closet queen, and it’s no wonder he won the Oscar, if not the Sarah Siddons award.
Also nominated through the years were Judith Anderson for the evil, lesbianic Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, Clifton Webb for the prissy villain in Laura, Victor Buono for the creeped out mama’s boy in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, and Tommy Lee Jones for a sinister gay in JFK. And in other suggestive developments, Charlton Heston won Best Actor for 1959’s chariot-racing epic Ben-Hur, though any gay content was only in the subtext, snuck in there by director William Wyler and gay writer Gore Vidal without the heaving-chested Heston even knowing. If the gayness had been wide open, do you really think this Hur would have won Best Picture and Actor?
This year, there are seven queer characters included out of 20 acting nominations—and most of them are pretty cracked! As I’ve written before, it’s okay that there are negative and/or textured characterizations of queers, seeing as we now have more diversity of representation, and the wider palette allows for variety. But the awards palette still stays focused on certain types of characters. Mahershala Ali is the frontrunner to win for Green Book, who is wonderful, albeit as a closet-y character who’s victimized. Also: Rocker Freddie Mercury, played by Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody, was ambiguously closeted and had AIDS (and the film studiously stays away from gay sex); Queen Anne (Olivia Colman in The Favourite) is portrayed as a fairly demented woman who uses lesbian sex—with characters played by Emma Stone-and Rachel Weisz—for power plays.
Lee Israel(Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?) was a misanthropic lawbreaker who couldn’t keep a relationship because she refused to show her girlfriend any niceness or intimacy; and Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant in the same film) is portrayed as a sleazy grifter who’s totally down and out and game for anything. Time says the real-life Hock lived in a nice apartment, but the movie makes him homeless. Like I said, a more pathetic gay is always better to movieland—and he’s a criminal, too. Fortunately, the crackling script and Grant’s performance manage to bring out what’s appealing about the guy. When Israel tends to his bruises, you see humanity in both of them. (Side note: I’m surprised Will Smith wasn’t nominated for playing a queer con man in 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation. Perhaps Smith shouldn’t have openly refused to do the gay kiss in the movie. It’s hard to be granted Oscar points for courage when you’re so obviously running scared from the job.)
Last year, the Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman won Best Foreign Film, and though the film was rivetingly done, it was about a trans singer who faced oppression virtually everywhere she turned. She and the movie were indeed fantastic, but I wonder if the Oscars especially loved the fact that her plight was relentless. Once the singer’s loving boyfriend died, almost every moment seemed to be about her being trans and the melodramatic repercussions of that fact (interspersed with some giddy fantasy moments).
Someday I hope we can honor films about people who are basically people, and who just happen to be trans. I also have to wonder if the film’s great star, Daniela Vega, would have gotten a Best Actress nomination if she were cis. And while I’m wondering: I bet the Oscars wish they could go back in time and award a first trophy to Shirley MacLaine for playing a teacher who is convinced by gossip that she is a lesbian and as a result kills herself in the horrifying The Children’s Hour (1961). It seems like a quintessential Oscar moment, though Shirley wasn’t even nominated. I guess they made up for that by nominating Judi Dench as a bitter and predatory lesbian teacher in 2006’s Notes on a Scandal, another over-the-top movie that I found repellent.
As for films that look back on AIDS’ grislier days, they go the opposite way of trans movies; they tend to water things down, not hype things up. I’m all for representing AIDS poignancy if it’s going to be truthful, not just a token expression of more “victimhood.” But some of the post-Philadelphia films that touch on characters with AIDS downplay the effects of the disease, no doubt to placate the same viewers that were offended by Brokeback Mountain. So they try to have it both ways—they show the characters’ tragic end without really showing the characters’ tragic end. But others have managed to be both tough and tender, garnering inevitable noms for dying Bruce Davison (Longtime Companion) and Ed Harris (The Hours).
Bisexuality? In Oscar’s eyes, “bi” too often means “batty.” I’ve already mentioned some examples, but also, Nicole Kidman won Best Actress for playing writer Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002), in which she kisses her sister very hard and is constantly having nervous breakdowns and drowns herself. Penelope Cruz won Best Supporting Actress for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), in which she was a suicidal bisexual who also happened to be extremely trigger happy. But then there’s 2001’s Iris, which grabbed nominations for Judi Dench and Kate Winslet as novelist Iris Murdoch at different ages. Iris was brilliant—and she had a debilitating disease.
I’m not casting aspersions on any of these actors’ talents, but on the kinds of roles and casting that win trophies. I also am not deriding the way homophobia and the resulting tragedies are addressed in films—that heinous part of what we’ve always gone through should not be erased—I’m simply saying that movies and awards seem to fetishize that trajectory. It’s as if a happy, victorious gay would not be worth the screen (or podium) time. At least in Monster, it was clear that it was extreme homophobia, among other things, that helped drive Aileen Wuornos to psychosis—it wasn’t just that queer automatically equals looney—but why not also have Charlize Theron play a queer hero like Edie Windsor and cop some awards for that, too?
Fortunately, we’re constantly making baby steps toward having the full breadth of our community and its history shown, so here’s to a brighter, fuller future that doesn’t always give accolades to the afflicted. And cheers to this year’s Oscar nominees, who all happen to be very good at what they do. Just like the hammy actor who got booed for his Hamlet, they can always shout back, “Hey! I didn’t write this shit!”