Cruising stars Al Pacino as a leather-clad undercover cop… who’s not a member of the Village People
Just as your favorite TV series may be getting ready to take the summer off – or get canceled (goodbye, The New Normal) – entertainment buffs needn’t look too far to find a wealth of memorable gay movies that are well worth watching again and again. (Hello, Netflix!)
These films may not be perfect. In fact, some are downright offensive by today’s standards. But they are all in some way groundbreaking for their time period and considered in sequence they provide a record of mainstream culture’s changing attitudes towards gay men.
Feeling nostalgic? Can’t get enough body hair? Want to experience the celluloid life pre-Stonewall? Here’s our guide to some of the most notable (and gayest) old-school flicks from before the millennium.
While most films from the pre-Stonewall era only ever allude to gay life with a wink and nod, this thriller centers on two young men who strangle their classmate and stash his body in their apartment – before having the perfect dinner party. They didn’t call him Hitchcock for nothing. Bonus: It stars a very young (and gay) Farley Granger.
Farley Granger (left) and John Dall in Rope.
In this wild ride of a movie, the closet opens up plenty of fear and loathing after a blackmailer threatens to expose a gay man’s deep, dark secrets. The film stars Dirk Bogarde, who also played another very frustrated gay man in the film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s bleak Death in Venice (1971).
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Ogle Angelina Jolie’s daddy – Jon Voight – as he plays a naïve trick decked out as the ultimate urban cowboy. The movie captures the seedy side of Times Square, and features some interesting cameos – like underground New York legend and Warhol friend Sylvia Miles. It also comes with a brilliant soundtrack courtesy of A.M. radio superstar Harry Nilsson.
See Angelina’s Dad in Midnight Cowboy – an ode to the Times Square hustler
The Boys in the Band (1970)
There’s no shortage of drama when a (presumably) straight guy is invited to the gayest party in New York City. The legendary film is both beloved and hated by generations of gay men for its groundbreaking portrayal of sex, beauty and life, both in and out of the closet. Three words: big blonde hustler.
A Very Natural Thing (1974)
An ex-monk meet a man at a gay bar and an awakening ensues about what it means to be a religious teacher struggling with same-sex attraction and monogamy in New York City. This one features a gaggle of twenty-something gays sporting 70s coifs – both upstairs and down:
Get down and dirty with the New York leather scene (pre-AIDS). Al Pacino – sporting plenty of S&M gear – plays a determined cop trying to catch a serial killer who’s murdering gay men in this gritty drama. Sure, the period piece is loaded with plenty of stereotypes, but it’s worth the glimpse into some of the most legendary (and now defunct) gay leather clubs of the era. Pacino gives very good eye candy.
Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve in Deathtrap
See Superman in a whole new light. Christopher Reeve plays the young lover of a married Michael Caine who concocts a plan to murder his wife until the cat and mouse game takes a suspenseful turn and no one can be sure who may get the ax. The movie is based on an award-winning stage play by the same name.
Making Love (1982)
A successful (and married) L.A. doctor must come to terms with his attraction to a tall, dark and handsome stranger who seems to have it all figured out. Will he come out of the closet before his wife finds out? The movie may seem like it belongs on the Lifetime channel rather than your Netflix queue, but its portrayal of an adult coming-out story still rings true. Bonus: Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean are both smokin’.
Making Love stars a hunky Harry Hamlin (who’s joined the new season of Mad Men)
Another Country (1984)
A pre-facelift Rupert Everett plays a character based loosely on the life of openly gay spy Guy Burgess. The historical drama not only explores homosexuality and Marxism in the 1930s, but also the rampant snobbery in the English public school system. It’s definitely a film for and about social outsiders.
In this Merchant-Ivory film, set in Britain’s repressive Edwardian society, a young man is rejected by his older lover. Based on the book by E.M Forster, he must come to terms with not only his sexual awakening, but also his broken heart. This one’s ideal for a rainy day at the beach.
James Wilby and Rupert Graves in Maurice
Torch Song Trilogy (1988)
Before Harvey Fierstein strapped on a pair of fake boobs to play Edna in Hairspray (2002), he strapped on a pair of fake boobs to play Arnold Beckoff, a female impersonator looking for love under the watchful eye of his Jewish mother. The sentimental film has it all – drag, comedy, drama, gay bashing, gay adoption and family antics. You can even catch a younger Matthew Broderick playing boyfriend to a very svelte Fierstein.
Longtime Companion (1989)
Who can forget the final scene in this poignant film set in the early era of the AIDS crisis? The drama volleys between the gay worlds of Manhattan and Fire Island, weaving a tale of loyalty, love and activism between a tight-knit circle of friends in New York in the 1980s. Mary Louise Parker of Weeds fame even plays the resident straight best friend.
Peter’s Friends (1992)
A group of theatrical college friends reunite for a weekend of reminiscing and revelations at a British mansion. Tweeter extraordinaire Stephen Fry leads an all-star cast in this comedy-drama, featuring Kenneth Branagh, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson. For a truly gay history lesson, also catch Fry as the ever-so-witty Oscar Wilde(1997):
Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in Philadelphia
Tom Hanks plays a gay lawyer fighting the case of his life after being fired in this Oscar-winning film. The movie not only ushered in a political discussion about homophobia and AIDS, but also a human approach to real-life rights cases being forged all over the country. Bonus: Antonio Banderas plays the boyfriend. Double bonus: The soundtrack, featuring Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and The Indigo Girls, is still a winner.
And the Band Played On (1993)
Trace the who’s and why’s of the AIDS crisis in this brilliant adaptation of Randy Shilts’ groundbreaking book of the same name. The film chronicles personal and public stories associated with the disease, the debate over bathhouse culture and the politics of medicine. The epic also stars a who’s who list of Hollywood A-listers, including Sir Ian McKellen before he came out.
The Sum of Us (1994)
Before the online dating boom – or even Grindr – a widowed father and his gay son both go searching for the perfect date. Dad just doesn’t realize they’re two different genders. This father-son bonding flick features a fit, pre-Les Miz (2012) Russell Crowe in all his Australian glory.
Jack Thompson and Russell Crowe play father and gay son in The Sum of Us
Love! Valour! Compassion! (1997)
Seven gay friends spend the summer in a secluded home in upstate New York, only to confront drama, rivalry, gossip and secrets that can’t possibly be contained. The memorable cast makes you feel like you’re along for the ride. Even if Jason Alexander camps it up a little too much, this one’s perfect for a night in with the besties.
Edge of Seventeen (1998)
A teenager struggles with his virginity as he gets ready to graduate from high school. Set in the early 80s, the film has its share of comedy and drama – and no shortage of retro-fantastic fashions from the era that gave us the Material Girl. It’s the ultimate gay coming of age story:
What retro gay movies would you recommend and why? Let us know in the comments!