The strange history of LGBT films at the Oscars

As Moonlight looks set for a share of Oscar glory, we explore the chequered history of how LGBT films have – and haven’t – been rewarded by the Academy in the past.

Alex Davidson
Updated:

Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight (2016)

On 26 February, Moonlight could become the first LGBT-themed film to take home the best picture Oscar. It’s unlikely to beat the adored La La Land, although it may have a shot at best adapted screenplay, and possibly best director, and Mahershala Ali looks very likely to win the best supporting actor trophy. It’s that rarest of things – a queer independent film that managed to break through into the mainstream, with rapturous reviews and a deluge of award nominations.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

In 2016 the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag did the rounds, rallying against the fact that zero actors of colour were nominated for an Academy Award in the previous two years. But how have films with LGBT content fared in the history of the award?

In the most egregious example of a gay movie being snubbed, the crass race-relations drama Crash beat Brokeback Mountain to the best picture award in 2006, despite the romantic western being heavily favoured by critics and other awards ceremonies. And the exclusion of lesbian romance Carol, perhaps the most acclaimed film of 2015, from the best picture shortlist seemed bizarre. But are these aberrations typical?

It’s unfair to be too harsh on the Oscars, which can only deal with the quality of films released in a particular year. And decrying the fact that great LGBT films such as Weekend, Blue Is the Warmest Colour or Stranger by the Lake don’t get nominations is a waste of time, as awards ceremonies have an invariable bias to films made in their home country. In fact, a huge number of LGBT films have won awards at the Oscars, although for queer viewers looking back over nearly a century of film history, the top award – best picture – isn’t the most flattering place to start.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Several winners of the best picture award contain LGBT characters, including Rebecca (1940), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and American Beauty (1999), which feature, respectively, a psychotic lesbian, a serial killer and a neo-Nazi. Gay pride!

Still, at least they got their queer moment in the sun – all traces of mathematician John Nash’s bisexuality were removed from best picture Oscar winner A Beautiful Mind (2001). But the gayest best picture winner to date has to be Midnight Cowboy (1969). The queer politics of the films aren’t great – the gay clients of Joe, a sex worker played by Jon Voight, are an unappealing parade of gawky closet cases. But it remains a masterly study of male friendship and sexuality, and John Schlesinger became one of the few LGBT filmmakers to win the best director Oscar.

Judith Anderson menaces Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940)

Judith Anderson menaces Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940)

Gay representation at the Oscars improves when we browse through the acting categories. The first actor to receive an Oscar nomination for playing a gay role was Judith Anderson as the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Owing to the censorious Hays Code, any revelation of Mrs Danver’s lesbianism had to be suggested rather than explicitly shown, although the scene in which she rifles through Rebecca’s lingerie collection (“Look, you can see my hand through it!”) removes any ambiguity. In an era where homosexual characters were treated as monsters or victims, the Oscars committee followed suit, nominating the subtly queer performances by Clifton Webb in Laura (1944) and Sal Mineo in Rebel without a Cause (1955).

Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters (1998)

Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters (1998)

In the last couple of decades it has become a bit of a cliché for actors to be rewarded with a nomination for playing gay characters, alongside anyone playing someone with a disability and anyone whose name is Meryl Streep. Over 50 actors have been nominated for playing LGBT characters. While the sexuality and gender identity of these actors is nobody’s business, it’s sad that just two of those actors openly identify as LGBT. Ian McKellen, still the only gay man to be nominated for playing a gay man, was nominated for his marvellous portrayal of director James Whale in Gods and Monsters (1998), while Jaye Davidson, who played the queer character of Dil in The Crying Game (1992), was nominated in the best supporting actor category.

Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

While straight actors playing gay characters shouldn’t be of much consequence, the tiny number of gay performers is still discomforting in a world where actors are reluctant to come out for fear of ruining their careers. The casting of cisgender actors playing trans characters is more problematic still. Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning performance as (fictional) trans activist Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club (2013) contained mannerisms more akin to a drag queen. Cisgender actors – Davidson, Leto, Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), John Lithgow in The World According to Garp (1982), Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), Felicity Huffman in Transamerica (2004), Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl (2015), and Glenn Close and Janet McTeer in Albert Nobbs (2011), have won or been nominated for performances as trans people.

Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Swank and Huffman, in particular, give very moving performances, but none of the actors themselves identify as trans. With the recent successes of Mya Taylor and Laverne Cox, hopefully this situation will change in the next few years. To date, only two trans people have been nominated for Oscars – composer Angela Morley, nominated for The Little Prince (1974) and The Slipper and the Rose (1976), and singer Anohni, nominated for her song ‘Manta Ray’ from Racing Extinction (2015).

Cabaret (1972)

Cabaret (1972)

It may seem unfair to focus on the Oscars, ultimately a Hollywood-focused film award, for its occasionally guarded reception of queer cinema. Other awards ceremonies aren’t much better, although Brokeback Mountain won the top awards at the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes, and Cabaret (1972) also won the best film BAFTA. Even the leading film festivals, who are committed to rewarding non-mainstream cinema, tend to have a special award for queer films, rather than awarding them the top prize (although Brokeback Mountain won the Golden Lion at Venice and both Farewell My Concubine and Blue Is the Warmest Colour won the Palme d’or at Cannes).

Whether Moonlight wins the best picture Oscar or not, the very fact that it has been nominated for the top award will help it reach a huge audience. But an LGBT-themed film winning first prize really would be something special. Here’s hoping that, should the admittedly joyous La La Land win over Moonlight, the next queer masterpiece will go one better.

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