In 2016, Todd Haynes’ Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, was voted the best LGBT film of all time, making it perhaps the most acclaimed so far in a long lineage of fine lesbian films from the US – but what came before?
Morally conservative Hollywood cinema has had an anxious yet intriguing relationship with depicting lesbians in the cinema. Heterosexual directors have offered audiences glimpses and whispers of lesbianism through a leering gaze, more invested in a sexual mistrust of Sappho’s sisters (what do lesbians do in bed?) rather than anything honest or real. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s absorbing documentary The Celluloid Closet (1995) charts Hollywood’s uneasy rapport with homosexuality.
Yet there are plenty of lesbian whispers in the 1930s films of Greta Garbo, where she famously plants a morning kiss on the lips of her lady-in-waiting in Queen Christina (1933), or Marlene Dietrich bending her gender in Morocco (1930) and declaring, “Husband? I never found a man good enough for that.” Lesbian icons in their day and both rumoured to be bisexual, these formidable sexy women, together with Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong (1933) and Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944) and Walk on the Wild Side (1962), kept the brassy, sexually ambiguous roles coming.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
So it is with purpose that we skip over the 1960s, the Decade Horribilis of cinematic lesbians, whose desperate, lonely, sexually neutered lives were more prone to choosing enforced heterosexuality, madness or suicide. Doomed lesbian schoolteachers of The Children’s Hour (1961), “nature’s mistake” in The Haunting (1963) and others, be gone! Happily these negative stereotypes were later smashed up with the advent of 1990s New Queer Cinema (Go Fish, The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love), the queer activist Riot Grrl movement and the ‘lesbian chic’ media frenzy of the 1990s.
Let’s look back at 10 landmark lesbian films made in the USA.
Director John Cromwell
With the global online domination of Orange Is the New Black (2013-) well under way, a list would not be complete without a women-in-prison drama. Adapted from the story ‘Women without Men’, based on real-life prison experiences, director John Cromwell’s nuanced noir/melodrama was nominated for three Oscars, including best actress (Eleanor Parker) and best supporting actress (Hope Emerson).
A teenage bride is sent to the clink for helping her husband in a bungled robbery. She subsequently becomes hardened after encounters with a brutalising prison system and fellow inmates. Although the lesbianism is not explicit, the film is rich with subtext, with several characters coded as queer. It’s a tough, socially conscious film with some fabulous campy moments. Agnes Moorehead and Hope Emerson are especially good as a caring but impotent prison governor and a sadistic villain screw more interested in “her gals”.
Double Strength (1978)
Director Barbara Hammer
Barbara Hammer, the pioneering lesbian artist and activist, is having a moment. Dyketactics (1974) is widely credited as the first lesbian film made by a lesbian, and her work is now reaching mainstream audiences at international galleries and museums. Inspired by the proto-feminist film canon of Maya Deren, Hammer shot several significant films in the 1970s. Double Strength is the last of these films exploring lesbian identity, desire, physicality and sexuality through avant-garde strategies. Hammer places herself and her lover at the time, a trapeze artist, in the 16mm frame to explore the different stages of the relationship, investigating the cinematic rupture between fantasy and reality.
There is a rich history of North American experimental lesbian feminist cinema sadly still unavailable in the UK on DVD, including works by Jan Oxenberg, Su Friedrich, Yvonne Rainer, Sadie Benning and Jenni Olson.
Born in Flames (1983)
Director Lizzie Borden
Lizzie Borden was inspired to make her radical lesbian feminist sci-fi tale of activism and guerrilla warfare out of growing distress at the splits in the women’s movement. “The bars and the organisations are segregated white-black-Latina,” she said at the time. It’s set in an imagined future, 10 years after a socialist revolution that has left the patriarchal power structure in command, when a band of female anarchists go to battle against capitalism and militarism.
The cast is a roll call of radical feminist intellectuals and artists of the time. This includes musician Adele Bertei, Florynce Kennedy (real-life civil rights lawyer and badass feminist), Sheila McLaughlin (director of 1987’s She Must Be Seeing Things), Kathryn Bigelow (still the only woman to win the best director Oscar) and Honey (J.C. Honey Campbell), the face of the film, staunchly defiant in her Afrofuturist sisterhood and solidarity.
Desert Hearts (1985)
Director Donna Deitch
Up until The Kids Are All Right (2010), Donna Deitch’s film Desert Hearts was widely considered to be the best mainstream fiction film about lesbians in love, with a rare happy ending as a welcome bonus. It’s a semi-remake of The Misfits (1961) and the two (straight) lead actors Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau are outstanding – they certainly had the sizzle when it came to the film’s famous sex scene.
Deitch pours on the slow-burning seduction and it works; it’s a masterclass in portraying lesbian desire. Camille Paglia saw the film 11 times on release and the cast of The L Word (2004-09) studied the sex scenes to get tips. With an evocative sense of place – 1950s Nevada – a steady stream of country & western music and a punchy supporting cast, this was the first Hollywood lesbian film made by a lesbian director intended for mainstream audiences.
Female Misbehaviour (1983-92)
Director Monika Treut
If the 1980s was a decade of performing butch and femmes identities, the 1990s brought the lesbian ‘sex wars’. Feminists debated pornography and BDSM, while fundamental questions about the nature of sex and sexuality were hotly contested. Step in Monika Treut, German lesbian filmmaker, performance artist and writer.
Treut’s fresh, complex, radical lesbian feminist art films chimed with sex-positive educator and performance artist Annie Sprinkle (Sluts and Goddesses Workshop) and “academic rottweiler” Camille Paglia, two of the decade’s most brilliant bad girls. Together they made Female Misbehaviour, a series of four shorts that explored the boundaries of female and QTPOC (queer and trans people of colour) sexuality. It’s fearless, funny and subversive, and Paglia said the film was “a totally accurate picture of my everyday life as a social and sexual alien”.
The Watermelon Woman (1996)
Director Cheryl Dunye
A defining film in the New Queer Cinema movement (a term coined by critic B. Ruby Rich) and the first feature film made by an African-American lesbian, Cheryl Dunye’s fascinating and cheeky self-styled ‘Dunyementary’ sets out to perform, reconstruct and investigate her own history. Dunye plays a 20-something struggling filmmaker who becomes obsessed with finding an African-American actor from the 1930-40s known only as ‘The Watermelon Woman’.
Both personal and political, Dunye’s films explores black non-representation in Hollywood cinema and the director has since gone on in her career to build a vital visual culture about black lesbian life. Dunye credits filmmaker, activist and academic Michelle Parkerson as an inspiration.
High Art (1998)
Director Lisa Cholodenko
Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right might have been the first lesbian-directed feature film to be nominated for an Oscar, but it was her debut feature High Art that captured the hearts and minds of international critics and audiences hungry for stories from the queer margins. Cholodenko delivered a gem of a film, a reworking of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), set in a dirty cool New York loft, full of complicated women with melancholic love lives.
Photographer Nan Goldin was the inspiration for the film, and Cholodenko was perfectly inspired to cast Ally Sheedy (freed from The Breakfast Club) and Patricia Clarkson as the No Wave lesbian couple, dependent on heroin and each other.
Saving Face (2004)
Director Alice Wu
A decade ago at Sundance another milestone in US lesbian cinema was reached. Lesbian director Alice Wu wrote and directed the first mainstream Asian-American lesbian film, a comedy of manners called Saving Face. Similar to Nisha Ganatra’s Chutney Popcorn (1999), the film posits lesbianism at the centre of a drama about the cultural tensions between immigration, assimilation and sexuality within multiple generations of an Asian-American family.
With the canny casting of legendary Chinese-American actor Joan Chen as the film’s matriarch, and with Will Smith as one of the film’s producers, Wu delivers a nuanced film shot in the Chinese-American enclave of Flushing, Queens that is honest and taboo-busting but full of love for her screen characters. Wu has yet to make another film.
Hit So Hard (2011)
Director P. David Ebersole
There is a coven of American female drummers. They are small, but they are loud. Many are referenced in Hit So Hard – Karen Carpenter, Alice de Buhr (Fanny), Kate Schellenbach (Luscious Jackson), Gina Schock (The Go-Go’s) – and then there is its subject, Patty Schemel from Hole. Hit So Hard, made by P. David Ebersole, is a glitz and gutter film about Schemel’s life, her lesbian sexuality, her music and her addiction.
It’s brilliantly raw and intense, hard to watch at times, and not just because of Courtney Love’s bizarre biscuit-munching. It harrowingly documents Schemel’s descent into addiction hell. The film comes in the wake of many superb films about jazz/punk/queer core girl bands starting with Tiny and Ruby: Hell Divin’ Women (1989), Prey for Rock & Roll (2003), Rise Above: The Tribe 8 Documentary (2003) and most recently The Runaways (2010), although Joan Jett’s sexuality barely gets a chord change.
Director Dee Rees
The complexities and transformations of boihood are deftly crafted and intensely explored in Dee Rees’ striking debut Pariah, a film championed by Meryl Streep. It’s a classic coming out story, with connections to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1989) for its depiction of a closeted teenager growing up hard in a religious home. However, Pariah is significant because of its rare QPOC (queer person of colour) subjectivity.
Rees was Spike Lee’s student at NYU and Lee later became executive producer on her film. The film’s memorable opening sequence finds the film’s protagonist Alike, a baby macho in action, in her local Brooklyn dyke bar, full of swag, hitting on girls with her best boi friend Laura. “Sexuality is not an issue”, Rees wrote, “[Alike and Laura] are people, and that’s just part of who they are.” The film smashed it at Sundance 2011 and Rees has gone on to direct Queen Latifah in HBO’s Bessie and episodes of much-loved hip hop drama Empire (2015-).