Friday 3 June sees the release of Holding the Man, the moving and emotional love story between two young Australian guys, on BFI Player and in cinemas nationwide. A sell-out smash at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival, it’s based on Timothy Conigrave’s bestselling memoir and captures the heady lust of the lovers’ schooldays through to their rocky adult relationship and, finally, the ultimate testament to their love when illness threatens to destroy their bond. Ryan Corr and Craig Stott are terrific as the lovers, and the film boasts an impressive array of supporting turns from Anthony LaPaglia, Geoffrey Rush and Kerry Fox.
While gay marriage is a battle still to be won in Australia, the country has a fairly strong record on LGBT rights, and Sydney is one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. Australian cinema has had a rather strange relationship with male homosexuality. Before the 1970s, the sexuality of probable gay characters was not made explicit, for example the effeminate sales assistant in Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938). The Set (1970) is the first Australian film with homosexuality as a central theme, while gay men appeared in sexploitation favourites such as Australia after Dark (1975) and The ABCs of Love and Sex: Australia Style (1978), in which H was for homosexuality.
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) featured a gay villain (the leather-clad Wez, enraged by the slaying of his lover), while more sympathetic homosexual characters appeared in prison drama Stir (1980) and family melodrama Mull (1988). The 1990s were a golden era for gay Ozzie films, while the new millennium has seen a glut of low-budget gay surfer dramas, including the easy-on-the-eye Newcastle (2008), the nihilistic Drown (2015) and the downright bizarre Tan Lines (2006).
We haven’t included lesbian films here, although Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), The Getting of Wisdom (1978), Love and Other Catastrophes (1996) and the films of Fiona Cunningham-Reid and Samantha Lang offer a strong base for a future list (I have yet to see last year’s acclaimed All about E), while, to focus on the last letter of ‘LGBT’, 52 Tuesdays (2013) is a very moving tale of a transitioning man and his relationship with his daughter.
The Naked Bunyip (1970)
Director John B. Murray
Homosexuality was catnip to many of the filmmakers behind the wave of sexploitation documentaries that flourished in Australia in the 1970s, which often served as an excuse to show titillating shots of lesbians getting down to business in the bedroom. Gay men, if they appeared, were usually shown as unsympathetic, bitchy queens. Not so in The Naked Bunyip, the grandfather of Australian sexploitation, in which a lengthy segment is devoted to a gay male dock worker, who talks candidly about his life. The film draws parallels between the close masculine relationships that form under the Australian phenomenon of ‘mateship’ and homosexuality, while talking heads discuss the importance of decriminalising gay sex, which at the time of the documentary was a criminal offence in Australia.
The film itself is a strange mix of high comedy (Edna Everage makes an early appearance), slapstick, sensitive studies of social issues and grim references to back-street abortions and gang rape. To dodge the censors, a cartoon of the titular ‘naked bunyip’ would appear over the sexiest scenes, re-enacting what the viewer was not permitted to see.
Wake in Fright (1971)
Director Ted Kotcheff
In this modern classic, a potent and disturbing story of an effete teacher (Gary Bond) who, stranded in the outback when he gambles away his money, falls in with a menacing group of locals and Doc, an eccentric alcoholic outsider played by Donald Pleasence. As the film descends into nightmare territory, with horrific scenes of real kangaroo slaughter, Australia has never looked so unsettling; singer Nick Cave said Wake in Fright is the “best and most terrifying film about Australia in existence”.
Although seldom categorised as a gay film, viewers won’t need to dive deep for the queer subtext in this violent, male-dominated world. Bond himself was gay, an early bar scene looks like a scene from William Friedkin’s S&M thriller Cruising (1980), while it is clear that some sort of sexual act, probably a rape, takes place between the teacher and Doc after a violent struggle, sending the protagonist into another spiral of despair. It’s a hugely impressive film, and stands as one of the great Australian movies.
The Clinic (1982)
Director David Stevens
In this fun and bawdy combo of saucy comedy and sex education aid, we dip into a day in the life of a VD clinic, where a laid-back doctor (Chris Haywood) and a prudish medical student (Simon Burke) tend to patients of all walks of life, from frank sex workers to ashamed housewives, from promiscuous gay men to cheating husbands. Appalled when a moustachioed man in the waiting room flirts with him, the student’s homophobia becomes manifest in the dramatic scene when he realises the doctor, too, is gay, snarling: “Those men come in here and they drop their pants for you. Now that is simpler than hanging around a public lavatory, isn’t it?”
The moments of drama between the knob jokes and sight gags make The Clinic, a film seldom appraised outside of Oz, an unpredictable and very enjoyable viewing experience. It’s boosted hugely by a very likeable performance from Haywood as the gay doctor, who eventually manages to forge a bond of friendship with the conservative youngster.
The Everlasting Secret Family (1988)
Director Michael Thornhill
Some films are just so jaw-dropping and provocative that they stumble accidentally into the category of ‘great’, even if they are difficult to like. The Everlasting Secret Family is one such film, an often homophobic tale of a young man who becomes determined to climb the social ladder and live the high life when he becomes the object of desire of a closeted homosexual politician. Plucked from school to service the senator’s sexual desires, he is soon pimped out to visiting dignitaries. As the boy (only one character in the film is given a name) grows older, he loses the currency of his youth and risks being expelled from the wealthy life to which he is has become accustomed. But he has a cunning plan that the senator does not see coming…
It’s an easy film to mock, and its kinky scenes of bondage and a (thankfully off-screen) painful-sounding sex act with a large crab teeter into camp, and suggest the filmmaker’s opinion of gay men may not be very high. But it’s wickedly entertaining, Arthur Dignam is excellent as the politician, and it’s a unique film that could not have been made at any other time, with sex scenes too graphic for before the 1980s and an anti-gay streak too unpalatable for the 1990s. Approach with caution.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
Director Stephan Elliott
One of the sparkliest jewels from Australia’s camp wave, alongside Strictly Ballroom (1992), Muriel’s Wedding (1994), this remains one of the funniest drag films. All the more surprising, then, that despite all the fabulous frocks and sharp oneliners, the film is also very moving, not least in its character of Bernadette (Terence Stamp), a trans woman grieving the death of her lover who, it is hinted at the end, may find love in the arms of the friendly mechanic the three queens meet on their road trip.
Filled with quotable lines and gags (not least the monstrously politically incorrect “the only bang you’re ever gonna get” comeback that Bernadette serves a homophobic woman), the film was adapted into a hugely successful musical that toured worldwide. It’s also a joy to see three actors – Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce – usually associated with serious drama roles letting their hair down and embracing the flamboyance of it all.
The Sum of Us (1994)
Directors Kevin Dowling, Geoff Burton
While Priscilla revelled in its camp and frills, a sweet and subtle love story unfolded elsewhere on the Australian film scene, starring a young actor who was soon to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars – Russell Crowe. The Sum of Us is based on David Stevens’ play about a blokey gay guy who lives at home with his loving widowed father. His dad is anxious that his son find Mr Right, and is far too over-friendly and familiar to his son’s potential new boyfriend in one of the film’s funniest scenes.
Both men are looking for love but, after an unexpected incident in the film’s last half-hour, we see the most important love story is that between the father and son, as themes of freedom and self-sacrifice are explored. Crowe gives an utterly charming performance as the insecure son, and Jack Thompson is a hoot as the kindly father.
Head On (1998)
Director Ana Kokkinos
In this electrifying adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’s first novel, Loaded, Alex Dimitriades exudes charisma as Ari, a second generation Greek teenager living in Melbourne with his traditional family, who indulges in sex, drugs and underground hedonism while keeping his sexuality secret from his parents. He is a complex, often unsympathetic antihero, prone to outbursts of racism and self-loathing, yet Dimitriades’ magnetism makes him an intriguing, self-destructive enigma.
It’s a very erotic film, and director Ana Kokkinos captures the excitement of Ari’s multiple sexual encounters, many of which are tinged with danger. Although this kinetic exploration of masculine identity crisis was a critical hit, it polarised Greek-Australian audiences according to Kokkinos, who noted that older viewers were uncomfortable with the perceived rejection of traditional Greek values.
Dead Europe (2012)
Director Tony Krawitz
Another Christos Tsiolkas story, and a very dark and sinister one. For much of its length, the film feels very post-gay; Isaac (Ewen Leslie), our antihero, a moody Greek Australian who unearths some unpalatable family secrets when he returns to Greece following the unexpected death of his father, is certainly not defined by his homosexuality. What starts as a family drama rapidly slides into horror terrain, and the appearance of a strange, wan boy (Kodi Smit McPhee) triggers a descent to the dark side. He is dragged into a nightmarish gay underworld, leading to a shocking ending that arrives like a punch to the gut.
Director Tony Krawitz conveys an oppressive, almost Lynchian mood of approaching menace, and the cities of Athens, Paris and Budapest have rarely seemed as unnerving. Every character makes their time count, from Isaac’s sleazy brother to a young female immigrant whose sudden antisemitic outburst is one of the film’s most shocking scenes.
Monster Pies (2013)
Director Lee Galea
This lovable gay teen drama transcends its low budget and a couple of wonky supporting performances to emerge as a highly winning tale of first love. The plot itself is a gay staple: Mike (Tristan Barr) develops a crush on William (Lucas Linehan), the new boy at school, and the two are assigned to work on a project together, a video reimagining of Romeo and Juliet. Romance blossoms but is threatened by Mike’s homophobic mother and William’s violent alcoholic father.
Barr gives a performance of great charm as the goofy, gawky teenager clumsily finding first love. While the final 20 minutes veer into melodrama, overall this is the best of the recent spate of Australian gay teen dramas, and the nearest thing to an Antipodean Beautiful Thing.
Gayby Baby (2015)
Director Maya Newell
Over three years in the making, Maya Newell’s sensitive and often very funny documentary follows four gay couples with children, and the everyday challenges they face, some of which have nothing to do with their sexuality. One of the film’s greatest achievements is showing the resilience of the kids, all of whom come across as happy and engaging, especially the sharp and observant Gus, a natural in front of the camera. As Newell, herself the daughter of same-sex parents, states: “These kids get it. We just need the rest of the world to catch on”.
The film’s strongest moments involve the scenes of tension between the children and the beliefs of the parents. Matt’s birth mother is the member of a homophobic church, and he questions her beliefs at every opportunity, while Graham, an adopted 11-year-old who can’t read, faces new challenges when his dads move to Fiji with him and encourage him to keep their sexuality a secret owing to its conservative society.