10 great Jewish LGBT films

As Jewish arts centre JW3 celebrates the best of LGBT culture, and the release of BFI-backed documentary Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? draws closer, we remember some of the best Jewish and Israeli gay and lesbian films.

Alex Davidson
Updated:

Who's Gonna Love Me Now? (2016)

Who's Gonna Love Me Now? (2016)

With a day to go until the launch of this year’s BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival, the best of queer cinema is about to take over BFI Southbank for a 31st glorious year. As JW3, the Jewish community centre in north London, launches GayW3, celebrating the lives of the LGBTQ community throughout history to the present day through film, theatre, music and discussion, and uplifting British-Israeli documentary Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?, backed by the BFI, prepares for its cinema release, now is a great time to look back at the best of Jewish and Israeli LGBT cinema.

Gay Jewish characters have been the subject of great films from around the world, and the list below features films from the UK, France, Germany, the US, and, of course, Israel. A number of British films just missed the list, including Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), in which Jewish doctor Peter Finch enjoyed British cinema’s first male-on-male kiss; award-winning short film Sidney Turtlebaum (2008), starring Derek Jacobi as an elderly gay Jewish pickpocket and conman; and Lisa Gornick’s latest film, The Book of Gabrielle (2016), a funny and sharp study of a Jewish lesbian whose sexuality is thrown into turmoil. Gala hits from BFI LGBT film festivals past, such as New York comedy Jeffrey (1995) and Israeli romance Out in the Dark (2012), just missed the cut, while Oy Vey! My Son Is Gay!! (2009) nearly made it through its fabulous title alone (shame the film is such dreck).

Special mention must go to TV, too. Jenny Schecter from The L Word remains queer TV’s most polarising figure, while the television adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, starring Al Pacino as vicious, closeted senator Roy Cohn, remains an all-time great. And though the groundbreaking portrayal of transgender characters has won Jill Soloway’s Transparent (2014-) an army of fans, it’s just as much a Jewish series, topped by a likeable performance by Kathryn Hahn as Rabbi Raquel Fein.

These 10 films focus on culturally Jewish films featuring gay and lesbian protagonists, almost all of which were directed by Jewish filmmakers.

The Boys in the Band (1970)

Director William Friedkin

Boys in the Band (1970)

“What I am Michael is a 32-year-old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy, and if it takes me a little while to pull myself together, and if I smoke a little grass before I get up the nerve to show my face to the world, it’s nobody’s goddamned business but my own. And how are you this evening?”

Now that’s how you make an entrance. Harold (Leonard Frey) is the most memorable and, despite the self-loathing of his opening lines, strongest character in William Friedkin’s film, made before The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) established him as a Hollywood heavyweight. His adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play, about a group of gay men who gather for Harold’s party, resulting in a cruel evening of sadistic games and sabotage, came at the wrong time – as the gay liberation movement established its voice in the early 1970s, negative or depressing depictions of gay men in the media were seen as archaic and obstructive to progress.

While Michael, the pathetic protagonist, is indeed an unlikeable and self-pitying monster, the other characters are far more sympathetic, while the glorious Harold, utterly unashamed of his homosexuality and with nothing to hide, emerges from the carnage unscathed. Friedkin would go on to make a far more dubious gay film – the notorious S&M killer thriller Cruising (1980). Frey, who gives the performance of his career as Harold, found greater fame the following year with an Oscar-nominated turn in Fiddler on the Roof (1971). He, like many of his fellow Boys in the Band cast members, later died from an AIDS-related illness.

Torch Song Trilogy (1988)

Director Paul Bogart

Torch Song Trilogy (1988)

Harvey Fierstein is best known for his stage work, particularly for writing the books for the stage musicals La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots, joining Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman as Broadway legends who happened to be both gay and Jewish. But it all began with Torch Song Trilogy, a play that started life as an off-off-Broadway production before transferring and becoming a Tony-winning classic. Directed by Paul Bogart, the film is a moving and often very funny look into the tragicomic life of Arnold (Fierstein), a drag queen searching for love and acceptance. It hasn’t dated a jot – more’s the pity, as resistance to effeminate men and gay adoption still prevail today.

Matthew Broderick, fresh from success in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), is sweet as Arnold’s flawed love interest, while you may need to take cover for Anne Bancroft’s barnstorming portrayal of Arnold’s difficult mother, embodying many Jewish mama stereotypes, for better or worse. The star of the show, though, is Fierstein, who makes Arnold a lovable, vulgar and believably human figure who challenged the perception of drag queens as sexless clowns shaming the gay community.

  • Torch Song Trilogy is screening as part of GayW3

Amazing Grace (1992)

Director Amos Guttman

Amazing Grace (1992)

Gay men don’t smile much in the cinema of Amos Guttman. He kicked off his short career with Drifting (1982), a grim, semi-autobiographical tale of a gay filmmaker trying and failing to find love and funding for his next film. Amazing Grace, made nearly a decade later, is a much stronger piece of work, about two gay men – one an innocent teenager from a troubled family, the other an HIV patient – who fall for each other after meeting in Tel Aviv.

It’s a sad, poetic film, with some beautiful visual flourishes. The fantasy sequence where male models in a porn magazine come to life is worthy of Derek Jarman, while the sad camera pan around the room following the gaze of the dying grandmother of one of the men is filled with poignancy and regret. Guttman died from an AIDs-related illness the year after the film was released. Amazing Grace is a heartbreaking legacy of the potential future classics that he might have gone on to make.

Man Is a Woman (1998)

Director Jean-Jacques Zilbermann

Man Is a Woman (1998)

In the UK, Antoine de Caunes is best known as the wry presenter of Eurotrash (1993-), ever at risk of being upstaged by Jean-Paul Gaultier and cardboard giraffes Pipi and Popo. In Man Is a Woman, he brings all his considerable charm and charisma to the role of Simon, a gay Klezmer musician who is offered 10 million francs from his traditionalist uncle if he agrees to marry a woman. Simon needs the cash, and when Rosalie, a single Jewish performer who sings in Yiddish, falls for him, the deal is struck, unbeknown to his fiancée. Much to Simon’s surprise, however, the clandestine business deal turns to true love.

The sexual politics of the film are hard to pin down. Is Simon gay, bi, or does he defy such labels? Is the meaning of the film’s title, explained at the vibrant Jewish wedding that starts the film, a homophobic nonsense? Is Simon really in love with his brother-in-law, too, or is it mere lust? No matter, just go with the flow and you’ll find much to enjoy. De Caunes, a gifted farceur, plays with the clichés of the philandering French man and makes Simon a winning, if errant, antihero, and the script is very funny. A sequel, He Is My Girl (2009), followed, also directed by Jean-Jacques Zilbermann.

Aimée & Jaguar (1999)

Director Max Färberböck

Aimée & Jaguar

Maria Schrader and Juliane Köhler shared the best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival for their performances as two real-life women who embarked on a dangerous love affair in Nazi Germany. Felice (Schrader) is a Jewish lesbian working for a resistance group, while Lilly (Köhler) is the unhappy wife of a Nazi officer with four children. An attempted kiss at a New Year’s Eve party develops into a passionate romance, but the violently homophobic and antisemitic world of wartime Berlin threatens their happiness. ‘Aimée’ and ‘Jaguar’ are the pet names they use for each other.

The film’s greatest triumph is to humanise these two emblems of love under repression – Felice is sometimes selfish and unfaithful, Lilly can be silly and insensitive to the greater danger her lover and her queer friends face. Despite the menace around them, we also see the great joy and spirit of these two brave women, and the love and affection they have for each other is delightful. It was nominated for the Golden Globe for best foreign language film and was unlucky to be up against Pedro Almodóvar’s all-conquering All about My Mother (1999).

Paragraph 175 (2000)

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Paragraph 175

The Nazi persecution of homosexuals is seldom explored on film. Few gay and lesbian survivors were alive to tell their stories when Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman made their important documentary Paragraph 175, whose title derives from the German act of law prohibiting gay sex, which continued to exist into the 1990s. In the documentary, a number of men and a Jewish lesbian talk about their harrowing experiences.

As well as providing an invaluable record of a history that was nearly lost – all of the participants are now dead – Epstein and Friedman allow the camera to capture the humanity of the talking heads. Rather than producing a parade of crushed victims, the film foregrounds the sharp commentary of Gad Beck, a Jewish gay man who helped refugees escape; the wistful memories of love lost from Heinz F., still too guarded to reveal his full name; and the undiluted anger of Pierre Seel, who was tortured by Nazi officers.

Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)

Director Charles Herman-Wurmfeld

Kissing Jessica Stein (2001)

A comedy about two women who decide to dabble in a same-sex relationship initially based on a series of failed heterosexual affairs, and the fact that they are drawn together through a shared admiration for a Rilke quote, sounds at best tiresome, at worst offensive. Luckily, Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt, who wrote and star as said let’s-give-it-a-whirl ‘lesbians’, have wit and chemistry on their side and create the nearest cinema has come to a gay Woody Allen movie. It’s based on their hit play Lipschtick, so named for an endearing early scene in which the women bond over makeup, albeit for completely different reasons.

Westfeldt, playing the ‘Jewish Sandra Dee’, gives great New York neurotic gaucheness to her part (“I was surprised to learn that lesbians accessorised; I didn’t know that”), although her best scene is a touching heart-to-heart with her mother (Tovah Feldshuh), where the latter gently spares her the ordeal of coming out. The film ultimately belongs to Juergensen, who embraces her newfound sexuality with abandon and refuses to compromise.

Eyes Wide Open (2009)

Director Haim Tabakman

Eyes Wide Open (2009)

A married orthodox Jewish father and a male Yeshiva student fall in love, to the horror of the community in Jerusalem, in Haim Tabakman’s searing drama about love and religious repression. Most contemporary reviews drew lazy comparisons with Brokeback Mountain (2005), despite the emphasis on religion and, crucially, the modern setting of the Israeli film. While western viewers are used to seeing the more extreme followers of Christianity and Islam on the big screen, the negative representation of oppressive Orthodox Jewish characters, such as the prurience of the ‘modesty squads’, is far rarer.

Tabakman infuses the scenes of the men together with great sensuality, such as their fated meeting for a ritual bath, contrasting with the drabness of their everyday lives. The conflict between homosexuality and Orthodox Judaism has been explored in a number of excellent documentaries, including Trembling Before G-d (2001), Keep Not Silent (2005) and Jerusalem Is Proud to Present (2008).

Yossi (2012)

Director Eytan Fox

Yossi (2012)

Eytan Fox is one of Israel’s foremost directors, and all of his films focus on gay characters, often using homosexuality to comment on a wider theme, such as self-realisation in Mossad thriller Walk on Water (2004) or the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in The Bubble (2006). Yossi is a follow-up to Yossi & Jagger (2002), a romantic drama about the love between two Israeli soldiers. Yossi is now older, plumper, single, depressed and in the closet. When he encounters Jagger’s mother at the hospital where he works, he drives her home, seeking redemption. However, it is when he gives a lift to some young soldiers that a chance for happiness opens.

Where Amos Guttman wallowed in the sadness of gay lives, working as he was in an era of fear and prejudice during the AIDS crisis, Fox’s films are more optimistic and celebratory, if occasionally bittersweet. Yossi is his finest work yet, with beautifully written, likeable characters, an unexpectedly moving scene of nudity and one of the most perfect endings in recent Israeli cinema.

Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? (2016)

Directors Tomer Heymann and Barak Heymann

Who’s Gonna Love Me Now (2016)

After a year on the festival circuit, where it won the documentary award at the Berlin Film Festival and the audience award at the UK International Jewish Film Festival, Barak and Tomer Heymann’s feature about the life of Saar Maoz, an HIV positive gay man living in London after being rejected by his Israeli family and driven away from his Kibbutz, is finally getting a short cinema release in April 2017. Saar finds acceptance in the welcoming arms of the London Gay Men’s Chorus, but the need to heal the rift between him and his family leads him to contemplate returning to Israel for good.

It’s one the most compelling and beautifully structured films of 2016, with confessionals and difficult family conversations interspersed with beautiful a cappella numbers courtesy of the Chorus (their signature rendition of ‘Only You’ is a treat). A moment when a grimly orthodox wife, towards the end of the film, finally opens her mouth and defends Saar had the audience cheering at the screening I attended. As for Saar, his progress from a vulnerable man fearing yet further rejection to a confident and defiant AIDS activist ready to tackle prejudice is utterly inspiring.

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