Cinema history features hundreds of exquisite gay love stories, although disappointingly few end happily. Until the 1980s, most gay men on screen ended up miserable or dead by the time the end credits rolled, such was society’s view of these poor, marginalised creatures.
In the UK, male homosexuality was illegal until the 1960s, so it’s unsurprising that gay characters in contemporary dramas found it hard to reach a happy ending. In 2018, male homosexuality is criminalised in more than 70 countries worldwide – gay lives are rarely depicted at all in films from these nations, and when they are, it’s seldom in a positive light.
In the 1980s, filmmakers became more confident in depicting gay men in love. Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and James Ivory’s Maurice (1987) showed that homosexuality and happiness were not mutually exclusive. As audiences for gay cinema have grown, films such as God’s Own Country and Call Me by Your Name (both 2017) have proved that gay love stories can attract huge audiences and critical acclaim. But they just are the most recent features to celebrate love between gay men. Not all of the movies in this list have happy endings, but they succeed in portraying interesting and loving same sex relationships in new, often brave ways.
The films in this list focus on the ‘G’ in ‘LGBTQ+’ although there are plenty of romance films that celebrate other queer identities, which offer plenty of scope for future lists.
Director Kenneth Anger
“This flick is all I have to say about being 17, the United States navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July.” Kenneth Anger’s dreamlike film, about a boy who is beaten up by sailors in a horrific homophobic attack but whose ordeal is followed by a moment of bliss when he wakes up to a male lover in his bed, is a fascinating slice of the avant-garde, made when Anger was still a teenager.
It’s a crazed film, opening with an erection gag, moving into gruesome body horror (the boy imagines his attackers ripping into his chest) and surrealism. Fireworks may have a happy ending, but it’s hard earned. It wouldn’t be the last time Anger returned to homoerotica, notably with Scorpio Rising (1963), his hot and horny tribute to biker culture.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Director Billy Wilder
There are so many things to love about Billy Wilder’s classic comedy, starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as musicians who witness a gangster massacre and disguise themselves as women to escape the mob, that it’s easy to forget that at its heart is a touching and very funny romance. No, not between Joe (Curtis) and Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), but between Jerry/Daphne (Lemmon) and Osgood (Joe E. Brown), a kindly millionaire who woos the saxophonist, unaware that ‘she’ is really a man.
The progression of Jerry/Daphne’s feelings from reluctance to exhilaration to genuine affection, though undoubtedly played for laughs, is touching to watch, especially given how same-sex relationships were regarded in 1950s America. And the famous last line – “Nobody’s perfect” – is about as gay-positive an ending as you can imagine for its time.
The Fire Island Kids (1971)
Director Peter De Rome
If you wanted to see gay men enjoying happy lives on the big screen in the 1970s, gay porn was your safest bet. After decades of seeing gay characters as villains or victims, Peter de Rome came to the rescue with a string of short erotic films that are both sexy and artistic. The Fire Island Kids is one of the most delightful.
Its success lies in its simplicity. One man rescues another from drowning on Fire Island, New York’s gay mecca. They go back to a beach house and one things leads to another. It’s like a David Hockney painting come to life – tan lines are in abundance – and its depiction of a lazy, sensuous afternoon bursts with a romance you seldom see in erotica.
Director Wieland Speck
Filmed in Berlin, four years before the wall came down, this quietly remarkable love story follows the relationship between Thomas, an ‘Ossi’ (an East Berliner), and Felix, a ‘Wessi’ (West Berliner). The romance starts by Felix making regular trips to East Berlin, but soon the authorities start to get suspicious, and the lovers decide that Thomas must try to flee to West Germany, despite the considerable dangers.
As sweet as Sigurd Rachman and Rainer Strecker are as the separated lovers, the film’s real triumph lies in its brave criticism of the oppressive nature of East Berlin. Wieland Speck daringly films scenes in East Berlin in secret with a handheld camera, emphasising the illicit nature of the two men’s love.
Director James Ivory
Years before his acclaimed performance as disgraced politician Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal (2018), Hugh Grant played a very different gay character in James Ivory’s 1987 adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Maurice. Forster began writing his novel, about a man who falls in love with two very different men in the early 20th century, in the 1910s, although owing to its content (male homosexuality was illegal until 1967 in England) it wasn’t published until 1971, a year after his death.
Grant plays a man who rejects his true nature and chooses to suppress his homosexuality, marrying a woman and shunning his lover, Maurice (James Wilby), who seeks love elsewhere. It’s superbly acted, with a marvellous ending, all the more striking given it was made in the 1980s, when homophobia, triggered by widespread terror of the AIDS crisis, was at a high.
Edward II (1991)
Director Derek Jarman
Christopher Marlowe’s play about the allegedly gay British monarch ends tragically for the king, with a horrible death by red hot poker, a grisly demise dismissed as a rumour by many historians. Derek Jarman brings his artistic eye to the tragedy and manages to make the tale even queerer, drawing direct parallels between the homophobic persecution of Edward II and his lover, Gaveston, and the anti-gay sentiment whipped up by the tabloids under the tenure of Margaret Thatcher. Members of contemporary activist groups OutRage! and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence make memorable appearances.
The torture-murder of the king is imagined as a dream in the film, with the executioner sent to Edward’s cell having a very different response than the character in the play. The love and romance of the play is firmly foregrounded, with Annie Lennox serenading the lovers with a glorious rendition of Cole Porter’s ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’.
Director Mohamed Camara
Same sex relationships are illegal in Guinea, so the existence of this gay love story, thought to be the first LGBTQ+ made in west Africa, is remarkable. The film opens with two men kissing in a car, and explores the threats that follow the discovery of their relationship. The mother of one of the men resorts to witchcraft to ‘cure’ her son, who also goes under a course of aversion therapy. But true nature cannot be easily destroyed.
The film’s ending will divide audiences, and feminists in particularly may balk at the decision one of the men makes. But the film’s bravery in depicting a queer story, and its refusal to condemn the two men for their love, make this an important and empowering landmark film.
Tropical Malady (2004)
Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul
It’s lazy to concentrate on the weirdness of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, rather than the extraordinary emotional responses they can elicit in audiences, although one can see the temptation. Tropical Malady spirals away from being a simple romance between a soldier and a country boy into a heady journey into the jungle, where a man encounters a chattering monkey and the shape-shifting spirit of a man-eating tiger.
The early scenes of playful romance between the two men are lovely, but it’s the second half, in particular the closing moments, that elevate the film to greatness. It’s an astonishing achievement, erotic and hallucinatory, and deservedly won the jury prize at Cannes.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Director Ang Lee
“I wish I knew how to quit you!” Brokeback Mountain’s blend of two rarely paired genres – melodrama and western – and its moments of heightened drama lend the film to easy parody, yet it remains a modern classic. Its 1960s-set romance between two ranch hands (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal), who fall in love in the Wyoming mountains, is a profoundly moving study of two men struggling to acknowledge their feelings at a time of intense conservatism and traditionalism.
All the actors are excellent, but Heath Ledger, who until this film was best known for much lighter films, such as 10 Things I Hate about You (1999), gives the best performance of his career, a masterclass of emotional repression. The film won three Oscars, for director Ang Lee, for its screenplay and its unforgettable score, but infamously lost out to Paul Haggis’s clumsy race relations drama Crash for the best picture award.
Love, Simon (2018)
Director Greg Berlanti
If only every generation of gay boys had had a teen romance like Love, Simon in their lives. While teens in the 1990s had Beautiful Thing (1996) and Get Real (1998), Love, Simon is the first Hollywood film to focus on a gay adolescent made with the young adult market in mind. As well as treading new ground for a mainstream movie, it’s also a funny and endearing delight, with a winning performance from Nick Robinson as a lovestruck teenager.
It’s no soppy romance though. Simon is blackmailed by a fellow student when they find out about his sexuality, and the beautifully played coming-out scene is full of nerves and poignancy. Does Simon get the happy ending he deserves? That would be telling, but with a well-observed screenplay and a welcome dash of knowing humour, Love, Simon ensures you will be rooting for him all the way.