Corresponding with national LGBT+ awareness month and the passing of the gay marriage vote, Leanne Dixon looks at the progressive acceptance and appearance of LGBT+ in film.
Hurrah! The film industry has ceased its exasperating habit of shying away from matters of ‘taboo’. More than ever, films now exhibit direct exploration into the wonderful diversity of humankind. We humans have evolved over the past century into more tolerant beings. Finally it is considered decent to accept people for who they are, variety in sexuality included. Unjustifiably, LGBT+ focus in films has endured a turbulent battle to get to today’s standpoint. To celebrate the recent passing of the gay marriage vote we delve into a history of LGBT+ topics in film.
During the early 1900s the cinematic depiction of gay men was confined within the limits of insinuation. The first on-screen same-sex kiss featured in Wings (1927), yet the characters were not gay. Hitchcock also alluded to homosexuality in his classic thriller Rope (1948), but even this hinted to be associated with psychosis, displaying a common classification at the time that homosexuality was thought to be a mental illness. Any references to cross-dressing could only be represented as comical, from Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman (1915) to Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959).
From around 1930 to 1968, the film industry was under the tyrannical reign of the Motion Picture Association of America, which put heavy restraint on any remotely homosexual material being showcased in films. It was up to the free-thinking sixties to extract prejudice and liberate the arts. Subsequent to the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s to early 1970s, the efficacious film industry began to use its influential powers to alter perspectives on LGBT+ issues. Moving away from archaic thinking and stereotypes, films started to portray LGBT+ lives in a more realistic and empathetic way.
The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s raised ugly homophobic views. Once again, film used its media magnetism to change perspectives and Philadelphia (1993) was the first big-budget film to confront the medical, political and social issues of AIDS, highlighting discriminatory outlooks. The film was also assisted by outstanding performances by Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, as to accentuate the injustice of prejudice against homosexuals in the 1980s.
Then there was the 2000s. David Lynch’s extraordinary Mulholland Drive (2001), divided between Betty’s (Naomi Watts) dream fantasy world and her reality. Surreal, tantalising and psychedelic, Lynch’s driving narrative includes Betty’s love for Rita (Laura Harring). The intimacy and jealousies of the couple expose the naturalness of same-sex love. Lisa Cholodenko also gave an insightful demonstration into the lives of lesbian parent families in The Kids Are All Right (2010). Convincingly performed by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, the film shows that when raised with love, the sexuality of one’s parents is irrelevant. The film follows the family as they adjust to an additional member – the children’s sperm donor father (Mark Ruffalo). Their authentically portrayed conflicts and struggles highlight the nonexistence of a perfect family model, whether heterosexual or gay.
Brokeback Mountain (2005) emerged as the homosexual cinematic love story that was finally being given the same credit in mainstream cinema as heterosexual love stories. A Single Man (2009) brought Colin Firth’s most poignant and expressive performance to the big screen. As George (Firth) grieves for his late partner (Matthew Goode), the intensity of universal love is exposed. Such films as Milk (2008) give a celebratory take on homosexuality in society, and illustrates the hugely compelling Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official, as he fights for gay rights. Sean Penn marvels and moves us with his display of intriguing idiosyncrasies. Keep the Lights On (2012) is an insightful venture into gay relationships from the homosexual perspective of director Ira Sachs. Although the film came across as highly pretentious, it is encouraging to see that films can now appeal directly to a gay audience as well as being accessible to heterosexual viewers.
Often in modern films it is becoming increasingly commonplace to explore bisexuality. Many films, such as Frida (2002), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and Rent (2005), contain bisexual love and romance stories, and the pleasing fact is that these portrayals are more accepted than they are rejected in today’s society. Rent (2005), bursting with an assortment of bohemians, features L, G, B and T as well as dealing with the difficult subject of AIDS. The human tolerance message resounds throughout the film’s catchy yet emotive songs.
From comical to astoundingly emotive, transgender depictions in films have progressed enormously. Transamerica (2005) follows Bree, a pre-operative male to female transsexual, and her son (Kevin Zegers) on a true journey of human acceptance. Felicity Huffman’s incredibly detailed and sensitive performance allows the audience to access intimate feelings of insecurity and bodily loathing. The viewers can almost feel her torment as the film expresses various discriminations, transmitting a message of respect for the diversity amongst humans.
The incredibly touching Billy Elliot (2000) deals with the tender issue of young Michael Caffrey (Stuart Wells), Billy’s best friend, who in the privacy of his own home likes to try on dresses and make-up. Set during the 1980s, Michael feels obliged to conceal his homosexuality with only Billy accepting him for his true identity. Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto (2005), in which Cillian Murphy plays the resilient Patrick ‘Kitten’ Braden, also recognises people’s inability to understand transvestism. Set during 1970s Ireland, a time still dominated by unyielding Catholic views. Patrick as a young boy dressed in ladies attire is discovered by his adoptive mother, who symbolically washes him, showing the contrasting views on homosexuality amongst different religions.
Although there is still a way to go for universal equality, Art is more adventurous and explicit in its expressions of subjects that were once hesitantly considered. With the arrival of the modern world came a deeper understanding of equality, tolerance and respect for diversity. Cinema is way past ambiguity regarding LGBT+ topics. The gay marriage bill has moved same-sex couples closer to parity with heterosexual couples. With transformations in society comes the artist’s compulsion to push the boundaries further. The film world’s new ventures into openness is considerably more exciting and helps us understand and appreciate the many distinctions amongst people.