I have to say I was really pleased with Christopher Plummer’s Oscar win for his role as an eighty year old man finding a new lease of life after coming out to his son, in last year’s Beginners. It is such a heart-warming film and probably the best thing Ewan MacGregor has been in for years, but what was really strikingly new was the way in which it depicted an older man’s experience of coming out and coming to terms with his gay identity. This is a sub-genre of gay cinema which is almost exclusively about young men and women in their teens or early twenties. In fact, there is a knowing comedy in much of Beginners because of this very fact – the promiscuity, the inappropriate boyfriends, the hard partying – all parts of this rite of passage are offered light relief precisely because he is an octogenarian.
I should say, before I go on, that Beginners is not a ‘gay film’. Plummer won best supporting act as the main story centres on Ewan MacGregor’s character and his relationship with a French girl (it also features an adorable Jack Russell, an idea which The Artist patently ripped off). The story of his father’s coming out and his slow painful illness due to cancer forms just one strand of his comic journey. However, this much-deserved Oscar win got me thinking about the lack of high profile, mainstream LGBT films in recent years. I mean, does everyone remember the watershed moment when Brokeback Mountain didn’t bomb at the box office as expected (it took almost $200 million) and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three, though controversially not for best picture? (More on that in a minute!)
Looking back to 2006, there were a number of Oscar nominations for films with explicitly LGBT themes or which featured LGBT characters. Philip Seymour Hoffman won best actor that year for Capote, a nod to his portrayal as the gay writer Truman Capote in a film with overtly gay themes. (It was also nominated for best picture). Felicity Huffman received a nomination for Transamerica, one of the funniest and most poignant films ever made about male-to-female transsexuality (erm, are there any others?) Even the winner of best documentary, March of the Penguins, was embroiled in controversy because of the issue of same-sex bonding in the penguin world. The Oscars had never been so welcoming to the LGBT community. Everyone cooed about how Brokeback Mountain had changed audience perceptions and its success would pave the way for a slew of similar mainstream films.
Well, where are they? What happened to all the feature films depicting LGBT life we were promised? And why is that overtly gay films, such as Weekend, have to rely on audiences to call up their local cinema and request the film because they simply aren’t playing it? Personally, I don’t think much has changed since 2006. The fact that Brokeback Mountain did not win best picture was an indication of how interminably slow Hollywood is to catch up with the real world. Crash, a much less worthy winner, took the Academy Award. That the film dealt with race and not homosexuality seemed to make it more palatable to voters. Race is something they could get behind, two gay cowboys was the last thing they wanted to get behind.
Don’t get me wrong – there have been a number of excellent LGBT-related mainstream films since 2005: The History Boys (2006), Running With Scissors (2006), Savage Grace (2007), Milk (2008), I Love You Phillip Morris (2009), Little Ashes (2009), A Single Man (2009), Black Swan (2010), Howl (2010), Heartbeats (2010), The Kids Are Alright (2011), and Weekend (2012). But does this really account for an explosion of LGBT cinema that many critics predicted in 2006? At an average of 2 a year, I would say hardly. Which begs the questions – are quality LGBT films being held back because of the significant financial hurdles they have to get through in order to be made? Is Hollywood, partially run by gays, closeted and homophobic or too afraid that they won’t get their return on investment for any LBGT-themed film?
It is difficult to pinpoint a reason, but I suspect the volatile political situation in the US with regards to gay rights and gay marriage is making it difficult for LGBT filmmakers to get their films made. Audiences in 2005 may have embraced Brokeback Mountain or perhaps they were just curious to see two of the biggest stars of the time in what was dubbed the ‘gay cowboy movie‘. Whatever the reasons, I can’t help lamenting that we have returned to a time pre-2005 were LGBT characters are becoming invisible and their lives pushed to the margins. Even a high profile film like last year’s J. Edgar, written by Dustin Lance Black – the prominent gay writer and activist who won an Oscar for Milk – was criticised for whitewashing the gay elements of Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson in the film. Based on the evidence, despite Christopher Plummer’s Oscar win, the future is looking bleak for gay cinema.