Last month, the National Film Registry closed nominations for 2013 additions to the list of the greatest of American cinema. Each year, a few films are honored with inclusion; last year saw the addition of such diverse classics as Born Yesterday, the 1914 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma, The Matrix, and The Times of Harvey Milk. There is no Hall of Fame for film (except in Texas, which has its own awards), so placement on the registry is the top honor, showing that a film has stood the test of time.
There’s not an abundance of LGBT films on the list so far. In fact, The Times of Harvey Milk and The Rocky Horror Picture Show pretty much covers it. So, we introduce the first installment of the Queer, Isn’t It? Registry of LGBT films. Highlighted below are five films that helped break ground for queer cinema.
One will quickly notice that all the films are from the ‘80s. It’s a personal peeve to read a “Greatest (whatever) of all Time” list that doesn’t go back any further than the writer’s age (really, all the best comedies/ albums/ TV shows/ romances were released in the last 25 years?). Therefore, this registry is open to films of all periods, and we happily take nominations for future inclusion. However, the ‘80s were a pivotal time in LGBT cinema; it was the first time that films sought to portray members of our community realistically, as regular people dealing with the same issues of love, death, strife, heartbreak, and accomplishment as our straight counterparts.
This is not to suggest there weren’t bumps along the way. Two major studio films, both released in 1982, weren’t quite blessed with boffo box office. Robert Towne’s Personal Best featured a young, gorgeous Mariel Hemingway as an athlete trying to choose between Patrice Donnelly and Scott Glenn, while Arthur Hiller’s Making Love featured a young, gorgeous Michael Ontkean as a doctor trying to choice between Harry Hamlin and Kate Jackson. Both films have their fans, and both broke ground, causing lesbians and gays to dash to the video store and then rewind their VHS tapes endlessly over the scenes where Patrice and Mariel / Michael and Harry kiss for the first time.
What’s more, both films symbolized where America was with gay issues in the ‘80s, coming out of the closet and struggling with questions of sexual identity. Many LGBT films of the era played upon this theme, with a seemingly straight man or woman discovering his or her “true” sexual self, thanks to the sexually liberated queer/dyke who takes a liking to him/her. Still, into this mix emerged films that featured large groups of queers or dykes or both, sometimes without a major straight character to be found. It’s as if filmmakers wanted to say, “This is what Harry Hamlin and Patrice Donnelly’s characters were like when they weren’t hanging out with straight people.”
With that in mind, we present the first five films of our registry (in chronological order), which covers both the “straight turned gay” storyline and the “we’re here, we’re queer” stories:
1. Lianna (1983)
Director/ writer: John Sayles. Cast: Linda Griffiths, Jane Halleran.
Four years after his exceptional directorial debut with Return of the Secaucus Seven and before he won over audiences and critics with The Brother from Another Planet, Eight Men Out, and Passion Fish, John Sayles crafted the tale of a not-so-happily married woman whose affair with a female professor leaves her struggling with her marriage and sexual identity. On its face, this sounds like a distaff version of Making Love, but Sayles’ skills as a storyteller lift the film above the level of soap opera and presents fleshed-out characters for whom the audience can relate.
Lianna’s choice isn’t just gay or straight, but happy or miserable. In his review of the film, Vincent Canby of The New York Times called star Linda Griffith “splendid” and said the film “so effectively simulates the manner and temper of ordinary lives that there is a danger people will not recognize the very real art by which it was created.” (“Lianna, Faculty Wife with Marital Woes”, 19 January, 1983)
2. My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Director: Stephen Frears. Writer: Hanif Kureishi. Cast: Gordon Warnake and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Between this film and Room with a View, audiences were noticing Daniel Day-Lewis for the first time. His character in Room with a View, the prim Cecil, seems to be the gay character, but it was the tough, streetwise Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette that turned Day-Lewis into a gay heartthrob.
My Beautiful Laundrette is a family drama focusing on an extended Pakistani family in London. About the same time that young Omar takes over managing his uncle’s laundrymat, he runs into old friend Johnny, and the two act out on the feelings they had when they were younger. Their relationship is an integral part of Johnny’s growth into manhood, and Frears presents it as loving and passionate as the heterosexual relationships presented in the film. The film won Kureishi several critic’s awards for best screenplay, including an Oscar nomination, and won Day-Lewis the first of his endless string of acting awards.
3. Desert Hearts (1985)
Director: Donna Dietch. Writer: Natalie Cooper. Cast: Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbeonneau, and Audra Lindley.
Desert Hearts was a revelation for me personally, because it was the first LGBT film I had seen that starred people I actually heard of. Helen Shaver had countless film and TV appearances on her resume when she did this film, and I was amazed that someone with a blossoming career would risk it all to play a lesbian when doing so was still so risqué. Plus, it starred Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company!
The plot, a married woman getting a divorce meets a sexually liberated lesbian who lures her to bed, was quite familiar by this time, but Desert Hearts threw in a twist by setting itself in the ‘50s. There were lesbians even in the ‘50s? Yes, little Tammy, there were, and they were having a good time apparently.
While noting the film had its flaws, Roger Ebert concluded, “Desert Hearts has undeniable power, and the power comes, I think, from the chemistry between Shaver and Charbonneau.” (6 June 1985, Roger Ebert.com)
4. Parting Glances (1986)
Director/writer: Bill Sherwood. Cast: John Bolger, Richard Ganoung, and Steve Buscemi.
Parting Glances was only Buscemi’s third film, but it allowed the young actor to truly shine and steal the spotlight for the first time. As a rocker dealing with the (then) fatal diagnosis of AIDS, Buscemi brings an amazing depth and warmth to the character, one of the first sympathetic portrayals of a person living with AIDS on film. Still, Buscemi’s Nick is a supporting character, as the film focuses on a Michael and Robert, a young couple who are about to separated when Robert’s job transfers him to Africa for a two year stint.
Set in the 24 hour time period leading up to Robert’s departure, the film offers a realistic portrayal of gay life in the big city, as a host of LGBT types converge for Robert’s going-away party. “Bracingly forthright and believable in its presentation of an all-gay world within contempo New York City” (Variety, 31 December 1985), Parting Glances showed the world what the LGBT community had already learned—it’s all happening in the big city! At least it was in the ‘80s.
5. Longtime Companion (1989)
Director: Norman Rene. Writer: Craig Lucas. Cast: Campbell Scott, Patrick Cassidy, Bruce Davidson, Dermot Mulrooney, Mary Louise Parker, among a cast of dozens.
For years, LGBT film fans uttered “Longtime Companion” in reverential tones, in honor of its status as the “little gay film that could”. Could win over the public, could get a lot of favorable press, could seer itself into the public consciousness and make straight people openly weep. It also racked up a ton of awards for Bruce Davidson, whose emotional good-bye to his partner, dying of AIDS, was painfully real and made Davidson a leading contender for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (he lost to Goodfellas’ Joe Pesci).
The film examines the effects of the hideous disease on a circle of gay friends, and does so in such a way that The Washington Post concluded, “…what counts most is ‘Companion’s’ palatability for non-gay audiences. The movie puts a human face on the AIDS scare and gently coaxes general audiences (at least, the open-minded variety) into rooting for, rather than fearing, people with AIDS. Given the greater epidemic of AIDS ignorance throughout our society, this film is a healthy dose of goodwill.” In 1989, that was huge.
This, of course, is just the start of our list, and there’s no implied statement that LGBT films made before the ‘80s were lacking, although too often, they relied so heavily on caricature and stereotyping that they lost credibility. We’ll be looking at some of those films and, as stated previously, are open to suggestions and nominations.
So, make your case why your favorite LGBT film deserves to be honored and you might just find it listed in a future column. In the meantime, if you haven’t seen some of the films listed above, take some time, get out the Jiffy-pop, make yourself a Fuzzy Navel or Tequila Sunrise (the hot drinks of the ‘80s), and enjoy some classic cinema.