Films about LGBT people that are aimed at mass audiences win awards; films about LGBT people that are aimed at LGBT audiences… not so much. So, here's the Queer, Isn't It? Best Pic nominees.
When this year's Academy Awards nominations were announced in January, LGBT film buffs scoured them in the annual ritual of counting the number of LGBT-oriented films that got nominations. Last year was the year of the lesbian, with both Black Swan and The Kids are All Right landing multiple nominations each. This year, the whole spectrum of the rainbow is represented.
There's both transgenderism and lesbianism in Albert Knobbs, while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo represents the bisexual. Albert Knobbs' three nominations are actually more meaningful to the community than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's five, because the bisexuality of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's lead character is incidental to the larger plot, whereas the relationship and lifestyles of Albert Knobbs (Glenn Close) and Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) are the focal point of that film.
Yet, it's Christopher Plummer, for the little-seen Beginners, who has the best shot at making an acceptance speech. Plummer plays a gay man who, at 75 years old, comes out of the closet only after his wife of 24 years passes away and his son is fully grown. Plummer has been picking up nominations and awards, including a Golden Globe and SAG Award, like mad thus far, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him win.
Yes -- that's the same Christopher Plummer that wooed Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music and was an Archbishop in The Thornbirds, now getting his groove on in a gay disco. Of course, should Plummer get a golden man, it's more likely to be an award for being Christopher Freakin' Plummer than for playing gay.
Still, it's great when a portrayal of some segment of the community gets recognition in the mainstream, and it has happened quite often in the last few decades. Sean Penn, Tom Hanks, Annette Bening, Charlize Theron, Robert Preston, Cher, Jake Gyllenhall, John Lithgow, William Hurt, Hillary Swank and Al Pacino are just a few of the top actors who have won Oscars or received nominations for playing LGBT characters.
In contrast, only one open LGBT person has been nominated in the acting categories: Ian McKellan. This isn't surprising, however, as most openly gay and lesbian actors haven't headlined movies, at least not many that fit the Oscar mold (it's not a surprise that Neil Patrick Harris' name wasn't on the short list for The Smurfs). Generally, such stars find better parts on TV. (This discussion, of course, excludes the numerous LGBT persons who have won major awards in the non-acting categories.)
Of course, should Plummer, Close, McTeer, or Rooney Mara (The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo) win, we will cheer, as we should. For any recognition of our community in such films exposes more of the world to the LGBT experience, and positive exposure equates to increased tolerance. Still, we shouldn't allow our excitement over mainstream acceptance to overshadow our recognition of the best among our own films -- films made by LGBT individuals or aimed at LGBT audiences. These are films that have won awards, but never seem to make it to the Oscar race. Take Weekend, for example, which had the highest rating from Rotten Tomatoes of any romantic comedy released in 2011 -- gay or straight -- with a 94 percent overall rating and 96 percent rating among top critics. It's the first of my five nominees for Best LGBT Picture.
Starring Tom Cullen and Chris New as a couple whose one night stand turns into something more meaningful, Weekend has been recognized as one of the year's best films, winning multiple film festival awards. Star Tom Cullen even won Best Actor at the Nashville Film Festival, while writer/director Andrew Haigh won awards at film festivals in Czechoslovakia, Hamburg, and Toronto, as well as SXSW. However, neither Cullen nor Haigh were on the lists for Golden Globes or Oscars.
Adepero Oduye wasn't on the short list for any "big" awards either, although she scored a Best Actress nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards and NAACP Image Awards for Pariah. The film was a New York Times Critics Pick, while PopMatters' Cynthia Fuchs notes that despite some flaws, the film is "groundbreaking…full of striking, saturated-color compositions and aptly showcasing Oduye’s remarkable performance" (see review here). Oduye plays 17-year-old Alike (Ah-Lee-Kay), who is fully aware of her lesbianism and is looking to explore its sexual aspects. What makes Pariah even more 'real' is director Dee Rees' ability to create the feel of a Brooklyn neighborhood -- not surprising, since Rees based the film partly on her own experiences
Although Weekend and Pariah failed to get "big" award consideration, We Were Here did, until it didn't. David Weissman's documentary about the survivors of the early days of the AIDS crisis received a Best Documentary nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards and made the Oscar shortlist. The film also has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but it failed to make Oscar's final five. That's a shame, We Were Here is an excellent record of one of the great crises in LGBT history, a time that solidified our community in such a way that we would never turn back. According to the film's website, the documentary was a natural progression for Weissman, who co-directed with Bill Weber the 2001 doc The Cockettes . Cockettes highlighted the gay theatre scene in San Francisco during the late '60s and early '70s. We Were Here jumps forward ten years to see the same community after the party had quieted and the nightmare begun.
Transgender actress Harmony Santana finds herself nominated for both a Gotham and an Independent Spirit Award for her supporting performance in Gun Hill Road, her first film. Santana plays Michael/Vanessa, a Hispanic 16-year-old who is undergoing a transition from male to female. Things become complicated when her father is released from prison, only to find his only son is becoming his only daughter. As her parents, Esai Morales (NYPD Blue) and Judy Reyes (Scrubs) give their best performances, and the three leads lift the film above a predictable coming of age tale.
Gender identity is also the subject of Tomboy, the protagonist (Zoe Heran) even younger than Michael/Vanessa in Gun Hill Road. However, ten-year-old Laure's gender switch is the result of mistaken assumptions, as opposed to a conscious decision on Laure's part. New to the neighborhood, Laure meets new friend Lisa, who automatically assumes that Laure is a boy, which Laure reinforces by introducing herself by her last name, Michael. As PopMatters notes in its review of the film, Tomboy raises a series of important questions, among them "What does it mean to be a girl, now? How do mothers and fathers sort out their responsibilities in shaping a gendered child?"
Of course, not every LGBT film is award-worthy, as is true with most films aimed at mass audiences. Personally, I'm eager for the well-received Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same to come out on DVD (as I'm fairly certain it won't be playing in Louisville, Kentucky, ever). There's also something to be said for the cheesy bad LGBT sex comedies starring hunky men or sexy babes wearing as little clothing as possible, displaying no real acting talent and spouting someone's lame idea of gay humor. There films definitely can't be considered award-worthy, but they often provide more laughs than the big budget comedies with real actors. Just not in the way they intended.
Whether ridiculous or sublime, inane or inspired, several LGBT films stood out in 2011. Perhaps soon a similar film can break out of its limited market and play with the big boys and girls. LGBT documentaries have made the transition, as several have won Oscars for Best Documentary or Best Documentary Short [The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), Freeheld (2007)], but those categories aren't as influenced by box office receipts -- no one is really sure what they are influenced by, but that's another issue. Maybe one of those film critics who praised an LGBT fictional film or performance can argue for its inclusion among critic awards winners and get the ball rolling. If only there were some LGBT film critics, out there...