Monday, November 19, 2007


Oscar's rules for GLBT characters

By Edward Copeland
This post was for the Queer Blog-a-Thon hosted at Queering the Apprentice, which apparently no longer exists. Be warned: the words below will contain spoilers for a lot of films, too many to mention, so don't read it and whine later.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has been fairly generous in the past 20 or so years in nominating (and sometimes rewarding) actors and actresses who play gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered characters on screen. However, this does come with a price. Not to their careers, but in deciding whether or not the role gets nominated in the first place.

There seems to be only two types of gay roles that get deemed worthy of Oscar recognition: ones that are comicly broad or one where the gay character in question either ends up dead or alone. Look at just a couple of highly praised roles that got snubbed come Oscar time. Everyone thought Dennis Quaid was a lock for a nomination with his tortured married gay man in the 1950s in Far From Heaven, but he didn't make the cut. In the end of the film, his character has accepted his sexuality and found a boyfriend: no nomination for him.

Rupert Everett was a lot of fun as Julia Roberts' best gay friend in My Best Friend's Wedding, but his character was out, proud and presumably in a relationship. Strike him from your nominating ballot.

Now, here come the spoilers, as I look at all the performers who did get nominated or won an Oscar for playing a gay character. I'm only counting characters that are explicitly gay, not implied ones such as Clifton Webb in Laura For sake of simplicity, I'm going chronologically.

Peter Finch in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

The first openly gay character that I can find with a nomination set one of the patterns: He's alone at the end.

Al Pacino and Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Sarandon's character of Leon is already institutionalized (and wants nothing to do with Sonny) when we meet him. Sonny (Pacino) ends up alone and in prison.

James Coco in Only When I Laugh (1981)

The first instance (post Dog Day Afternoon) of Oscar nominating an openly gay character was for Coco's broad comic turn in this lesser Neil Simon outing.

John Lithgow in The World According to Garp
Robert Preston in Victor, Victoria (both 1982)

Preston's great turn definitely belongs more in the broad comic category, though he might also be an exception since he is allowed to have a boyfriend by film's end. Lithgow, as the NFL player turned transsexual in Garp, might be an exception. He's alive at the end, but his role is mostly played for laughs and the film never provides him with a significant other.

Cher in Silkwood (1983)

Another possible exception, though the film makes it unclear if she's alone at the end, though she certainly looks guilt-stricken over possible involvement in her friend Karen's death.

William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)

Ding ding ding. We have a winner. While the movie was certainly a drama, Hurt does a lot of histrionic flouncing AND he ends up dead in the end, even after his straight cellmate (Raul Julia) gives him a mercy fuck.

Bruce Davison in Longtime Companion (1990)

It was five years before another gay character earned a nomination and Davison's character got the double whammy. First, he has to watch his lover die of AIDS, leaving him alone, and then he dies as well (and not even on screen).

Tommy Lee Jones in JFK (1991)

Here's another example of a broad performance in a drama and while Jones' character lives in the end, it is complicated by the fact that he is portrayed as a villain (and with some over-the-top gay orgy scenes that only Oliver Stone could dream up). In contrast, Joe Pesci playing the less showy gay character who does get killed, didn't earn Academy notice.

Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game (1992)

First, Dil's lover gets killed during an IRA kidnapping and then when he/she falls for his captor, Fergus (Stephen Rea) gets sent to prison and Dil waits patiently, even though Fergus shows no intention of abandoning his heterosexuality.

Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (1993)

Gay and dead takes home the prize again, though at least Hanks' portrayal wasn't a broad one, even if Denzel Washington gave the better lead role in the film.

Greg Kinnear in As Good As It Gets (1997)

I don't think Kinnear's character had a significant other by film's end, but I do remember he took a bad beating.

Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters (1998)

Here is an openly gay actor nominated for portraying a true-life openly gay director. Alas, James Whale dies in the end (as he did in real life) but the real travesty was that McKellen (and Nick Nolte and Edward Norton) lost to Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful).

Kathy Bates in Primary Colors (1998)

Bates was great as a take-no-prisoners political operative working on the campaign of a Bill Clinton-like candidate. Alas, her lesbian character had principles and ended up firing a gun into her head.

Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry (1999)

Swank won the first of her two Oscars for lead actress by playing the gender-confused Brandon Teena. It also was the first of two times that Swank made it to the winner's circle by getting beaten to death.

Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls (2000)

Based on a real person, Bardem's character has to fight problems in Cuba before getting to N.Y. for one of the longest death scenes (from AIDS) I've ever seen.

Ed Harris in The Hours (2002)

The same year that the Academy snubbed Dennis Quaid for his fine work in Far From Heaven, they nominated this awful performance by the usually fine Harris as an artist dying of AIDS.

Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002)

If Virginia Woolf hadn't walked herself into the river, this nomination and win probably would have never happened.

Julianne Moore in The Hours (2002)

In a way, her character here is similar to the one Quaid plays in Moore's other 2002 film. She's married, but unable to accept her sexuality. By the film's end, she appears to be alone, so she gets a pass while Quaid got snubbed. It may also explain one of the rare occasions where Meryl Streep didn't get an Oscar nomination since her lesbian character in The Hours had a lover in the end and doesn't die.

Charlize Theron in Monster (2003)

Another win based on a true story. Theron took the executed lesbian serial killer right up to the winner's circle.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote (2005)

This may be the true exception to the rule. Based on a real life character, the story didn't follow Truman Capote to his death and he did have a longtime companion. The closest this comes is denying him his crush on the executed killer.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Two nominated performances of gay character, so the Academy got to take one of each: Gyllenhaal's character ends up dead, Ledger's ends up alone.

Felicity Huffman in Transamerica (2005)

I'm not sure where to place this performance of an in-process transsexual. She doesn't die in the end.

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You missed Al Pacino and Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon.
Duh. I knew I was missing someone. I'd even asked an Oscar freak fan to look it over. Thanks for the catch. I'll add it now.
Well I'm an Oscar freak but you didn't ask me. Oh well. It's a very good list but I think there are enough exceptions (practically every other one) that it defeats the premise of what gay roles get nominated and what doesn't.

Besides, Oscar has a history of rewarding bad/evil/dead in end/broad characterizations across the board. Since you mention Hurt's and Hank's wins in the eighties and nineties we can look at those two decades and discover that Best Actor also went to portrayals of abusive boxers, Mozart torturing composers, washed up hustlers, greedy selfish millionaires, obnoxious painters, bizarre wealthy kept men, serial killers, non-recovering alcoholics, crazy pianists, crazy writers and worthless spouses with fantasies of teenage girls. Several of these characters also end up dead.

Let's face it, the Oscars are not about subtlety. They rarely give Oscars to Father Knows Best roles, straight or not. If we go into the 2000's we've already got Denzel's Alonzo Harris, Penn's Jimmy Markum and Whitaker's Idi Amin. And the rest (Crowe, Brody, Foxx) weren't playing "Happy guy in normal relationship" roles either, even if they weren't given a particularly dark side.

Eventually there might be an Oscar for a gay role like that of Dennis Quaid's but it will continue to be just as rare as Oscars for those kinds of roles played straight.

Thanks for a thought provoking article though. It was a great read.
I think when I first came up with this idea in 2002, it seemed stronger than it does now, but I was just trying to think of something I could write quick for the blog-a-thon. I still can't believe I forgot Dog Day Afternoon originally since it's one of my favorite films.
I'm not sure if I would call Brandon Teena confused. I think what was a problem was choosing to live in a place that had no resources of any kind for a F2M transgendered person.

Midnight Cowboy? Sunday, Bloody Sunday?
You are right Peter: I forgot Finch in Sunday Bloody Sunday as well. It's been awhile since I've seen Midnight Cowboy, but didn't Voight reject Bob Balaban violently when he wanted his services? I don't remember anything explicitly referring to Voight or Hoffman's characters as bisexual or gay.
Great post Ed,

It also feels that if there is actual contact in the movie, that's Oscar Gold. I remember there being lots of talk over the kiss between Hurt and Julia and how Hurt deserved it just for that scene.
What about Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal? and Tom Courtenay in The Dresser? And Marcello Mastroianni in A Special Day?
I would put Courtenay and Dench both in the implied category, especially Dench who doesn't seem to have ever succeeded in getting a female relationship. I've never seen A Special Day, so I can't speak to that one. Was he open (and did he end up dead or alone?)
Yes, in a Special Day, set in Rome during World War II, Marcello Mastroianni plays a open homosexual who befriends a lonely housewife (Sophia Loren) while having to hide, since fascists (of course!) didn't welcome homosexuality at all.. He lives, but ends up alone.
I can't be the only person who's bothered by your inclusion of transgendered people as Gay. The LA Times is getting roasted for linking to your blog and creating a quiz based on it. I appreciate the blog and the approach but I think you're playing fast and loose- or at least insensitively- with your stereotypes.
Estelle Parsons played a lesbian pining away for Joanne Woodward in "Rachel, Rachel".

If my memory serves, she "winds up alone" at the end.

- kch,
Tsk tsk! Forgot to add The Children's Hour, Shirley MacClaine and Audrey Hepburn. This was a very controversial film for 1961. It had four Oscar nominations, and three Golden Globe nominations. Shirley MacClaine won the Golden Laurel for her performance. her character hung herself in the end leaving Audrey Hepburn alone.
Actually, not tsk tsk. Neither MacLaine nor Hepburn were nominated for an Oscar for The Children's Hour, so they woudn't have been included in the list of this post. Also, they were just accused of being lesbians by that awful schoolgirl, but the film never clearly states they are and implies that perhaps only MacLaine was. Regardless, since neither was nominated, it doesn't matter. Fay Bainter was nominated, but her character wasn't a lesbian.
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