In February 1994, Hollywood seemed to change forever. Tom Hanks – the embodiment of the American common man – won the Oscar for Best Actor for playing the gay protagonist in a major studio film.
In retrospect, Philadelphia looks a little uncertain. It’s melodramatic, littered with tropes, and draws a tremendous amount of cathartic mileage from the tragic martyrdom of its lead role. Still, the tide seemed to have turned for good. Hollywood didn’t just tell weird stories, it rewarded them. The gay and lesbian roles were no longer something an officer would immediately throw out; they were a fast track to praise and rewards.
Since Brokeback Mountain in 2005, no less than 35 Oscar nominated roles have been LGBTQ +. None of these, however, have been portrayed by overtly LGBTQ + artists. Playing gay is brave enough to get a medal. Being gay and playing gay? Not really. (To date, Ian McKellen is the only gay actor to be nominated for an Oscar for a gay role – in Gods and Monsters).
“After Brokeback,” says Erik Anderson, editor of Hollywood website AwardsWatch, “I think more actors have probably looked for a weird role to flesh out their canon and legacy. Largely because it has become very rewards friendly. “
It was also attractive for reasons less immediately vulgar. “It expands their capabilities, but also challenged public perceptions,” says Anderson. Few actors don’t fancy a heavily signaled stretch, or a little mystery in which to crown their character.
So you may have been forgiven for predicting glorious award contests for two recent dramas. Francis Lee’s Ammonite and Harry Macqueen’s Supernova both pair beloved and publicly straight actors in stories explicitly about gay love. In Ammonite, Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet are our underground couple in 19th century Dorset. Supernova follows a tragic road trip undertaken by a longtime couple: Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci.
Yet both films were snubbed at the Oscars; the kind of praise Firth lavished on his role in Tom Ford’s A Single Man 10 years ago has been withheld. “Brave” was not an adjective used to describe any of the four main cast, except in association with Winslet’s makeup choices.
Somewhere along the line, playing gay went from being flavor of the month to leaving a weird taste. The Oscars of two years ago offer a clue as to what has changed. Three of the four performance Oscars went to queer roles: Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favorite, and Mahershala Ali’s Don Shirley in Green Book. But as many noted at the time, the strangeness of these characters was either fortuitous, obscured, or fatal.
In the eyes of his biopic, Mercury’s HIV diagnosis and eventual offscreen death was inevitable punishment for those of us who transgress heterosexual respectability. Green Book was equally regressive. “Ali’s character’s sexuality is something to be pitied and saved by the white lead,” Anderson says. “What’s the old, the old, the old way of writing gay characters. “
“I think the idea of being ‘brave’ to play gay is going away,” the critic said. Guy Lodge. “With Rami Malek, those who liked his performance were especially impressed by his mimicry or his physique. I certainly haven’t heard a lot of people say, now isn’t it remarkable that a straight man has had the guts to play Freddie Mercury? I think that in itself is considered pretty commonplace now. “
The new prudishness that informed the film – and polluted its star’s potential “courage” – means it feels a surprisingly different proposition from even, say, Brokeback Mountain. While Bohemian Rhapsody seems to recoil from graphic intimacy, Brokeback Mountain was more explicit, especially in its key tent scene.
“There was a lot of noise back then about two straight actors brave enough to do it onscreen,” Lodge says. “I wonder if the bravery story was more about the physical act of practicing gay sex, rather than just playing gay. Maybe that’s where the gay panic set in.
The fate of Ammonite and Supernova also suggests that gay independent cinema still needs a massive boost if it is to compete with studio products. Despite all of its pristine independent credentials, Nomadland was distributed by Disney. Comparably sized queer titles that won awards, such as Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name or Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, were celebrated at film festivals and rocketed for many months afterward.
Covid reduced Ammonite and Supernova’s chances of following a similar trajectory. “People just didn’t seem to care about the movie itself,” suggests Lodge. “Everyone agreed that Kate Winslet was remarkable, and I think it was one of her best performances, but the film never really got the festival go. Supernova, likewise, never really took off after its festival kicked off last fall.
But there is also a positive story to the avoidance of these strange tales. Voters who turn their noses may be a testament to the change in the way gay people are viewed since Hanks stepped onto the podium. Even 10 years ago, eyebrows might have been raised in appreciation at the sight of a leading actor playing the role of homosexual in a baity drama; today, no one flinches.
“The more homosexual relationships become normalized in popular culture, the harder it is to build an advertising story around them,” says Lodge. “Supernova had to be sold as a universally relatable human drama, which it is, but it’s hard to do. “
Additionally, far from being surprised that they dared to take on the role for fear they would mislead the tone of their seemingly straight personalities, the actors now find themselves challenged in the media for taking work away from real performers. gays.
Although key names such as Derek Jacobi dismissed Russell T Davies’ comparison that playing another sexuality was a “blackout,” the four stars of Ammonite and Supernova were careful to criticize an industry in which, like Winslet said, LGBTQ + actors are always afraid to step out for fear they will no longer be set up for straight roles.
Firth went further, while shifting responsibility for the system. “Accepting a role sounds like an unbearable presumption,” he said. “You don’t know anything about this person’s experience and yet you pretend to take a step in it and convince everyone that it is a deeply felt experience.
“It always seems outrageous to me, but it is also work. You just hope it resonates in a somewhat truthful way.
Supernova is finally coming out in the UK next month, its release postponed due to the pandemic and, perhaps, in the lingering hope that its posters could boast all the garlands its tracks had received. That a gay movie has been forgotten like this strangely looks like progress.
Supernova releases in the UK on June 25; Ammonite is available on DVD and as a digital download.