Friday, June 26, 2015

Can a Positive Gay-Themed Movie Win Best Picture?

Scene from Milk
For people across America, June 26, 2015 is a historical day. It is the moment when all 50 states were unanimous in passing a bill to allow gay marriage. Not just in one or two states, but the whole caboodle. It is a prospect that many have fought bravely to acquire over the past century. Because of this, LGBT representation has become more positive and accepted among mainstream audiences and in the case of The Academy, it has even been recognized in most fields, most recently with 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club in which Jared Leto won Best Supporting Actor for playing a transsexual character. But here is the bigger question, and one that is up there with representation of films tackling race and gender equality: with this breakthrough, is it possible that we will ever have a positive gay themed film win Best Picture?

The Academy has come under fire in recent months over the lack of diversity. The famous "Oscars So White" campaign meant to exploit the lack of racial diversity in this year's nominees. It is true that this was the case despite Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu winning both Best Director and Best Picture with Birdman. However, there does seem to be another issue that has been skirted around: gay movies. Last year saw really good films like Pride and Love is Strange tackle homosexual themes in new and interesting ways. However, the only nomination for a gay-themed movie was The Imitation Game, which arguably whitewashed Alan Turing's orientation (and a far more interesting conflict) and focused more on his contributions to World War II. This isn't to say that LGBT films have been hard to get into the Best Picture race. Since 2000, 8 of the 101 nominees have had some form of gay themes, roughly equivalent to 8%. 

This isn't to say that it is entirely hopeless. As mentioned, there have been numerous cases in which LGBT characters have won acting awards. For those wondering, there has been a few Best Picture winners to feature gay themes. 1969 winner Midnight Cowboy is the closest that The Academy has gotten to recognizing gay films. It even received an X-rating for having gay themes, even though it is never explicitly stated that the two protagonists are gay. The next was 1991 winner Silence of the Lambs, which director Jonathan Demme claims does not have a gay character in its antagonist Wild Bill despite acknowledging the male character's desire to be a woman. The one advantage is that this lead Demme to make the AIDS drama Philadelphia with Tom Hanks (who won his first Best Actor award). 

Chris Cooper in American Beauty
The most recent winner is also one of the more controversial figures. With director Sam Mendes' film American Beauty being called dated by contemporary audiences, it is also interesting to note that it had its own depiction of gays. While writer Alan Ball has made a career out of exploring LGBT themes later on with Six Feet Under, it felt more like a gimmick here. In the film's climax, perceived homophobe Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) reveals to protagonist Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) that he is secretly gay. When Lester rejects his advancements after previous misleads, Frank shoots him. With some reading that as a study on how repression can lead to anger, others see it more as a gimmick and a continued representation of negative stereotypes. Yet, it remains the last gay themed movie to win Best Picture.

What does it exactly say about society since? We definitely have become more progressive, yet only 8% of nominees are gay themed. It could be that as evident with director Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, people  were not ready. As discussed in Failed Oscar Campaigns, actor Ernest Borgnine infamously campaigned against the film for ruining the heterosexual image of cowboys. While there also voting snafus, the backlash was indicative of the era, even though Truman Capote biopic Capote went largely unscathed that same year and inevitably earned Philip Seymour Hoffman a Best Actor award. Along with other winners such as Charlize Theron (Best Actress for Monster), Nicole Kidman (Best Actress for The Hours), and Sean Penn (Best Actor for Milk), it seems like acting is all that gay themes are going to be reduced to. At best, Ang Lee won Best Director for Brokeback Mountain, but lost Best Picture to Crash.

While there haven't been too many films with as major of a mainstream impact since Brokeback Mountain, it does seem like an uphill battle. Comparatively, The Academy has only had four female Best Director winners with only Kathryn Bigelow winning for The Hurt Locker in 2009. That doesn't mean that women haven't made great films in the past six years. Many consider Ava Duvernay to have been snubbed for her work on Selma. While there has been progress, there's a certain taboo that still stands: conventions will win. Conventions that symbolize importance, whether it is in aesthetic (Birdman), history (12 Years a Slave), or relevant culture (The Artist). Many already consider The Academy to be in a crisis, but it is largely because of what they recognize. As mentioned, Pride and Love is Strange were really good LGBT films. Why couldn't they sneak into a race that was predominantly indie movies anyways?

Left to right: Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol
This isn't a call to just award a gay positive movie next year's Best Picture out of sympathy. It is this type of thinking that has caused a major backlash against Crash in regards to racism. However, it remains disconcerting that gay culture succeeds in acting fields but seems oddly inferior when it comes to Best Picture. When they are represented, there's often backlash for negative depictions such as Wild Bill or Fank Fitts. Even with films like Dallas Buyers Club, many complain that Leto's character is more victimized than realized. While this is an isolated example, it does recognize a larger issue. 

While film is subjective and the Oscars are merely awards, this particular one is more indicative of historical context. Films like Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives dictated how we felt about World War II. Gentleman's Agreement taught us to respect different beliefs. Even 12 Years a Slave impacted the way that we understand racism in history. There's a certain responsibility that this award holds to the general public. We've seen two Godfather films win Best Picture, which some consider the pinnacle of American film making approximately 40 years later. While there's been a lot of questionable decisions, the award feels very indicative of the era of which they occur. Some are spot on (70's) and others are confusing (50's). Even then, they're indicative of a mindset of the general public's desire either for spectacle or message movies. In 2015, with societal struggles on racism and sexism, it feels a little distracting that majority of this year's Best Picture nominees were about frustrated white males. While some of these films have merit, it still argues that The Academy needs to reevaluate priorities, which apparently doesn't involve less nominees.

Most of all, this equal marriage moment suggests something that The Academy needs to recognize: gay people matter. I know it sounds absurd considering all of the winners that I have mentioned. However, Best Picture holds a different, more significant light; and to have that predominantly have none or only negative stereotypes feels a little disappointing. You may be asking yourself how they could improve upon this in the upcoming season. While it is hard to predict what the race will look like in December, there's some positive signs on the horizon. Director Todd Haynes made his return to film with Carol, which stars Cate Blanchett in a film about a lesbian relationship. It received great buzz at Cannes and has gotten prognosticators hypothesizing its Oscar chances. There's also Eddie Redmayne in director Tom Hooper's The Danish Girl about the first transgender woman. Of course, these will have an uphill battle as women's movement film Suffragette also tackles equality issues with a more noteworthy cast. Yet the buzz suggests that the race could look far more interesting than we're giving it credit for.

Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl
Back to the central question at hand: Can a gay positive film win Best Picture? The one immediate positive is that 2015 has a lot of high profile films slated. Also, with the equal marriage law being passed and the public conversation around Caitlyn Jenner, LGBT is being discussed in a way that is far different than even 10 years ago when Borgnine decried Brokeback Mountain. If anything, society feels like it's in an era that is more accepting. However, The Academy need to do their part, too. Compared to the Golden Globes, they are a little regressive, being timid to recognize the more challenging films that they are known for praising. 

So while society has become more accepting of the varying differences, I am unsure how long it will take another gay themed movie to win, and one with a more positive story than Frank Fitts being disappointed by his repressed desires. While American Beauty maybe is indicative of how we as a society discussed gay culture in 1999, it feels like the topic has shifted more positively and thus should be better represented. This isn't to say that queer cinema should live to a higher, more optimistic standard in order to appease voters. It is just that they need to be seen in as realistic of a light as the characters of other winners. Hopefully one day a film about gay culture can win without it being taboo and instead be about the person. At least, that was the dream we almost had with Best Picture nominees Milk and The Kids Are All Right

I have no clear answer, but I'd like to presume that in an era where films studying racism can win that stories about varying lifestyles stand as just as much of a chance. If anything, it will serve as an appropriate update about how we discussed our desires socially since American Beauty. Still, there's a lot that The Academy needs to work on and at the end of the day, the best film should win. However, we need to recognize the disparagingly low numbers and do something about it. I would hate to get to December and run into the same problems as last year because that would prove my point. Despite all of the positive LGBT movement in the first half of 2015, we will have changed nothing about how mainstream culture sees it. I'm not saying that the Oscars will immediately change everything about it, but it would definitely help to influence some positive change.

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