By R. Kurt Osenlund, Managing Editor, Out Magazine
Seeing our experiences reflected through popular art, particularly cinema, is something queer people have vigorously sought, long before “Moonlight“ broke multiple barriers and clinched a Best Picture Oscar in front of a global audience. It’s why we’ve sniffed out subtext wherever we could, from “Ben-Hur” to bromances: because our stories have too rarely been told in the texts themselves. If we’ve latched onto implicitly queer films like we would wayward lovers, then we’ve held these titles, which tell our tales outright, square up against our hearts. Whether their comedy gave us permission to be wildly flamboyant or their tragedy gave us the courage to tackle pain we thought we couldn’t face, these movies have been windows into worlds we needed strength to step into ourselves. They haven’t just imitated life—they’ve prepared us for it.
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“My Beautiful Laundrette“ (1985)
Working from a densely topical script by Hanif Kureishi, director Stephen Frears both blessed gay viewers and stuck it to England’s Thatcher era with this film, a quirky, blue-collar romance with the nerve to pair an entrepreneurial Pakistani (Gordon Warnecke) with a local skinhead (Daniel Day-Lewis, at the studly start of his career).
“Paris Is Burning“ (1990)
Perhaps no movie has had more influence on popular queer culture and the modern queer vernacular than Jennie Livingston’s vital study of New York’s late-’80s ball culture. If the uninitiated think “RuPaul’s Drag Race” gave birth to the art of shade and werking a runway, they need to acquaint themselves with the Houses of Ninja, LaBeija and Xtravaganza, which Livingston captures like lightning in a bottle, along with hard truths about race, class and gender identity.
“My Own Private Idaho” (1991)
The untimely death of its co-star River Phoenix has only made “Idaho,” Gus Van Sant’s street-hustler masterpiece, more poignant through the years. And the narcolepsy of Phoenix’s character, who hopelessly pines for his best friend and kindred spirit (Keanu Reeves), only adds to the dreaminess with which Van Sant riffs on Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” and “V.” The yearning in this pivotal road movie still hits you like a falling house shattering on the highway.
“The Birdcage” (1996)
One generation of gay men had “La Cage aux Folles;” another had this Mike Nichols-directed update, the second remake of Jean Poiret’s play about a gay couple (one of them a drag queen) who work at a nightclub and have to fool conservative relatives into thinking they’re straight. The movie’s lasting popularity is partly thanks to the chemistry between co-leads Nathan Lane and the late Robin Williams, but also to its timeless theme of bipartisan family acceptance.
“Bad Education” (2004)
For his finest film, Pedro Almodóvar looked to his roots as both a Spanish kid in a religious boarding school and a libidinous young cinephile, ultimately emerging with a nesting doll of a story involving films within films, sexual abuse by priests and one of the hottest wet-underwear scenes ever. The director has always played with flashback, but never has it been so evocative of carnal wants, power struggles and pain.
“Brokeback Mountain” (2005)
Though revolutionary for its infiltration of mainstream (and Oscar) conversations, "Brokeback" wouldn't have been so incendiary had it not upended that ultimate figure of American masculinity: the cowboy. "John Wayne is turning in his grave," one Academy voter was rumored to have said. But the aching romance between Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) is one we'll take to ours, along with the assurance that men can fall in love anywhere, from a rager to a ranch.
A fleeting hookup is something most gay men can relate to, as is just about everything discussed by strangers-turned-lovers Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New) when they meet for one brief but meaningful weekend in Andrew Haigh's breakout hit. If nothing else, "Weekend" is a heartfelt ode to conversation among male partners-something that, because of apps, egos or both, remains in too-short supply.
“How to Survive a Plague“ (2012)
The AIDS crisis hit the gay community around the same time that the personal camcorder hit retail shelves. Thus, the real-life figures in France's shattering documentary, about the formation of ACT UP, could record themselves amid a fight for their lives, some of them becoming their own scientists after the government denied them necessary drug treatment. These are the men and women who've made HIV something to live with rather than die from, and this is the pre-eminent cinematic chronicle of their heroism.
There's a deficit of truly shrewd, yet accessible, comedy in queer cinema. Enter "Gayby," a hysterical romp about a gay man (Matt Wilkas) and his best girlfriend (Jenn Harris) who opt to make a baby the old-fashioned way. Here, Jonathan Lisecki parlays his eye for classic slapstick, his ear for zeitgeisty but discerning lingo, and his respect for the special bond between gay men and straight women into a story of modern family that's both biting and warm.
In Todd Haynes' swoonworthy translation of Patricia Highsmith's "The Price of Salt," lesbianism and female agency are equally complex, with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara playing two lovers without a simple bone in their bodies. If men run the world, women who won't even sleep with them fall low on the ladder. "Carol" brings us into a world where all of that is defied, and where the courage to do the right thing-be one's self-might even yield a happy ending.
Much was made of the way in which Sean Baker's breakthrough movie was filmed (it was shot entirely on iPhone 5S devices), but its endurance will rest on its willingness to tell a resonant story about trans sex workers of color, and to cast actual trans actresses in the roles-an ongoing rarity in Hollywood. These women are part of the most frequently murdered minority in America, and "Tangerine's" triumph is in normalizing their existence.
Queer people, black people and especially queer black people all know what it feels like to sift through straight-cis-white apologist fare while waiting to see their actual truths onscreen. “Moonlight,” the unfiltered, undiluted story of one gay black man’s life, is a model of what the world needs more of, and its influential path to Oscar gold suggests the world may get more indeed. It’s a hugely heartening example of baby steps leading to giant leaps.
Out Magazine is the world’s leading gay fashion and lifestyle magazine. Issue after issue, Out enriches it’s subscribers’ gay experience with thoughtful writing, stunning visuals and authoritative coverage of fashion and design, as well as today’s hottest creative talents from the worlds of music, theater and the arts.
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