Oscar’s Gay History: A Mixed Bag

27 Feb

How will LGBT themes fare this year?

As we gear up for the 83rd annual Academy Awards, let’s take a look back at Oscar’s history. Hollywood is reputed to be a progressive beacon and a promoter of gay rights and issues. While there is some merit to that claim, when it comes time for the big awards, the closet door often slams shut.

Certainly a movie or a performance does not deserve an Oscar just because it is gay-themed, nor to actors deserve awards just because they are out. It is interesting, however, to note the number of surprises and upsets over the past eighty years that have resulted in a gay theme or actor being snubbed.

Researching this topic is a bit tricky, since many people are not out during their whole careers or live as “open secrets” within Hollywood society. Several lists of gay and lesbian winners include Jodie Foster, who won both of her awards before her very vague coming out and Kevin Spacey, who has actively denied being gay. George Cukor was known as the principle host of gay Hollywood society but was not known to be gay to most people when he won his directing award.

Sir John Gielgud probably counts as the earliest (mostly) out performer to be nominated (1963 for Beckett) and to win (1981 for Arthur), both Supporting Actor nods. He was involved in a minor gay solicitation scandal in Great Britain in 1953 and, while circumspect about his personal life, never lied about himself nor hid his partners. Another early winner was John Schlesinger, who won as Best Director in 1969 for Midnight Cowboy.

Over the past twenty years, as being out has become somewhat easier, certainly more out contributors to movies have been nominated and have won awards.

  • Sir Elton John and Melissa Etheridge have both won best song or soundtrack awards
  • Dustin Lance Black, Bill Condon, and Alan Ball have all won screenwriting awards
  • Scott Rudin won as the producer of Best Picture No Country for Old Men

Most of the well-known gay-themed awards, however, have gone to straight actors who were played gay. Some are richly deserved, like Hilary Swank’s powerful turn in Boys Don’t Cry or Sean Penn’s brilliant performance as Harvey Milk. Others are interesting and worth watching: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote and William Hurt’s performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman spring to mind. Then there are others, like Tom Hanks’ tepid performance in Philadelphia which had a very strong “wasn’t he brave” feel to it.

A number of gay-themed movies and performances have been upset. Certainly we can argue the specific merits of the winner and loser, but these stand out as odd moments of possible voting homophobia in Oscarland.

  • The champ in this category is Brokeback Mountain. Clearly a stronger film than the messy, let’s feel good about diversity Crash, it lost Best Picture in a shocking result. Neither of the starring actors won either (although Heath Ledger lost to Hoffman’s performance as Truman Capote.)
  • Another case of Oscar robbery was Transamerica. Felicity Huffman turned in the performance of a lifetime and lost to the fine but unremarkable Reese Witherspoon. Dolly Parton’s wonderful theme song Travelin’ Thru also lost best song.
  • One of the rare nominations of a gay actor playing a gay role was Ian McKellen’s brilliant turn as James Whale in Gods and Monsters, which lost to Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful. (I seem to be the only person who found Benigni irritating and the movie cloying, so I may be alone in feeling this was an upset.)
  • Colin Firth’s brilliant performance in A Single Man lost to Jeff Bridges. Firth should make up for that loss this year with his equally strong performance in The King’s Speech.
  • One other performance that failed to even earn a nomination was Terence Stamp’s amazing role as Bernadette in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

This year’s best LGBT hopeful is the strong film The Kids Are All Right. Up for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor, the film should bring home at least one award. Annette Bening deservedly won a Golden Globe already for her performance.

The Academy Awards have a very mixed history in terms of LGBT content. Let’s hope that the gradual increase in acceptance and the greater number of out performers will create a steadier stream of nominees and winners in the years to come.

** POST OSCARS UPDATE: That was underwhleming! Other than Tim Gunn on the red carpet and James Franco in Marilyn drag, that was the least gay Adademy Awards I can remember in years. Kids got shut out – very sad.

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7 Responses to “Oscar’s Gay History: A Mixed Bag”

  1. Jennifer February 27, 2011 at 7:14 pm #

    You forgot Hillary Swank’s Oscar for Best Actress playing Brandon Tina in “Boys Don’t Cry.”

    • Jennifer February 27, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

      Ooops, just saw that you had it listed, just not on the ‘list.’ Ignore comment!!

      PS Does it make me a bad person that I didn’t like Crash or Brokeback Mountain?

  2. Jay February 28, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

    Let me assure you that you are not alone in finding Roberto Benigni irritating, and Life is Beautiful cloying.

    Lee Daniels, producer of Monster’s Ball, and producer/director of Precious, is noteworthy (and possibly unique?) as an openly gay African-American Academy Award nominee.

    • rhulshofschmidt March 1, 2011 at 7:49 am #

      Thanks, Jay, both for the Life is Beautiful validation and the great addition to the list.

  3. Marla Moore March 9, 2011 at 11:31 pm #

    I was very sad that Firth was passed over for A Single Man, his portrayal of grief, loss, and love stayed with me for several days after seeing it. I forgot about Bridges before leaving the theater.

  4. Dan Wolfe April 14, 2013 at 4:20 am #

    Sal Mineo, while not out to the general public at the time, was certainly known to be gay by his peers when he received his nominations for Rebel Without a Cause and Exodus.

    • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt April 14, 2013 at 8:38 am #

      He certainly fits in the “open secret” category for those nominations. Mineo does deserve credit for being one of the first major stars to come out publicly, albeit after his nominated performances.

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