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Romance in queer cinema

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In 1929, over 85 years ago, a crowd gathered for a private dinner held at the famous Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. It was the first time that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences met to honour the films from 1927 and 1928. The inaugural winner of the Best Picture Oscar was Wings, William A. Wellman’s romantic action-war epic starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen. Not only did it set the standards for filming dazzling aerial combat sequences, Wings featured one of the first same-sex kisses on screen, between Rogers and Arlen.

A tender kiss between two friends, the moment isn’t routinely interpreted as romantic, but Marcel Danesi, author of The History of the Kiss: The Birth of Popular Culture, supposes that the lingering nature of the kiss may have “unconsciously started the process of opening up America’s rigid moral attitudes at the time”. What is certain is that the reception of the Oscar-winning film was in no way hindered by showing a same-sex kiss, especially between two men who had already cemented gender norms through glorious battle. “As long as one maintained one’s proper gender role, same-sex affection was allowed and even celebrated (Benshoff & Griffin)” during the early days of Hollywood.

In the years following Wings, heteronormative values were further challenged through effeminate, “sissy” male characters and the “mannish woman” trope for femme characters, which certainly had the potential to be hurtful stereotypes, but also allowed representations to exist on screen, if adhering to a ‘seen but not heard’ mentality. Think Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930), wearing a suit and top hat and delivering the first female-to-female kiss; Tyrell Davis in Our Betters (1933); or on-screen cross-dressing by Julian Eltinge or Charlie Chaplain.

In its own way, early Hollywood had the potential to be quite progressive. Then the Depression hit and cinema attendance dropped. To bait them back, studios produced lurid films brimming with violence, nudity and homosexuality, like Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of The Cross, whose movie poster even promised ‘60 Christians Will Be Executed’. Featuring an Emperor Nero with an implied slave-boy lover, an empress who is disrobed by women and a woman-on-woman erotic dance, it was a great time until various religious groups protested, leading the way for the strict enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934, which outlined:

‘No hint of sex perversion may be introduced into a screen story. The characterization of a man as effeminate, or a woman as grossly masculine, would be absolutely forbidden for screen portrayal.’

This led popular source texts like novels to have main character arcs and storylines modified or omitted during adaptations. The internal conflict in The Lost Weekend (1945) – sexual confusion – is replaced with writer’s block, while Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941), gay in the novel, is reduced to a cane-stroking villain in Hitchcock’s adaptation.

Vilifying queer characters became increasingly common. One path to including queer characters was to make them irredeemable, like the two psychopaths in Hitchcock’s Rope or Rebecca’s Mrs. Danvers; or cautionary figures who die in the end like Plato in Rebel Without a Cause; or psychological damaged victims and murderers alike such as The Detective (1968). The latter is important because by the time The Detective was released, the Supreme Court had ruled movies were protected by free speech and couldn’t be censored by the Hays Code, which was made redundant by a 1952 ruling that bestowed movies the First Amendment right. The negative tropes towards queer representation continued to the point of portraying queerness as an aberration that should be punished, if not by society, then by those inflicted with it, like Sgt. Callan (Rod Steiger) in The Sergeant (1968) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) in The Children’s Hour (1961), both of who commit suicide out of shame.

Then in 1969 the Stonewall uprising happened, altering the conversation on queer rights, and coupled with progress in broader Civil Rights Movements, gave way to more nuanced and positive representations like Boys in the Band (1970), Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), Cabaret (1972), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Making Love (1982).

However, the conservatism of the 80s, coupled with the hysteria around the AIDS epidemic, resulted in a resurfacing of queer-as-killer trope in mainstream cinema through Cruising (1980), Dressed to Kill (1980) and The Hunger (1983). Meanwhile, indie films like Mala Noche (1987), Parting Glances (1986) and She Must Be Seeing Things (1987) helped usher in the New Queer Cinema of the early 1990s, a term first coined by B. Ruby Rich in Sight & Sound

Films like The Living End (1991), Poison (1991), Young Soul Rebels (1991), Paris is Burning (1990) and Tongues United (1989) are so important because they presented more truthful representations of queer identity and culture, often portraying outsiders who embraced a fluid, non-traditional sexuality that didn’t adhere to heterosexual norms. During the late 90s, Hollywood realised the potential for mainstream appeal and produced sanitised queer stories, often in high camp fashion like The Bird Cage and In & Out, but also sensitive and engaged films like Philadelphia.

Still, there was something missing. Have you ever noticed that Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas never kiss in Philadelphia? Queer sexuality still wasn’t something seen in mainstream cinemas.

That is until…

It’s been a long journey to accepting queer on-screen romance since Wings though, just think that the most recent Best Picture winner was Moonlight, the first queer story to ever take the top honour. And if cinematic representations count for anything, we should now, reasonably, be in a position where we can accept them in our society.

A picture of two men kissing in Moonlight

For anyone who believes that love isn’t love, we’ve asked our LGBTQIA+ staff to nominate some memorable moments on film and TV that were important to them for highlighting same-sex romances and representation.

Brokeback Mountain (2006)

As profound as the Wyoming landscape, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) tense, aching passion almost bullies the snow-capped mountains out of frame completely in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. One of the most deftly crafted romances on screen, Lee’s meditative recollection of an age-long love between two cowboys had a profound effect on cinemagoers, reaching a mainstream audience and achieving critical acclaim unseen by queer films. Intimately shot and superbly acted, Brokeback Mountain presented a loving and vulnerable depiction of desire in a hyper-masculine world, focusing on the personal rather than political. This aspect is inexplicably some of its appeal to queer audiences. As one of our own staff recalls:

“Growing up LGBTIQ+ characters appeared in film and on television however mostly in comedic roles, such as The Birdcage.  Whilst hilarious, the stories were for the most part completely glamorous and therefore unrealistic when you’re an awkward teenager. This all changed when Brokeback Mountain was given a theatrical release. The story of two people simply falling in love was so relatable to the audience. I sat in the cinema thinking I cannot believe I’m seeing a love story about two gay men in a mainstream cinema, surrounded by audience members from all walks of life.”

The L Word (2004–2009)

An ensemble drama concerning the life and love of queer LA lesbians, The L Word is at times a controversial entry into the queer canon, but one that deserves attention as the first TV show centred on an ensemble of queer women. While it wouldn’t have been possible without Ellen, this Showtime drama had the freedom to work outside the commercial network sitcom format, making good on its portrayal of queer women “talking, laughing, loving, breathing, fighting, fucking, crying, drinking, writing, winning, losing, cheating, kissing, thinking, dreaming”. Following characters who were defined by their personalities and not just their sexual identity, The L Word offered a three dimensional depiction of queer woman that was equally amorous and everyday – from Bette and Tina’s attempts to start a family and Jenny’s sexual awakening to Alice and Dana’s romantic realisations.

It’s worth mentioning that The L Word’s more explicit scenes (as charges of voyeurism for hetero audiences dogged the show), could fulfil a need for representation yet to appear on television. The sex was as honest as the heartbreak, laughter, camaraderie, and domestic and professional struggles it highlighted. Not to mention that its characters became mononymous avatars for the audience like Sex and the City’s cast (are you a Shane?) and there was rarely a cis-man on screen.

Despite its issues, some of us here at ACMI are already planning its return.

 “Love it or hate it, to me The L Word was a big deal for LGBTQI+ representation on screen. And there really hasn’t been anything that has come close to it since. It ran for six years! And in those six seasons, there was a genuine attempt to cover a broad spectrum of storylines, experiences, and diversity that reflect LGBTQI community. Not without controversy and criticism, naturally. It couldn’t be everything for everyone. Looking back on it, I didn’t fully appreciate it for what it was at the time. But with a reboot in the midst, my crew and I are already half-jokingly planning an L Word viewing party. Actually, it’s not a joke. It’s happening. I hope Carmen returns…”

Beautiful Thing (1996)

A decade before Jack and Ennis shared a kiss and 7378 kilometres from Wyoming, two boys had their own moment in a South London housing estate in Hettie MacDonald’s Beautiful Thing (1996). While Jamie (Glen Berry) deals with his mother Sandra’s preoccupation with staring her own pub and new hippie boyfriend, his best mate Ste (Scott Neal) manoeuvres around his drug-dealing brother and abusive, alcoholic father. Beneath the ordinary challenges, both boys grapple with their burgeoning sexuality and attraction to one another. A film full of pathos, humour and a soundtrack almost entirely composed of Mamma Cass songs, Beautiful Thing is a charming, gentle film full of humane moments and characters who don’t bow to bigoted peers – no small triumph of representation. 

For the film’s 20th anniversary, The Atlantic wrote that Beautiful Thing “telegraphed to its mid-1990s audiences something that hadn’t heard much before: Gay people are just people”, the same as Brokeback Mountain did 10 years later in a place so far away, demonstrating the universality of the experience. Our staff member who nominated the film reinforces this notion:   

“One of my favourite LGBTIQ+ films I remember seeing, and possibly one of my first, was Beautiful Thing, a 1996 film directed by Hettie MacDonald, with screenplay by Jonathan Harvey. I remember watching this film when I was an unsure, scared teen myself and it was probably the first time I saw a gay male relationship portrayed in such a real, unglamorous and relatable way on screen. It somehow made things better. It’s also a film that has stayed with me till now and even writing this, it brings a smile to my face.”

But I’m a Cheerleader! (1999)

Are you a vegetarian? Into Georgia O’Keefe? How about Melissa Ethridge? Well according to the parents of otherwise all-American girl Megan, you’re likely a lesbian and in need of True Directions, a summer camp that specialises in aversion therapy. That’s the premise of Jamie Babbit’s 1999 satirical rom-com But I’m a Cheerleader! and the ploy delightfully backfires when straight Megan meets college student Graham. Really, who’d think putting a whole lot of sexually frustrated kids together wouldn’t be a fabulous idea?

Light-hearted but in no way saccharine and clearly inspired by the work of John Waters, Babbit takes aim at gender and heteronormative roles through the colour palette of pinks and blues, as well as one of the main tenets of the plot – that latent heterosexuality can be ‘rediscovered’, like sobriety, in a step program. Unsurprisingly, the campers embrace their true selves rather than ‘succeed’, and when they have succeeded through the camp’s program, it’s their homosexuality that’s latent, waiting to be rediscovered, exemplified by ex-ex-gays Larry and Lloyd, as well as head camper Mary’s son Rock, who could, it’s possible, be inferred as queer. 

“Like many teenagers who came of age in the early 2000s, my sexuality was thrown into a turbulent sea of doubt by the pixie crop bob and no-bullshit stare of Clea DuVall. I actually avoided watching But I’m A Cheerleader for years, because even the whispers about it in the halls of my Catholic girls’ school were enough to tell me that watching it would force me to answer some tough questions. There was no avoiding Girl Interrupted though - that cornerstone of emo teen girl bonding made it seem okay to be troubled by the world, and to find comfort in the company of other troubled women. And then Sofie met Libby in Carnivale happened and it was game over,” our staff tell us.

Six Feet Under (2001–2005)

When Six Feet Under debuted on HBO in 2001, it existed in the shadow of the network’s first prestige TV show, The Sopranos. While it didn’t achieve the same widespread popularity, it dug up an audience of devoted fans who followed the Fishers’ story to its grave. Fresh from his Oscar win for American Beauty, Alan Ball crafted one of the most intimate family portrayals on TV, a nuanced character study infused with as much life and colour as grey and grief.

At the centre of that story was David Fisher (Michael C. Hall), the middle-child highly strung between a morose older brother and rebellious younger sister. All the Fisher children were looking for themselves, but only David knew who he was beneath the black tie and surgeon’s smock – or at least that to fully realise himself he’d have to ease out of the coffin. David eventually does, at the behest of his proudly out, openly gay African-American cop boyfriend, Keith (Mathew St. Patrick).

Their relationship weathers David’s reluctance to come out, deaths, infidelities, professional problems and all the other typical instances of a long-term union. In the final flash-forward episode, we get to see this queer interracial couple tie the knot, way back in 2005, exactly 10 years prior to same-sex marriage being legalised in America.

For me, seeing a same-sex marriage end happily was refreshing and cemented my feelings which are reflected by many examples in this list that there’s no difference between same-sex and heteronormative relationships. Love really is love, and that’s all that we need to know during the marriage equality debate. That screen culture has already given us ready examples to follow demonstrates its potency to propel social, cultural and political issues forwards.

Hopefully we don’t have to wait the time between the end of Six Feet Under and same-sex marriage legalisation in America for our own country to recognise that.

- Matt Millikan

Check out great queer moments on Australian screens or our blogs on LGBTQI+ characters missing from our screens

If you want to see the first same-sex kiss on screen (and the first ever Oscar winner), we're showing a digital restoration of Wings from 20-24 October.