Cinema can be a powerful tool for change. It can also be a phenomenal fence-sitter hedging its bets until audience test results come in. And while foreign and independent films tend to follow a set of rules all their own the standard for commercial movies can be somewhat reserved.
What then might we expect from Hollywood now that gay-marriages has presidential approval?
For a long time commercial movies didn't even acknowledge that gay people existed let alone feel comfortable enough to put them on screen. When they finally did it was in an innocuous 'are-they-or-aren't-they?' scenario.
Ironic that television, once the coward to cinema's courage, should take the lead in presenting regular positive gay characters and their partners. Even if we were to put aside such deliberately focused television series as "The L Word" (2004 + )and "Queer As Folk" (2000 - 2005) we would find that TV networks' push for gay characters has a better track record than that of the major studios.
Tony Randall played Sidney Shore, the first out gay character with his own series in the short-lived, "Love, Sidney" (1981 - 1983). "Roseanne" (1988 - 1997) had no problems introducing gay characters to the point where she wrote in an episode that has her widowed mother, Estelle Parsons, announcng her character as gay. "Ellen" (1994 - 1998) famously came out as gay both in character and in person. It took 81 episodes of "Mad About You" (1992 - 1999) for Debbie, Paul Buchman's sister, to finally come out. Joss Whedon in his ground-breaking series "Buffy, The Vampire Slayer"(1997 - 2003) allows Willow to discover that she prefers women over men. Then there was "Will & Grace" (1998 - 2006), "Arrested Development" (2003 - 2006), and currently "Modern Family" (2009 +)
With a few exceptions many of these television gay characters live in healthy and fulfilling relationships. Movies tend to play it differently.
Alfred Hitchcock created several characters popularly presumed 'gay' by many academics. Consider Robert Walker in "Strangers On a Train" (the British version is far more explicit in that assumption than is the American version) and Martin Landau in "North by Northwest". Both characters are depicted as evil, deceitful and villanous.
Joan Crawford's hard nosed, cowgirl, Vienna in Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar" (1954) is oft disputed as being 'gay'. It might be unfounded but regardless of Vienna's sexuality, the film has become a cult gay classic due perhaps to it's campy dialogue and rumours of a tumultuous fued between the two leads, Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge.
Director Frank Capra leaves no room for mistaking Pierre as gay, a character who appears in both "Lady for a Day" (1933) and the remake "A Pocketful of Miracles" (1961). One scene in the remake has Pierre,(Fritz Feld) following a group of women into a change room. Dave the Dude (Glenn Ford) objects but Queenie (Hope Lange) tells the Dude with a wink, a nudge and a flick-of-her-wrist that there is no need to worry about Pierre... The gangsters are left in a gaped mouthed stupor as the impact of what she's telling them sinks in. Pierre is no villain, but he's fussy and fey and Capra enjoys making fun of his effeminate nature.
As time passes film grows less nervous about gay characters but keeps them segregated to fringe roles played mostly for shock or comedy.
Ten years later director William Friedkin causes a stir with another gay themed film, "Cruising" (1980) a movie that does more harm than good by ghettoizing gay lifestyle as a deviant, menacing, and secretive subculture.
The late Ken Russell, though not American nor traditionally commercial, freely exploits the private life of composer Tchaikovsky in "The Music Lovers" (1970) (soon to be aired on Saturday Night at the Movies) and engages Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in a nude wrestling match in "Women in Love" (1969).
Screenwriter turned director, Robert Towne fared better with his film "Personal Best" (1982). It's star, the then 17 year-old , Mariel Hemingway , endured public criticism as being naive when responding to a journalist's asking, "what's it like to play a homosexual?" by answering that she doesn't think her character is gay. In retrospect, Hemingway's remark is far more insightful than it ever was naive.
"The Wild Geese" (1978) a film about a group of mercenaries attempting to topple a vicious dictator has the curious inclusion of Kenneth Griffith as a gay and ultimately heroic soldier for hire. Griffiths character might have been a refreshing exception to the testosterone driven genre were he not portrayed so flamboyantly over-the-top. Griffith does manage to salvage his character from overt campiness by portraying him with a self-assured certainty that wins over his comrades despite his daintiness - although he doesn't escape being treated like the camp mascot.
That same year gave us "A Different Story" (1978) an annoying and ultimately offensive (if not anti-gay) romantic-comedy that presumes a gay male and gay female can marry for convenience and yet fall madly in love. As romantic comedies go - this is one of the most absurd.
Director Arthur Hiller made a valiant attempt to add empathy and insight into same-sex relationships with "Making Love" (1982) a movie about a young doctor (Michael Ontkean) who leaves his successful wife (Kate Jackson) for a handsome gay novelist (Harry Hamlin). The film lost much of it's potential to be ground-breaking by setting the drama in L.A.. among television producers, and the kind of social elite of which mid-America was already critical and suspicious A year later the audience is far more accepting when "Silkwood" (1983) comes out replacing L.A. and New York with good old Oklahoma. When the film reveals Cher, who plays Karen Silkwood's (Meryl Streep) roommate, as gay no judgment or aspersions are cast, although the moment is played to add levity to an otherwise serious drama.
There is a more consistent move towards integrating positive gay characters into film such as, "In and Out" (1997), "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" (2005), "Kinsey" (2004), "Wonder Boys"(2000) and others. Still, there remains a resistance in allowing the character's sexuality to be irrelevant to the plot. And rarely do films allow the gay character to be part of a working, loving relationship.
There are exceptions and here are what I believe to be the top 5 films about same-sex relationships.
1/ "A Single Man" (2009). With heart wrenching empathy, understanding and a grievous sense of loss, Colin Firth shows us the depth that one man can have for another and the loneliness that comes when that love is lost.
2/ "Brokeback Mountain" (2005) avoids sensationalism and exploitation to simply tell a love story between two men who become lifelong partners even though they can never be together.
3/ "The Kids Are All Right" (2010) has actors Julianne Moore and Annette Bening so convincingly comfortable in their relationship as partners and parents that the audience hardly has reason to question their same-sex orientation. The film is about loyalty, fidelity and family and nothing more. The drama that occurs in this movie would occur in any relationship regardless of the partnership.
4/ "In The Family" (2011) You have yet to see this film unless you happen to have caught it at a festival. This is a gem. A brilliant depiction of a loving same-sex couple raising an equally loving little boy. When the boy's biological parent dies (his mother dies before the film begins) the surviving parent risks losing custody not because he's gay, but because of an outdated will. The film's writer, director and star Patrick Wang delivers the story in his own time which clocks in at nearly 3 hours . But the journey offers many great and unforgettable moments with a payoff that is magnificent. Truly one of the best films of last year.
5/ "La Cage Aux Folles" (1978) is almost a cheat since it's a foreign language film whereas the discussion up to this point has been strictly English language movies. Unfortunately the American remake "Birdcage" (1996) lacks the charisma and chemistry that makes "La Cage" so remarkable. The affections between Ugo Tognazzi as Renato and Michel Serrault as Zaza cannot be matched nor recreated even by the talents of Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.