Legendary gay film scholar Vito Russo once said, “We’ll get our rights when we take them. We’ll get our movies when we make them.” In 1981, when Russo first published The Celluloid Closet, an unprecedented analysis of homosexuality in mainstream film, it was illegal to be gay in many states. Until the late 1960s, the agency regulating films specified that depictions of openly gay and lesbian life on screen had to be negative. This meant the few gay characters that appeared in mainstream movies were likely to end up brutalized, crazy, abandoned, dead from suicide, or locked in jails—narratives that continued to dominate after the end of film censorship in 1966. Like gay men and lesbians in most of the country, Hollywood actors, directors, and producers who were gay or lesbian did not dare to reveal their sexuality publicly.
“Lesbians and gay men, throughout most of their lives, had to hide what they were,” Russo wrote in The Celluloid Closet. “Because of that they had to develop a secret language to recognize each other.”
Nearly 35 years after Russo’s book was published, the United States is a much friendlier place for gay people. In recent years, Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay member of the Senate, and President Obama issued an executive order prohibiting discrimination against LGBT government employees and contractors. In 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that workplace discrimination against gay people is “sex” discrimination. Outside government, Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly came out, gay groups marched in New York City’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade for the first time, and the Stonewall Inn received national historic landmark status this year. When the Supreme Court ruled in June that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, it was the culmination of a decades-long struggle to legitimize gay relationships and families.
When it comes to queer cinema, art imitates life. During the 20th century, gay and lesbian characters in mainstream films were typically social pariahs—but by 2015, plenty of queer characters lived happily ever after. The normalization of lesbians and gay men on-screen and the legal progress of gay rights are in lockstep: While activists had been fighting to expand these legal rights for decades, organizations such as GLAAD, which Russo cofounded, also demanded positive depictions of gay people and relationships in film and media.
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Now the secrecy that Russo described and the Hollywood representations of gay men and lesbians he railed against seem like unfortunate relics. Americans devour stories of gay families, LGBT history, and queer culture. But if demeaning, closeted, and self-loathing depictions of gay men and lesbians in cinema have mostly become a thing of the past, what has replaced them? As acceptance of queer people’s lives and stories grows, how will the films by and about them change?
After the Stonewall riots in 1969, a public gay rights movement took hold, demanding legal recognition and more compassionate and accurate representation in media. The first post-Stonewall films made by gay men and lesbians were either experimental and artsy or documentary-style glimpses at gay life that seemed to say, “Look, homosexuals eat with a knife and a fork too,” said film scholar and critic B. Ruby Rich. “You can invite us to your dinner party. We deserve rights; please give them to us.”
Thanks to the growing influence of the gay rights movement, feminism, and identity politics that blossomed in the 1970s, queer cinema in the ’80s and ’90s was immersed in activism. An increasingly well-organized and politically active LGBT community was confronting the AIDS crisis, violence against LGBT people, and antigay laws in daily life—and it was determined to tell these stories on the big screen.
Rich coined the term “new queer cinema” to describe the films of this moment. LGBT people had grown tired of respectability politics, and the scores of queer films made during the early ’90s reflected this sense of urgency.
The boom had been going strong for nearly a decade when a writer and director named Lisa Cholodenko released her groundbreaking 1998 film High Art. In Cholodenko’s first feature, Syd, an ambitious young magazine editor, dumps her boyfriend for a heroin-addicted, once famous photographer played by Ally Sheedy and then coaxes the photographer back into the limelight. “New queer cinema was all about saying we’re going to reclaim all the bad behavior that was ever used to damn us,” Rich said of the film’s realistic depiction of addiction and recovery.
Bad behavior abounds in High Art. “I have a love issue and a drug problem, or maybe I have a love problem and a drug issue. I don’t know,” Sheedy’s character, Lucy Berliner, tells her elderly mother. Lucy is planning to leave her longtime girlfriend, a burned-out German actor named Greta (one of the first big roles for Patricia Clarkson), but Lucy fatally overdoses before she can escape and start a new life with Syd.
The film takes a hard, unapologetic look at sexuality, careerism, and the art world. Though some lesbian critics complained that High Art was yet another movie in which a gay woman dies at the end, queer audiences welcomed its insouciance. During the late 1990s, people who were “sick of the positive image of LGBT movies they’d been weaned on could afford to be politically incorrect if they wanted to,” Rich said. With more exposure came more freedom to tell complicated stories that didn’t uphold virtue or victimhood. “I loved that idea of turning gay for your career,” Rich said of the film. “This was a whole new moment.”
When High Art premiered, there was already a glut of LGBT cinema: Go Fish, the artsy contemplative lesbian film by Rose Troche; My Own Private Idaho, Gus Van Sant’s classic starring Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix as druggie hustlers; Todd Haynes’ first full-length film, Poison; and the anarchic, violent, hypersexual early films of Greg Araki all premiered to critical acclaim in the early ’90s and have had a lasting impact on both queer and indie film culture. Shortly after High Art arrived in theaters, the queer film world bottomed out, however, and according to Rich, it was once again difficult to finance movies made within the LGBT community.
Still, mainstream attention to gay rights continued into the 21st century. Though the boom in gay indie cinema came to an end, biopics like Milk, about the first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk, who was assassinated at San Francisco City Hall; period pieces such as Far From Heaven and The Hours; and historical dramas including Capote featured established stars in roles full of pathos and complexity. These films swept through Hollywood, winning Oscars and audiences. Between 1999 and 2008, Hilary Swank, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Charlize Theron, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Heath Ledger played gay characters in critically acclaimed roles.
In the new millennium, movies about lesbians were no longer automatically “lesbian films,” said June Thomas, a senior editor at Slate who edits Outward, the site’s LGBT blog. “Certain actresses confer a seriousness or legitimacy,” she said. “If Meryl Streep’s going to play a lesbian, now we’re talking.”
The audiences grew broader, though the films still felt artsy. “It’s like overnight we turned into a Design Within Reach sofa,” Rich said of the changing cultural climate brought about by films like Boys Don’t Cry and Brokeback Mountain. “This thing that the straight people can put in their room and show they’re slightly hip but nonthreatening.”
As these films pulled in major awards, the fight for marriage rights and antidiscrimination protection gained a higher profile as well. After California voters passed Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that took marriage rights away from gay and lesbian couples, in the November 2008 election, Penn lambasted its proponents during the 2009 Academy Awards. Those who voted against Prop. 8 should “reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support,” he said while accepting the best actor award for the role of Milk.
It was during this rise in visibility and support from Hollywood that Cholodenko wrote and directed her fourth movie, The Kids Are All Right, which opened in 2010. Before there was even a script, Cholodenko approached Julianne Moore about a leading role. Moore is an anchor of the loosely defined genre of respected films with gay characters, having appeared in Haynes’ Far From Heaven, The Hours, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, and this year's Freeheld.
In The Kids Are All Right, a middle-aged lesbian couple’s teenage children grow close to their sperm donor, a perpetual bachelor named Paul, and the lesbian relationship is tested. Where High Art took place in shadowy apartments, The Kids Are All Right is bathed in the warm light of Southern California.
The films conspicuously reflect the cultures from which they were made. High Art chronicles the heroin and lesbian chic of the ’90s downtown New York City art world. The Kids Are All Right sends up gay family values and the obsession with local, organic food in upper-middle-class Los Angeles. There is betrayal in both films, though in The Kids Are All Right a lesbian character—Jules, the more aimless and free-spirited of the moms—has an affair with Paul, who has come to envy the women’s family life.
Cholodenko has said that her own search for a sperm donor with her partner inspired the script. The love triangle came from fears and anxieties she sensed in long-term lesbian relationships. She expected that a story in which a lesbian cheats on her wife with a man would draw ire from some lesbians, and she says she didn’t care about backlash. “I feel really cynical about the gay martyr movie,” she told The Guardian. “I challenge people, if they’re going to put gay life or gay characters on screen, to do it in a much more complex, fresh, and worthy way."
“Boy, did that movie piss people off,” said Rich. By people, Rich means lesbians and queer people, many of whom complained that the script pitted the flat, almost sexless moms’ relationship against the spirited heterosexual cheating. To some, the sex scenes between Jules and Paul undermined lesbian identities as it appealed to mainstream audiences.
“There is a recurring pattern of male sexual access to the lesbian body in visual culture narratives of lesbian motherhood,” Róisín Ryan-Flood, author of Lesbian Motherhood: Gender, Families and Sexual Citizenship, told The Independent at the time. “It raises the question of which narratives featuring lesbians become mainstreamed and why.”
“People need to drop their stuff,” Cholodenko told Jeffrey M. Anderson in 2010 when he asked whether the lesbian community might be offended by the love triangle. “How can you speak for everybody? I don’t feel like I’m selling out. This resonates for me. But I think if people really open themselves up, it’s kind of cool that we get to see these lesbian moms and their teenage kids on the big screen.”
Over the past 20 years, films about gay culture and lives have gone from underground challenges to gender and sexual norms to celebrated Oscar award winners to mainstream fare. But Cholodenko’s project—telling uncomfortable stories that refuse to champion lesbian life—has been largely consistent. Though she seemed edgy in the ’90s and appears staid today, the filmmaker has simply grown older; it’s the culture that’s changed.
A lesbian or gay identity no longer represents an automatic rejection of mainstream norms and values. As such, Rich said it’s possible that radical filmmaking in the United States might not come from gay and lesbian filmmakers anymore. When asked about groundbreaking queer films they’ve seen recently, both Thomas and Rich named movies made outside the U.S. Thomas praised 80 Egunean, a Basque-language movie about two women reunited after 60 years of repressed attraction; Rich loved Stories of Our Lives, an anthology of films about queer life in Kenya, “where there’s still so much at stake.”
Today’s queer American films—which are increasingly streamed at home rather than watched in a crowded theater—tend to focus on private individuals coming of age or enduring a personal transformation. The revolutions depicted tend toward the familial, not the societal. “If nothing’s urgent, then personal dramas, intimacies, and angst fuel this world,” said Rich. “If you want to have a film that does celebrate the group as a site of political power, it has to be set in the past.”
Even Carol, Todd Haynes' new adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel about a lesbian affair in the 1950s, is, in part, about the tension between exploring sexual taboos and trying to maintain families and relationships. As in Highsmith's book, The Price of Salt, the women deviate from sexual norms and, for the most part, find romance rather than tragedy. But this period piece is much more than a simple reflection of our current gay rights movement. "There were interesting ways that queerness could hide out and get played-out pre-Stonewall," Haynes said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. "It is part of a vast history that is getting forgotten quickly as we trumpet forward into gay marriage and gays in the military and a much different cultural attitude toward gay lives." It's worth noting too that the film, which was recently nominated for five Golden Globes, took a decade to make.
In November, Cholodenko received an Outfest Visionary Award, alongside Tom Hanks, for “showing the world that LGBT parenting is just as joyful, complicated and challenging as straight parenting.” She also won an Emmy for best director for the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, another story of marital betrayal—though this time between a middle-age straight couple in Maine. Her next project, an adaptation of the Tom Perrota novel The Abstinence Teacher, is a straight romance set within a high-school sex education class.
These more recent Lisa Cholodenko films are made in a new world where queer doesn't automatically mean strange. Here, gay sex isn’t an act of rebellion or political resistance—it is a constitutional right. The traditional sites of conflict and comfort—home, family, relationships—are no longer the dominion of straight people, and the conflicts and comforts of gay and lesbian lives are no longer secret. Gay Americans have taken their rights, and are making their movies.
Cholodenko has repeatedly called The Kids Are All Right an auteur film. “It came out of my brain; it’s one person; it’s my perspective; it feels genuine and authentic to these characters,” she told Cinéaste. “I don’t have an agenda—I don’t see sexuality in that way; I don’t have a point to prove beyond the themes that are more universal and go beyond sexuality and gender politics. I’m personally not interested in that, though I might have been twenty-five years ago.”