The Oscars matter. Do I hear “OK, Boomer” coming from millennials?
OK, Milly, start a Twitter account. (No dis intended.) Last year, you unleashed your media savvy and helped prevent Kevin Hart, accused of anti-queer slurs, from hosting the ceremony.
This year’s Oscar nominations include only two publicly out, queer artists: Dean DeBlois for Best Animated Feature, How to Train Your Dragon, The Hidden World; and Elton John for Best Song in Rocketman (lyricist partner Bernie Taupin is straight). Only two queer stories were nominated: Rocketman and Pain and Glory with straight, Best Actor nominee Antonio Banderas portraying out, gay director Pedro Almodóvar.
Maybe the Oscars don’t matter, not in a “grand scheme of things” way, but their relevance is not in the Best Picture award, but the Big Picture.
They matter because this silly, glittery, self-congratulating ceremony brings attention to our stories seen by billions of people worldwide.
They matter because tens of thousands of queer artists, in front of and behind the camera, have found artistic fulfillment in a billion-dollar industry and today are unafraid of living an open, queer life.
They matter because the 90+ years of awards provide a timetable of queer history for decades unknown, ignored, hidden.
They matter because ths Oscars and queer artists have been in bed together since the award’s inception. For films released in 1927 and 1928, bisexual Janet Gaynor was the first Best Actress, winning for three films (rules have changed). In a lavender marriage, her husband was openly gay costume designer Adrian, creator of those famous ruby slippers and Joan Crawford’s shoulder pads. Quite a tidbit of our history.
They have mattered to me ever since I viewed my first ceremony on our black and white TV; West Side Story won ten awards. I was 9 years old, and hooked. Finally, something I was passionate about that had nothing to do with fishing, sawing, or throwing balls.
They have mattered to me because a long time ago (1963), my parents and I were vacationing in a galaxy far, far away (Las Vegas), and as we checked into the Flamingo Hotel, I spied a paperback spindle and The History of Oscar! (I don’t think I screamed.)
While Dad made cash at blackjack to keep Mom in coinage dueling the one-armed bandits, Little Ricky snuggled in bed in his Davy Crockett PJs and devoured the book with the thrill of a new world opening.
Related article: Oscars So Queer
If only I’d known George Chakiris, winner of Best Supporting Actor for West Side Story, was gay. Of course, in 1963, I didn’t know I was gay, not exactly, but my future turmoil would have been less lonesome.
Being an unapologetic Oscar fanatic, I cobbled together more tidbits of our history with Oscar:
Since the awards began in 1927, 279 LGBTQ artists have been nominated, 148 winning for work in 590 nominated films. Who knew!
Fifty queer actors have been nominated, including Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, Garbo and Dietrich, Anna Paquin, Angelina Jolie, Ian McKellen, Jaye Davidson, Linda Hunt, John Gielgud, Paul Winfield, and Sal Mineo.
Queer artists have been nominated in every category, including Leslie Gore, Melissa Etheridge, Stephen Sondheim, James Ivory, Tennessee Williams, Aaron Copeland, Dee Rees, Lisa Cholodenko, Lee Daniels, Rod McKuen, Bob Mackie, Larry Kramer and Noel Coward.
The category of Best Production has had 144 nominations for queers. We know how to make things look pretty.
Succumbing to AIDS, Howard Ashman won a posthumous Oscar for Best Song, Beauty and the Beast, in 1991.
Angela Morley was the first openly transgender nominee in 1974 for The Little Prince. 1974!
Since William Hurt’s stunning win for 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, 57 straight actors in 60 films with LGBTQ roles have won 14 times, three winning last year: Mahershala Ali for Green Book, Olivia Colman for The Favourite, and Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody.
Our stories have been recognized by Oscar: Brokeback Mountain, Call Me By Your Name, Carol, The Crying Game, Gods and Monsters, The Kids Are All Right, La Cage aux Folles, Midnight, A Single Man, and Transamerica, to name a few.
From this sexual mishmash, questions arise. Does an actor’s sexual identity matter to the role they play? Is it inauthentic or enhancing? Does it matter that cisgender folks play trans people, and visa versa? The short answers? Yes. A thorough answer would qualify as a master’s thesis.
Our stories have been captured on film, arguably beginning with 1895’s The Dickson Experimental Sound Film showing two men dancing together. But our stories have also been rewritten to replace queer characters as though we didn’t exist, or to strengthen depictions of us as diseased, suicidal, murderous or murdered, as perverts living miserable lives and undeserving of happiness.
This tragedy began in 1922 when the Motion Picture Association of America, in cahoots with the Catholic Legion of Decency (there’s irony for you), was created to ensure films’ “clean moral tone” to avoid offending decent Americans’ self-righteous sensibilities. Studios created contractual clauses dictating dismissal for artists found guilty of “moral turpitude.” In broad terms, queer plots fell under “sex perversion,” one of the code’s no-nos, and queers could be fired for living authentically.
Truthful tales and real-life freedoms languished for decades. Many LGBTQ artists were ignored, had careers destroyed, or were forced to live closeted lives at the time of their Oscar nomination or win. With their histories revealed, our overall history becomes more complete in this more accepting present. Courageous storytellers created brave corrections to the appalling lies told about us by showing the world our hysterical humor, our demoralizing struggles, our bold resilience, our humble nobility, our humanity.
Queer cinema—and the Oscars—tell us about ourselves, where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and what stories have not been told.
Maybe 2020’s nomination won’t be so straight. Oscar buzz may swarm these queer films set for release: Margot Robbie (Birds of Prey, a Harley Quinn solo film); Hugh Jackman (Bad Education); Kristen Stewart (Happiest Season); Benedetta, about a lesbian nun in Renaissance Italy; Viggo Mortensen (Falling); Colin Firth (Supernova); Ryan Murphy’s The Prom and The Boys in the Band.
But, for this year’s Oscars on February 9, I will be watching an actress pick up her Oscar for portraying a queer icon. The film is not about a queer person, nor does it star a queer actor. But its subject, Judy Garland, embodies power, spunk, resilience, hope, talent, generosity, love. That’s a queer story if ever there was one. In the “grand scheme of things,” that’s the Big Picture.