Perhaps the earliest high-profile representation of homosexuality in cinema was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, a psychological crime thriller encircling a gay couple, who kill a former classmate in a vainglorious attempt to create the “perfect murder”.
It was two decades before Raquel Welch played the eponymous Myra Breckinridge, a transgender woman in the midst of a sexual reassignment surgery, who teaches at a young actor’s academy. The film’s portrayal of transgenderism, arguably the most notable of the 1960s, was less than flattering: predatory and conniving, Breckinridge alienates a heterosexual male student from his girlfriend before luring him to the school infirmary, tying him to an exam table, and raping him. Beyond the basal recognition of the very presence of homosexuality and transgenderism, these films only underscored the perceived menace of sexual deviance.
“Beyond the basal recognition of the very presence of homosexuality and transgenderism, these films only underscored the perceived menace of sexual deviance”
When Dog Day Afternoon, a 1975 film based on a real-life bank robber and his transgender wife, won the Academy Award for best original screenplay, it perhaps set the ball rolling for other films featuring prominent LGBT+ characters. In 1993, Tom Hanks won his Academy Award for his portrayal of a closeted homosexual lawyer dying from AIDS in the film Philadelphia. Seven years later, Hillary Swank won her Academy Award for her portrayal of a transgender man in the film Boys Don’t Cry, before the director Ang Lee won his Academy Award for his representation of a complex homosexual relationship between two Wyoming sheepherders in his 2005 drama Brokeback Mountain. At first glance, this is worth celebrating: it has brought much-needed notice to the intrinsic complexity and wider subjugation of a marginalised community.
Looking more closely, however, into these film’s associations of LGBT+ with crime (Dog Day Afternoon), crippling disease (Philadelphia), with violence and rape (Boys Don’t Cry), with hiding and heartbreak (Brokeback Mountain), we note the artistic omission of rational and healthy homosexual relationships, of an untroubled transgender; of LGBT+ characters who navigate their lives without being subsumed by sexuality. Even today, as we rather boastfully identify as a progressive society, where gay marriage is gradually becoming more accepted across the globe, where 1 in every 16.66 Britons are either gay or lesbian, our mainstream film industry is woefully out of touch.
“In lauding these small mercies whilst remaining closed to real change, we witness in our film industry a vicious cycle of misrepresentation that, while difficult to break, is gradually being dismantled”
This year, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), tracked 114 features released in 2014 across seven major production companies. Of the 20 featuring LGBT+ characters, most still relied on deprecating stereotypes. For example, The Other Woman (starring Cameron Diaz) and Horrible Bosses 2 (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day), appear to draw upon LGBT+ themes only to facilitate humour.
Amongst tremendous backwardness, however, there is perhaps a smidgen of progress. Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning performance as the transgender HIV patient Rayon in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club is perhaps the finest example, along with Pride’s critical and commercial success in 2014. In lauding these small mercies whilst remaining closed to real change, we witness in our film industry a vicious cycle of misrepresentation that, while difficult to break, is gradually being dismantled. LGBT+ is not a niche genre, nor does it exist to cater to the service of jokes; it is part of our social fabric worthy of multifaceted, complex and genuine artistic exposition: it’s time cinema told the truth.