For the first 80 years of cinema, there were three kinds of gay characters: fools, victims and psychos.
As we enter Pride Month for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer folks (and their allies), it’s worth noting that there wasn’t much to be proud of in the early and middle years of Hollywood. Gay characters — or characters meant to be interpreted as gay — have existed since the movies have. But, as narrator Lily Tomlin says in “The Celluloid Closet,” for nearly all that time they have been “something to laugh at, something to pity or even something to fear.”
In that same lively documentary (based on Vito Russo’s groundbreaking book, it streams on most services), novelist Armistead Maupin says the first movie to accurately depict gay characters was “Cabaret.” That musical came out in 1972, and while it paved the way for LGBTQ stories in “High Art,” “Longtime Companion,” “Tongues Untied,” the Twin Cities-shot “World and Time Enough” and “Parting Glances,” it’s only in the past several years that the casual use of stereotypes and derogatory language has stopped being OK in big-budget movies.
That’s why the oldest of my favorite LGBTQ titles is not even 40 years old. After all, it’s only recently that movies have embraced the humanity and complexity of queer people. Like all minority communities, they remain underrepresented. That’s the bad news, but the good news is that a lot of good filmmaking has happened quickly. Gay folks have always been part of the movie industry, so they were more than ready when they finally could tell their stories on the screen.
Documentaries are a rich source of LGBTQ storytelling and filmmaking. Rarely big moneymakers, docs are labors of love and they don’t require a ton of money for artists to make, if they have the stamina. I’ve included a couple on the list below, but that barely scratches the surface of a subcategory that includes the Oscar-winning “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt,” “Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter,” “Portrait of Jason” and “Word Is Out.”
Some of those aren’t easy to find, but all of the below titles are ready to stream. Many are available at public libraries and at Minneapolis’ nonprofit Quatrefoil Library, when it’s safe for them to be open.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Sean Penn won an Oscar for playing “Milk” but this documentary, also an Oscar winner, is a better portrait of the crusading politician and gay-rights pioneer who was slain in his office at San Francisco City Hall. Like the Penn version, the documentary picks up Milk’s story as an adult who turns to activism to help himself and his friends secure their rights. Watching his 1970s battles against the courts and other activists (remember Anita Bryant?) is a heartening reminder that a lot has been accomplished in a relatively short period. Scenes of a candlelight vigil to mark Milk’s death are get-out-your-handkerchief material.
Paris Is Burning (1990)
Jennie Livingston’s film famously did not even earn an Oscar nomination, but its influence on style, music and culture continues to be felt, most prominently with the TV series “Pose,” which is set in the same 1980s queer ball culture, as well as HBO’s “Legendary” and “We’re Here” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The latter show’s lingo (serving realness, shade, “reading” someone) actually dates to “Paris Is Burning”, which also had a mighty big impact on Madonna’s “Vogue” period. The gender-fluid people of “Paris” are hilarious and brave, and the jazzy filmmaking was way ahead of its time. (Available on demand and on YouTube.)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Like “Brokeback Mountain” (below), it’s about love that society messes up. Director Céline Sciamma, whose “Girlhood” and “Tomboy” also are terrific, blazes trails not only because she has made such a smart, stylish movie. It also insists that same-sex relationships existed long before we had words for them and that it’s quite possible for women to live their lives without much caring what men think.
It takes three actors to play Chiron, a black boy/man in Miami who spends much of the movie trying to figure out who he is (and, in the closing seconds, maybe does). Winner of the most confusing best picture award in Oscar history, it’s based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose work has been produced by Pillsbury House and the Guthrie. “Moonlight” insists there are many aspects to all of us, including not just Chiron but even the neighborhood drug dealer (Mahershala Ali, another Oscar winner) who helps him on his journey.
The scale of this ’50s romantic drama seems small, but its characters, played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, get at many of the huge questions that define new relationships: What if your ages vary widely? What if you’re from different classes? What if one of you understands herself better than the other? What if you love each other but that’s not enough? Todd Haynes’ gorgeous movie comes off as reserved, but its passions and complexities linger.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Virtually everyone who had a hand in the movie is straight, but Ang Lee’s understated drama about the emotional toll of the closet captured the attention of Hollywood and movie audiences with big stars and heartfelt storytelling. Based on Annie Proulx’s short story, “Brokeback” stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger as cowboys who discover their mutual attraction while working together but can’t find a way to actually be together. The movie is notable for its sensitive depiction of how the closet’s damage extends to families and friends.
American filmmakers have produced lots of great docs about AIDS and its aftermath, including “How to Survive a Plague,” but the most poignant, infuriating drama comes from France. An ensemble of actors that includes “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” star Adèle Haenel play activists who, angry at government inaction, try to draw attention to the plight of French people with AIDS. Much of the movie depicts smart, scared people disagreeing about the right thing to do, and it concludes with devastating scenes of unconditional love. (Must be something in the eau in France, because that country’s disturbing drama about gay men and loneliness, “Stranger by the Lake,” is another masterpiece.)