Or at least for the actors who play them in the movies?
Whatever you think about the Oscars—that they are the pinnacle of achievement for acting or the lamest excuse for Hollywood self-congratulation ever—this year’s race deserves attention from fans and cynics alike.
These performers are all very good in their respective films, and it’s worth noting how much of a transformation each of the three top acting awards required. An Australian played a gay American cowboy. Hoffman quite nearly channeled Truman Capote. Huffman is a woman who played a biological man transitioning to life as a woman.
But is all this actually good for the gays? Even if these films and straight performers win, will it just seem like lip service to the queer community?
The Academy seems more likely to reward performers for taking challenging, yet recognizably iconic roles—that happen to be gay or transgendered—than filmmakers and actors sensitively bringing to the screen non-heterosexual lives less familiar to mainstream audiences. If the latter were the case, then Duncan Tucker would be nominated for writing and/or directing “Transamerica,” and filmmaker Gregg Araki along with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt would be duly honored for “Mysterious Skin.”
But the Academy is not that daring or adventurous yet. While its members have given awards to straight actors in LGBT roles before—notably Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia,” Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry,” and Charlize Theron in “Monster,” they were recognizing these actor’s abilities to stretch in their roles or to play real queer figures who led tragic lives. This year’s nominations with Ledger and Gyllenhaal’s tragic roles, Huffman transgendered twist, and Hoffman’s biopic mirror these tendencies in award-giving.
In past years, gay films were often best able to score screenwriting Oscars, or what I often refer to as the booby prize, as though the Academy were acknowledging that the stir created by impressive LGBT films had to be acknowledged, but not with the jackpot. Sadly, writers are the least valued people in the Hollywood food chain. Several cases in point––“The Crying Game” was nominated for six awards but won only one, for Best Original Screenplay. “Gods and Monsters,” nominated for three Oscars, won only one—Best Adapted Screenplay.
For those keeping score, I acknowledge that “American Beauty” was the exception.
Hopefully, the queer films that win Oscars this year will enable more and better GLBT stories to emerge. For all its importance, “Brokeback Mountain” is still a film in which the faggot dies and “Capote” is a very good portrayal of a writer, even if a very troubled one and in a film that is airless. “Transamerica” puts a unconventional character in a conventional road movie format.
Hollywood has the opportunity to make history by giving Oscars to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Felicity Huffman and it can make “Brokeback Mountain” the first queer film ever to win Best Picture. (No, “Oliver!” doesn’t count). But any such Hollywood awards may in part be a way of deflecting criticism it has received in the past for films that were decidedly skittish about the whole gay thing. In the Oscar-winning film “Philadelphia,” the two gay men don’t really kiss, and Best Picture “A Beautiful Mind” had much ink spilled over the fact that John Nash’s bisexuality was excised from the story as written in Sylvia Nasar’s book. Similarly, “The Color Purple,” which received 10 Oscar nominations—but won none—taken to task for removing the lesbian content Alice Walker’s novel when it was made into a film.
Perhaps the prospects for the LGBT community have improved in Hollywood. Will such enlightenment continue?
I can’t help but recall four years ago, when Denzel Washington won Best Actor for his against -type role as a dirty cop in “Training Day” and Halle Berry made history as the first African American to win Best Actress for her role in “Monster’s Ball.” Whoopi Goldberg hosted and Sidney Poitier was feted with an honorary award for his work. That evening, the Oscars could celebrated the achievements of African Americans in film big time. Did anyone else notice that the following year, African Americans were ignored in the major acting nominations?
A similar situation could offer for gays in the next few years. Perhaps a great gay performance like William Hurt’s Oscar-winning role in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” will creep up and wow Academy members enough to vote for it. But equally possible is that a great performance like Cillian Murphy’s in “Breakfast on Pluto” will be ignored, and Ian McKellen in “Gods and Monsters” will go recognized but unrewarded.
We will see on March 5, but also in the years and the films thereafter.