Today in Venice, audiences will get their first look at Brian Helgeland’s “Legend,” and then tomorrow Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” collectively kicking off an unprecedented two weeks when it comes to the world premieres of high profile films with LGBT content. A week or so later in Toronto, three more will premiere pretty much back-to-back: Gaby Dellal’s “About Ray” (September 12th), Peter Sollett’s “Freeheld” (September 13th) and Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall” (September 19th — which given that’s after most press has already gone home is not a good sign).
It’s not unusual for major fall festivals like Venice and Toronto to premiere a handful (or more) LGBT films. In fact, Toronto has over a dozen more examples beyond those five this year alone. But what sets the quintet of “Legend,” “Danish Girl,” “About Ray,” “Stonewall” and “Freeheld” apart is the high-profile names attached to each of them and that they appear to be headed for fairly extensive theatrical releases via name distributors like Universal, The Weinstein Company, Roadside Attractions, Lionsgate and Focus shortly after their festival debuts. And with that kind of exposure comes responsibility.
Since 2010, only one film with a lead LGBT character — last year’s “The Imitation Game,” which was hardly our favorite film — was released theatrically in over 1,000 screens (though “The Kids Are All Right” came very close at 994). “Game” is also the only example of such to gross over $25 million theatrically in North America. Compare this to the 1990s, when LGBT films received wide releases with relative regularity. Think “The Birdcage,” “In & Out,” “Philadelphia,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The Object of My Affection” and “To Wong Foo.” They all hit over 1,000 screens, and all grossed over $25 million.
This fall — after over a decade of the vast majority of LGBT films being limited to art house runs — Hollywood appears to be about to give them a major opportunity to return to the mainstream spotlight with the aforementioned films. But the question remains whether they all deserve it. Based on the films’ trailers alone, online outrage has already met “The Danish Girl,” “About Ray” and, most harshly, “Stonewall.” Some of it has been wholly justified (like with regard to “About Ray” director Gaby Dellal’s sincerely ignorant and borderline transphobic comments during an interview about the film — which is about a transgender teenage boy), some of it has seemed a little premature (you can’t necessarily judge a film by it’s trailer). But all of it points to communities of folks not willing to accept the whitewashed, watered-down LGBT narratives that Hollywood has tended to churn out in the past.
What’s more is that these films are arriving in the shadow of films that have already made 2015 an exceptional one for LGBT representation. Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” and Todd Haynes’ “Carol” — which premiered at Sundance and Cannes, respectively, are the primary examples in this regard. The former a tale of transgender women of color facing the gritty streets of contemporary Los Angeles, the latter a 1950s-set romance between two lesbians from different generations, both received pretty much universal acclaim when it came to the two things we most desire from LGBT cinema: Exceptional, insightful filmmaking and thoughtful, inclusive representation.
In 2015, it’s not enough to just be represented on screen. That should have never been enough, but in the 1990s that was often the case when it came to the group of films noted earlier in this article. But between cinematic examples like “Carol” and “Tangerine,” and the fact that television has upped the representational ante so considerably as of late — often with very popular shows (see “Transparent,” “Looking,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Cucumber,” “Orphan Black,” “Empire,” etc, etc), people are going to be very wary of what “Stonewall,” “Freeheld,” “Legend,” “The Danish Girl” and “About Ray” bring to the table. We’re over simply being a method for straight and/or cisgender directors and actors to get Oscar nominations. A respectable bar has finally been set for LGBT representation in mainstream media, and we’re going to hold all future examples to it.
We’re also absolutely willing to wait until the credits roll on each to pass genuine judgement (we’re not in Venice, but will see all 5 in Toronto), but our fingers are crossed that at least a few of these films don’t blow it. Because it’s nothing short of a small miracle that 5 films of this size featuring LGBT leads even got financed, and if they all crash and burn, it could hurt future opportunities for just that.
Peter Knegt more or less runs this blog. Follow him on Twitter.