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by Peter Knegt
October 29, 2009 7:47 AM
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For Your Consideration: Oscar's Gay Tendencies

A scene from Tom Ford's "A Single Man." Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

A lot has gone down for the gays since "Brokeback Mountain"'s cries-of-homophobia inducing loss for Oscar's biggest prize four years ago, both in Hollywood and in America as a whole. And with another award season upon us, we're again faced with another big gay contender. Following last year's eight-time nominated "Milk," Tom Ford's "A Single Man" is set to begin its Weinstein Company-orchestrated push for gold any day now. Even if, like "Brokeback," the phrase "universal story of love and loss" gets thrown around endlessly in "Single Man"'s regard (and it will), it remains that the film depicts gay love and gay loss, and last time I checked - a good chunk of America sees a difference. And while "A Single Man" is likely to be nowhere near the Oscar juggernaut "Brokeback" or even "Milk" was, the way Hollywood and the Academy react to it might give us a good perception on how far we've come.

While at this point it's a challenge to really make predictions for this year's awards with any sort of certainly, Colin Firth seems like "A Single Man"'s best bet at major contention. His startling turn as a suicidal gay man mourning the loss of his long-term lover seemed to win over even the film's many detractors when it descended on Venice and Toronto last month. And when I consider Firth's potential win, there's one thing that really stands out to me when picturing it: After Sean Penn's last year for "Milk," the Academy would be handing back-to-back best actor statuettes to depictions of gay men.

It wouldn't really be that shocking. It's actually been a intensely gay decade for the Oscars in terms of acting awards. If Firth were to win, he'd join Penn, Phillip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote," 2005), Charlize Theron ("Monster, 2003), and, though less explicitly, Nicole Kidman ("The Hours," 2002) as the fifth lead acting award given to the depicition of a gay person this decade. That's a quarter of the overall awards, a much higher percentage than there are actual gay people. And while that's definitely progressive in a certain sense, I'm weary of championing an organization for simply giving Oscars to a bunch of heterosexuals for playing gay characters. Especially when that same organization refused its biggest prize to "Brokeback Mountain" in an act of arguable homophobia and definite cinematic injustice.

However, I do have to hand it to the Oscars in its post-"Brokeback" years. Not for honoring Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, but for actually honoring openly gay people. While they have yet to award an even semi-openly gay actor (and no, Jodie Foster and Kevin Spacey don't retroactively count), they have had a gay host (I speak of Ellen deGeneres, in case you thought I was being cheeky with regard to last year's host), a gay screenwriting winner ("Milk"'s Dustin Lance Black), and last year, two of its five director nominees were, yep, gay (and one was even making a film about gays). What's more, "Hairspray" director Adam Shankman is coming in to co-produce the ceremony this year, following Bill Condon as the second gay Oscar maestro in a row. Oscar was always a gay icon, it just seems like all of a sudden he's in on the joke.

Sean Penn in a scene from Gus Van Sant's "Milk." Image courtesy of Focus Features.

This year could also find as many as three best pictures helmed by gay men. In addition to "A Single Man," there's Rob Marshall's "Nine," and Lee Daniels' "Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire," the latter of which also features a major gay character. What I think is really interesting here - and what speaks volumes to social systems in behind-the-scenes Hollywood - is Lee Daniels's prospective nomination. If he gets nominated for best director, it would be much more monumental because he is African-American than it would be because he is openly gay. And this opens up a completely different can of socially injust worms than this article is prepared to properly contexualize.

But in brief... The 2000s have seen scores of African-Americans take home acting Oscars. Six wins and seventeen nominations - with a good likelihood of additions coming this year. In terms of wins, this is more than was received in total prior to this decade. Quite disturbingly, "Precious" would be the first best picture nominee ever directed by an African-American, and Daniels only the second black best director nominee. Gays, on the other hand, have received nearly a dozen best director nominations. But let's keep in mind the fact that all of them have been white men. In fact, there have been more nominations for gay men for best director than all non-male and non-white people combined.

It's difficult to really let any trend at the Oscars really speak as a representation of the Oscars themselves. Because in a way, the Oscars just represent the American film industry. It's a complex set of politics to simplify in a sentence, but I think it's reasonable to suggest that in the Hollywood power hierachy, as long as you're a white male (and let's face it, straight-acting), being gay is not as much of a disadvantage as say, being female or black.

But let's bring it back to "A Single Man." While perhaps the least likely of the three gay-helmed films to get a picture nod, the film offers the most in terms of any sort of real social connotation for acceptance of gays in the mainstream. Like "Milk" before it, "A Single Man" would be a film with gay content directed by an actual homosexual. While films with gay content and films directed by gays have, as noted, made it to Oscar's shortlist before - the list of films in which those two collide has been much more limited. Because while the Oscars, and Hollywood, seem more than willing to let gay, white men into their director's club, it's a whole other story if they are directing films about actual gays. And as nice as it is when they do, I'd just like to see the day when "A Single Latina Lesbian" makes the shortlist.

"For Your Consideration" is a weekly column by indieWIRE Associate Editor Peter Knegt. Check out his previous edition here.

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5 Comments

  • Aldo | December 2, 2010 8:32 AMReply

    What's that old Mort Sahl joke...Gore Vidal, great homosexual; Oscar Wilde, great writer.

  • gotfolked | November 1, 2009 10:17 AMReply

    My gosh it is 2009. It's time to get over yourselves now and let people live their OWN lives. Queer As Folk has been off the air 4 years? It was groundbreaking!!!! This shouldn't even be a discussion!

  • ADuralde | October 30, 2009 6:19 AMReply

    Sorry, "his or her" character dying in the film.

  • ADuralde | October 30, 2009 6:18 AMReply

    People from Spain (Almodóvar) count as people of color? Try that one on a Latino activist sometime and see how far you get.

    Interesting piece. It's also worth noting that, so far, "Capote" is the only film where an actor has won an Oscar for being gay without his character dying in the film. (Since Truman Capote was already dead in real life by the time the movie came out, I count this only as a half-victory.)

  • filmhawk | October 30, 2009 3:37 AMReply

    Thanks for a well-articulated and thought-provoking article. It will be very interesting to see what the next decade brings. With the media bringing more and more info about -- and shedding more and more light on -- what used to exist primarily in the shadows, one can only hope this article will seem both dated and quaint ten years from now.

    Kids in middle school are now coming out in ever-increasing numbers (cf. the cover story of The New York Times Sunday Magazine a few weeks ago). My niece, a high school teacher, formed the first gay-straight alliance club in a very conservative county in her state -- a county that now has 5 or 6 such clubs today.

    And awards shows, which have always seemed rather gay to me (who's been gay since birth and out since 1958), are now gay in a much more matter-of-fact, "so what?" way. One can only hope that it's simply a matter of time before nominees and winners in all categories will reflect the full spectrum of sexualities, ethnicities -- and gender (incl. trans!).

    As far as the group of actors mentioned: although she is on the cusp of this decade, Hilary Swank's work as Brandon Teena might be acknowledged. ("Boys Don't Cry" was released in 1999 and Swank won her Oscar in 2000.)