Just as there seems to be a greater societal acceptance of non-heterosexuality after Caitlyn Jenner’s came out as a trans woman and the Supreme Court decided to legalize gay marriage, Hollywood is having watershed LGBT moment from the looks of several potential Oscar contenders this year.
Consider that two highly different transgender movies and a fictionalized account of a landmark event in the gay rights movement will take their bows at fall film festivals.
In “About Ray” (Sept. 18), directed by British actress Gaby Dellal, Elle Fanning stars as a teen girl who wishes to transition into being a man, alongside Naomi Watts as her mom and Susan Sarandon as her lesbian grandmother .
Eddie Redmayne, last seen winning a Best Actor Oscar for his portrait of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” headlines another biopic in “The Danish Girl” (Nov. 27). His reunion with “Les Miserables” director Tom Hooper is a 1920s period piece set in Copenhagen about Lili Elbe – formerly known as Einar Wegener — who would undergo the first known male-to-female sex reassignment surgery in history.
Then there’s “Stonewall” (Sept. 25), a low-budget passion project about the 1969 riots at a Greenwich Village bar that inspired the gay rights movement directed by blockbuster specialist Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow”).
Even more intriguing, however, is the fact that three possible awards hopefuls feature lesbian couples that, judging by appearances, ape the age discrepancy that has become standard operating procedure when Hollywood casts an older actor with a much younger actress as his romantic interest.
Opening wider this week is Sundance fave “Grandma,” which has gathered Oscar talk for Lily Tomlin’s performance as an acerbic lesbian intellectual who breaks off her relationship with a worshipful woman played by Judy Greer (who, at 40, is 35 years younger than her co-star) with the dismissive rejoinder, “You were a footnote.”
“Carol” (Nov. 20), directed by Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven,” HBO’s “Mildred Pierce”) and adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s milestone ‘50s-era novel “The Price of Salt,” already collected a bundle of glowing reviews at its Cannes premiere. Cate Blanchett is a sleekly appointed socialite undergoing a divorce who makes an instant connection with Rooney Mara’s young department store clerk. The age gap here? Blanchett, at 46, is 16 years older than Mara.
Making its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival is “Freeheld,” a fact-based story directed by Peter Sollet (“Raising Victor Vargas”) that was previously told in a same-titled 2007 Oscar-winning short. Julianne Moore – who won an Academy Award earlier this year as an early-onset Alzheimer’s victim in “Still Alice” — plays New Jersey police officer Laurel Hester, a terminal cancer patient who has to fight for the right to transfer her pension benefits to her domestic partner of five years, auto mechanic Stacie Andree (Ellen Page). What was a 19-year age difference in real life is now a 26-year one between Moore, 54, and Page, 28.
The decision to portray multi-generational match-ups might be, in part, an attempt to attract a broader demographic to the films. Of course, in the case of “Carol” and “Freeheld,” the casting simply reflects the nature of the relationships in the source material. Still, the last three lesbian-themed films that had a major impact on the awards season featured closely aged pairings: Moore and Annette Bening in “The Kids Are Alright” and Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in “Black Swan,” both from 2010; and the French coming-of-age drama “Blue Is the Warmest Color” from 2013.
Trish Bendix, editor-in-chief of AfterEllen.com, actually sees signs of progress in the plots of “Grandma,” “Carol” and “Freeheld.” “What is exciting is that these are radically different scenarios, not just coming-out stories. It’s no longer enough to say ‘I am gay and I am here.’”
Another sign that Hollywood is changing for the better: Tomlin and Page are two out actresses whose careers are as robust as ever.
The films also represent different milieus, from blue collar to the privileged class. And unlike many more mainstream gay-themed films that have arrived in the wake of the success of the AIDS-related “Philadelphia” in 1993, they also don’t rely on tragic outcomes as the result of the character’s sexuality unlike 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” 2008’s “Milk” and last year’s “The Imitation Game. “
As for the difference in ages, Bendix notes, “Plenty of people in lesbian communities date without consideration of such matters. It’s not as big of a deal. They are less judge-y.”
In the case of “Freeheld,” she said, “I thought Moore, who probably has been with more women as an actress than I have, and Page didn’t look believable as a couple. But then when you look at the actual couple they are based on, it does reflect the relationship. It’s not so easy when you are a minority in a small community looking for someone to be with. Age is the least of your worries.”
Meanwhile, in his review, Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson characterized the attraction between Blanchett and Mara in “Carol” as organic rather than contrived for the sake of ticket sales: “Though there is maybe something slightly predatory about the way that Carol lures Therese in, there’s also a beneficence—Carol wants to take Therese with her, into the light. Here is the whole history of generational exchange between queer people, captured in a wordless gaze across a department store floor. … It doesn’t much matter why, exactly, Carol and Therese get on so well; they are two gay women who encounter each other in an inhospitable world, so naturally they gravitate toward one another.”
Paul Weitz, the director and writer of “Grandma,” had his reasons for giving Tomlin’s character Elle a much younger lover after her longtime partner passed away. “I liked the idea that this character was still sexual. One of the first things I said to Lily was, ‘This is a lead in a movie with a 70-something woman and there is no bed-death scene,” he said. “And, by the way, she has a hell of a lot of living and vitality left.“
“Grandma” starts off with an epigram courtesy of lesbian poet Eileen Myles, who has had a relationship with writer Leopoldine Core, 36 years her junior: “Time passes. That’s for sure.”
Weitz was especially pleased by Myles’ reaction to “Grandma”: “She said that by the end of the movie, she felt it was like Elle was a gunslinger walking off into the sunset. Like Shane or something.”
For the filmmaker, the young/old dichotomy just made sense when it came to a senior citizen who is as dynamic as Elle. “First off, I thought it was believable that Judy’s character would be attracted to Lily. And then I thought that this wouldn’t be an issue if it were a male in his 70s.”
In this case, the male in the movie who is in his ’70s is Sam Elliott as Elle’s ex-husband, who is overflowing with unresolved issues when it comes to their fleeting union since she was the one who broke his heart. And he eagerly gets to kiss Tomlin — just as Greer does.