Ten years ago, the Toronto Film Festival had an extraordinary year when it came to LGBT-themed films about to be thrust into the mainstream. Jean-Marc Vallée’s “C.R.A.Z.Y.,” Duncan Tucker’s “Transamerica,” Bennett Miller’s “Capote” and — most notably — Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” all screened at that fest. This edition of the festival (which ended last night) also just so happened to my first as an accredited journalist, and to be among the first to bear witness to these films as a just-moved-to-the-big-city queer boy remains something I hold on to with considerable sentiment. It felt like something was really happening with r LGBT representation in cinema, and I was a teeny tiny part of it.
And something was happening. That would be confirmed over the following six months, with “Brokeback,” “Capote” and “Transamerica” going on to become major staples of that year’s award season — collectively managing 15 Academy Award nominations and all becoming mainstream success stories in their own right. “C.R.A.Z.Y.,” meanwhile, would become a whole different kind of success. While its exposure south of the border was minimal, the French-language coming out story was an enormous breakout in Canadian theaters (in particular its home province of Quebec, where it became the third highest grossing film of 2005 — after the latest “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” instalments, no less).
Cut to a decade later. Now far from a just-moved-to-the-big-city gay boy, I entered this personal anniversary at the festival with some heavy nostalgia for 2005. And heavy hopes that the extensive LGBT programming at this year’s edition of the fest could melt the cynic in me even just a bit and give me a fraction of the emotion I felt when I sat in the Elgin Theater, tearfully pushing myself through the last 20 minutes of “Brokeback Mountain.” I didn’t want to be that guy (again). The one that found any attempt at conventional, Oscar season-ready LGBT content offensive or annoying. See my thoughts on “Dallas Buyers Club” (which was oddly enough directed by “C.R.A.Z.Y.”‘s Jean-Marc Vallée) and “The Imitation Game” the previous two years of TIFF. And this felt especially important since this was my first year after requesting a smaller role at Indiewire that had left me with two primary responsibilities: “Oscar season” films and LGBT-themed films.
Going into the festival, there were four films that had varying degrees of potential to be both of those things: Peter Sollett’s lesbian love story “Freeheld,” Gaby Dellal’s transgender youth drama “About Ray,” Tom Hooper’s semi-fictionalized account of one of the first people to undergo sex re-assignment surgery “The Danish Girl” — and, at least for the extraordinarily optimistic — Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall.” I figured with this many options at a festival of this alleged stature that I was bound to love one of them. Of course, I was wrong. But in a worse way than I expected.
Kyle Buchanan already hit that nail on the head with partial regard as to why in this piece over at Vulture. At least for three of the four films. He discusses how “Freeheld,” “About Ray” and “The Danish Girl” aren’t even really about LGBT people, but about the straight, cisgender people who love them (or grow to). Says Buchanan:
[I am not saying] that just because a movie features a gay or trans character that that character deserves to be the undisputed lead: I’d like to see more movies where that is the case, but I’d also like to see more movies with gay or trans characters, period, and it will be a major breakthrough when those characters are able to simply exist as part of the tapestry of a film, with plots that don’t always pivot around transition or coming out.
Buchanan also notes that all three films are directed by straight, cisgender people, and while I agree with him in that these filmmakers shouldn’t necessary be banned from taking on LGBT storylines, they need to start stepping up their game. And perhaps take a lesson from their LGBT filmmaker contemporaries. In the my mind, Andrew Haigh made the best film at TIFF directed by an openly gay director — and there was absolutely nothing gay about it. He gave us one of the most deeply felt, thoughtful explorations of a couple I’ve seen in a cinema in a while with “45 Years,” and they just so happened to be straight.
As for the trio’s quality? They weren’t all bad films. “Freeheld” and “About Ray” pretty much meet that distinction, but they do offer performances that rise above awfully contrived scripts. Neither are destined for awards season by any means, though that will surely happen with “The Danish Girl.” It’s irritatingly Oscar-ready in the same way “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Imitation Game” were, manipulating audiences into thinking they are watching something important through the guise of incredible performances (which Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vinklander definitely both offer) and gorgeous production value. There’s definitely much to admire, but it lacks the depth of films like “Brokeback Mountain” or “Milk” — still high standards when it comes to LGBT-themed movies that became major awards season players. It also panders to old straight cisgender people (aka the vast majority of Oscar voters) in a way neither of those films did. Who knows, maybe it will win best picture.
The only film of the four that seemed to at least be trying to connect to actual LGBT audiences also just so happened to be by far the worst among them. Roland Emmerich’s “Stonewall” is the full-fledged mess of epic proportions we all expected it would be, taking an extraordinarily important event in the history of LGBT rights and turning into tremendously offensive historical fiction via an atrocious script by Jon Robin Baitz. There’s something annoyingly well-intentioned about the whole thing. Like Emmerich and screenwriter Baitz really thought they were doing something meaningful and powerful with a film largely produced by Emmerich’s own money. But unfortunately they simply lacked the capabilities or insight (among other things) to pull it off.
As far as that pre-release controversy surrounding the film is concerned, “Stonewall” indeed whitewashes the story of “Stonewall” (perhaps more so than most even feared) putting it in the midst of a horribly cliched narrative about a fictional, white, young gay boy from the country who is forced to escape to the big city. Though the film is almost so offensive in how bad it is that it’s not worth wasting precious time rising up against its representational bullshit. Let’s forget it was ever made and move on. Certainly don’t pay to see it. Though before you don’t do that please read the definitive take down of the film in this beyond brilliant piece by Vanity Fair‘s Richard Lawson.
A fight that might be more worth having is asking why a festival like TIFF would even program “Stonewall” to begin with (seriously — they should be reprimanded). Which can be said about dozens of films across the board (read Greg Ellwood’s great take on TIFF’s 2015 shortcomings for a more extensive take on that). This kept a lot of folks wasting time on lackluster films when they could have been seeing was a genuinely fantastic slate of more under-the-radar LGBT films.
How about Stephen Dunn’s “Closet Monster,” which offers an inspired reinvention of the coming-out narrative so boringly portrayed in “Stonewall” (and went on to win the festival’s Best Canadian Feature award — the first LGBT film to do so since, yep, “C.R.A.Z.Y.”). Or Dunn’s fellow Canuck Adam Garnet Jones and his quietly affecting “Fire Song,” an all-too-rare look at negotiating queer identity within Aboriginal communities. Or Catherine Corsini’s French import “Summertime” a romantic lesbian tearjerker on the level I’d so hoped “Freeheld” would be. Or Venezuelan newcomer Lorenzo Vigas’ astonishing “From Afar,” a May-December gay romance like no other that came to TIFF after winning Venice’s top prize.
If all is right in the world, those films will find themselves at an endless parade of film festivals before making their way to a respectable theatrical release so audiences that missed them at TIFF can see them elsewhere. The same goes for what seemed to me the most underexposed great LGBT film in Toronto, Gillian Armstrong’s documentary “Women He’s Undressed” (watch my interview with Armstrong about the film here). The film offers the story of Orry-Kelly, a man who should be a Hollywood icon. An Australian costume designer during Hollywood’s golden age, Orry-Kelly worked on nearly 300 films, winning Oscars for “An American In Paris,” “Les Girls” and “Some Like It Hot.” He was also — astonishingly for the time — unapologetically and openly gay despite the threat that posed to his job on multiple occasions. He’s an inspiring figure whose story still has ridiculous resonation even today, especially at a festival where the biggest LGBT-related story was the fact that a movie star shut down a reporter that asked him about his sexuality. Let’s get it together, Hollywood. Even 2005 you is making 2015 you look bad.