Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Cinema
The rise of New Queer Cinema did not go unnoticed by Hollywood, and they briefly tried (unsuccessfully) to market a few films that explored more open parameters of sexuality, such as Three of Hearts (1993) and Threesome (1994). For the most part, when dealing with queer characters (which it still rarely does), Hollywood still prefers its previously succesful formulas and comfortable stereotypes. Queer gender-bending traits are still used to signify villainy—even in Disney films like The Lion King (1994) and Pocahontas (1995). The social problem film Philadelphia (1993), while a major critical and box office hit, was still a variation on the "tragic-homosexual-who-dies-at-the-end-of-the-film" stereotype. And drag queens are center stage in occasional comedies like To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995) and The Birdcage (1996). But in an era of nostalgic Hollywood blockbusters based on fantasy novels and comic books, Hollywood films that deal with actual gay and lesbian lives and issues are relatively rare.
A few new trends dealing with queer issues in Hollywood briefly surfaced in the late 1990s. The first was the reworking of the Hollywood buddy film formula so that it now comprised a straight female lead and her gay male best friend (allegedly bringing both women and gay men to the box office). Films such as My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), The Object of My Affection (1998), and The Next Best Thing (2000) explored the close bonds of friendship that often exist between gay men and straight women. (This is also the formula of the popular and award-winning TV situation comedy Will and Grace [NBC, 1998–2006]) While no one dies tragically in these new-age buddy films, and some of them have been moderate box office successes, they still tend to chafe at Hollywood films' need for happy heterosexual closure. Another recent trend in Hollywood's treatment of homosexuality is represented by a handful of films that explore the destructive dynamics of internalized homophobia. American Beauty (which won many Oscars ® in 1999 including Best Picture) dramatized how repressed homosexuality can lead to vicious homophobia, violence, and murder—a theme also found in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), several recent documentaries, and even the Comedy Central TV show South Park (premiered in 1997—). Most recently, the highly acclaimed film Brokeback Mountain (2005) poignantly dramatized how homophobia and heterosexism can destroy human lives.
In Hollywood today, being openly gay or lesbian remains difficult for most actors. Many actors (and their agents and advisors) still fear that the public will not accept an openly gay or lesbian actor in a heterosexual role. However, in the late 1990s, a few Hollywood stars, including Ellen Degeneres (b. 1958), Nathan Lane (b. 1956), Rupert Everett (b. 1959), Rosie O'Donnell (b. 1962), and Sir Ian McKellen (b. 1939) led the way in being openly queer media personalities. Still, the vast majority of queer Hollywood actors remain in the closet, a fact that reinforces the notion that there is something wrong or shameful about being gay or lesbian. Behind the camera, more and more Hollywood queers are finding the space and acceptance to be who they are, making films and especially television shows in unprecedented numbers. The popular situation comedy Ellen (ABC, 1994–1998) broke down many barriers and has made television more gay-friendly than Hollywood film. Furthermore, subscription TV channels such as HBO and Showtime, because they do not have to sell their projects to America one film at a time, have also been able to produce more queer-themed work in recent years, including More Tales of the City (1998), Common Ground (2000), Queer as Folk (begun in 2000), If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000), and Soldier's Girl (2003). Mainstream Hollywood film, so often behind the rest of the media industries in relation to these issues, still continues to marginalize gay and lesbian lives and issues.
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Harry M. Benshoff