By the ’60s, director Robert Aldrich was making a habit of pushing the envelope when it came to depicting subversive content on screen, perhaps most famously in the has-been bitch meltdown of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. It’s puzzling that his brilliant 1968 feature, The Killing of Sister George, is not more well know, tapping as it does into the cracked sexual liberation of London’s swinging sixties, and the psychological inadequacies of smiley soap opera actors. Actor Beryl Reid was a mainstay of television more than film, but here she tears up the screen as diminutive force of nature June “George” Buckridge, star of quaint TV drama Applehurst and abusive keeper of secret live-in-lover, Childie (Susannah York). It’s a film about a woman living a contradiction, outwardly existing as an icon of prim conservatism, while inwardly a hiding a tendency towards violence, hatred and what was considered at the time as sexual deviance. An extremely intense and brutal psychodrama deserving of major rediscovery. David Jenkins
Just one year before William Friedkin broke through with The French Connection in 1971, he showcased his skills as a dramatist of immense verve with a screen adaptation of Mart Crowley’s off-Broadway hit, The Boys In The Band. Though the film’s theatrical roots can be felt throughout this talky, claustrophobic and sometimes (purposefully) shrill film, there’s no denying both its intensity and the gravity of the themes it broached. A raucous birthday shindig is transformed into a drunken confessional as lantern-jawed, all-American college boy Alan (Peter White) gatecrashes a celebration being hosted by his old friend Michael (Kenneth Nelson) with whom there just may have been a spark of romance back in the old days. Things get serious when a fun party game involving attendees having to call a person they have truly loved on the telephone kicks off. The film transforms from a happy-go-lucky ensemble comedy of men comfortable in their own skins to a howling maelstrom of self-loathing and psychological meltdown. DJ
Adapted – via a play and a stage musical – from British writer Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret combines fluid sexuality with a despairing, end-of-the party city on the verge of catastrophe. Michael York plays Brian, a shy, gay writer who is drawn to boisterous free spirit, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli). The Weimar Republic is in its dying days and the spectre of Nazism is on the horizon. Fosse’s vision of sexuality as a malleable thing is handled with sensitivity, with Brian’s romantic detour depicted as an understandable reaction to the uncertainty of the times. The issue is further complicated with the arrival of a baron who appears to be pursuing both Sally and Brian. At its heart, it is a film about the daily negotiations of love and the irresistible draw of the livewire personality. Craig Williams
A key film in challenging preconceptions of African cinema, there’s much more to Djibril Diop Mambéty’s debut feature than one might presume from any synopsis of its lovers-on-the-lam narrative. If queer cinema is a broader church than its LGBT connotations might suggest, then Touki Bouki’s revolutionary (in African film, at least) examinations of representation and identification certainly fit the bill. They’re questions that are asked both subjectively and objectively, – through its characters and through its filmmaking – and the androgynous couple’s dream of a Paris far from their rural Senegal are manifest in Mambéty’s formal experiments. It’s a vivid daydream of a movie, the the self-taught filmmaker’s staggeringly assured and abstract approach to montage simply needs to be seen to be believed. Matt Thrift
It’s the nonchalance of Stephen Frears’ thoroughly modern take on the traditional British kitchen sink drama which has kept it in the limelight for some 30 years now. From the outset, the film looked like a conventional tale of mis-matched romance, yet the star-crossed lovers at its centre were of the same sex and from different classes and ethnic backgrounds. And what’s more, it’s not a case of love at first sight – when bleach-blond street punk Johnny spies his old pal Omar riding around the mean streets of South London at night, their repartee suggests a private history that transcends the plutonic. The renovation of a scabby laundrette brings them together once more, yet the general air of greed and animosity generated by Mrs Thatcher serves to prevent them from achieving happiness and contentment. DJ
Today it’s hard to imagine the likes of Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki making colourful, explicit and confrontational queer films like Velvet Goldmine or The Living End. Carol and before it the HBO adaptation of Mildred Pierce signal a preference for camp melodrama on the part of Haynes, while Araki’s White Bird In a Blizzard was a tame, more conventional picture in the vein of recent features like Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face. But the ’90s were an exciting and arguably more urgent period for Queer cinema. AIDS remained at the forefront of the public consciousness, and in contrast to more conservative filmmakers of the time, those of the New Queer Cinema represented queer men living a lifestyle without shame or embarrassment.
The Living End re-appropriates the clichés of the tragic gay man and the dangerous gay criminal – clichés invented by the conservative and straight media – by pitting these characters against a straight lifestyle which is seen as dull and unfulfilling. Pulpy, full of cinematic references and with a great grungy soundtrack, the film nevertheless takes a turn towards despair and melancholia during its closing stretch. But this tragic end is framed more as a sign of anger and frustration than of discouragement. Elena Lazic
Titled after the “city of brotherly love” where it takes place, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia follows the fight of Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) against AIDS and his ex-employer’s homophobia, all with the help of lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). Yet, Demme is more interested in Miller’s change of mentality than in Beckett’s worsening condition or his perseverance in court, however heartbreaking these aspects of the plot may be. Indeed, after eventually agreeing to represent Beckett, Miller finds himself torn between his own deep-seated homophobia and his unexpected compassion for Beckett. His anxiety translates into exaggerated, heartbreaking efforts to prove his conformism, until all attempts to keep up appearances reveal their obsolescence in a truly virtuosic sequence. While preparing their defence, Beckett starts describing the emotions he derives from a Maria Callas aria playing on the stereo. The lighting turns red as his passion fills the room and Demme’s camera gets close to the tears and smiles. Miller simply watches, his eyes open wide with sudden tenderness: he looks like someone falling in love. Manuela Lazic
How do you approach the question of AIDS when the gravity of the situation calls for action, yet little is known about the disease? John Greyson’s solution in 1993 was to talk about it using humour, melodrama and mystery. The result is a glorious provocation: a musical about AIDS set in Canada and involving the ghost of ‘Patient Zero’, the gay man (actually named Zero) believed to have brought the virus to North America. The potential for trivialisation hangs over every scene, but never falls to break Greyson’s imaginative yet sincere discussion of prejudice, death and the unknown. The film follows now-immortal explorer Sir Richard Burton as he works on an AIDS exhibit for the Toronto Natural History Museum. His bigotry is severe, fuelled by a commonplace ignorance. Meanwhile, Zero’s lonely wanderings translate the isolation felt by HIV victims. The spectacular musical numbers ask to be taken seriously, and their crude yet clever lyrics and use of brash set designs allow each song’s message to be expressed ever more powerfully. Its joyful seriousness makes Zero Patience at once frank and hopeful, exactly the attitude needed at that time. ML
The adaptation of identity is central to the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, an idea most explicitly pronounced in his 2004 film, Tropical Malady. It’s a diptych not of past lives but concurrent ones, at least it would appear. Are the hunter and tiger, stalking each other in the film’s second part, the same pair of male lovers in the first? They’re played by the same actors, and our first glimpse of Sakda Kaewbuadee’s Tong sees him staggering naked out of the jungle. The same jungle from which a tiger’s been attacking cattle? Questions of therianthropy remain oblique, and just one of the film’s means of examining the primal urges lurking beneath hesitantly flirtatious surfaces. It certainly feels like a love story, if far from a traditional one in either a narrative or structural sense. It’s one of Apichatpong’s mysterious objects, defying easy description just as it invites sensory surrender. MT
It’s difficult to shrug off criticism aimed towards Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain as the most notorious “gay film for straight people” ever made. Ennis (Heath Ledger) is a man who remains faithful to his lover, never expressing any desire for a man other than Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal). He is the point of entry for the majority of the (straight) audience as his desire for a monogamous, conservative and romantic relationship is way more palatable than Jack’s promiscuous behaviour, which is presented as dangerous and threatening. An argument can be made that the depiction of Jack is tainted by Ennis’ perspective, one that is full of personal jealousy, misunderstanding and fear: Ennis is hurt that Jack would need other partners. Queer sexuality serves as a backdrop for what is essentially a melodrama, a piece of storytelling divorced from an obligation to chronicle wider experience. Many have critiqued the mostly negative representation of gay life in Brokeback Mountain, but the film never intends to be more than Ennis’ story: that of a conservative, monogamous cowboy in 1960s rural America. The film is better for not widening its scope or significance, and it’s the circumstances around its production and reception – the straightness of its cast and crew, its status as the most widely seen representation of queer sexuality in modern Hollywood – that offer more cause for concern. EL
Read the first part of our celebration of 20 great queer movies.
Published 26 Oct 2015
Todd Haynes’ period romance starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara is a beaming masterpiece.
New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center has curated a season dedicated to early explorations of LGBT themes.
Inspired by Todd Haynes’ Carol, explore our potted history of great films that depict gay lives on screen.