Liberal Hollywood has long positioned itself as a friend of the gay community. Everyone from Seth MacFarlane to Tilda Swinton is a fervent campaigner for gay rights, yet it has done nothing to represent gay lives on screen in a realistic and accurate manner. The most famous gay movie released by mainstream Hollywood was of course Brokeback Mountain, which starred the very beautiful and very straight pairing of Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger (despite the fact the book on which the film is based specifically downplays the handsomeness of the two men). And that is essentially the problem with the movie – it was embraced and became a hit because it starred two of the biggest sex symbols in America, not two gay men.
It will come as no surprise that a survey conducted by GLAAD found that of the 102 movies released by studios in 2013 that only 17 of them featured characters who identified themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. The only place where you will find gay films is an independent theatre or as it’s 2014, on Netflix or another video-on-demand service. That’s the sad reality. Hollywood does not care about gay people. So what if Sean Penn got an Oscar for playing Harvey Milk or that Dallas Buyers Club (the straightest gay movie ever made) was a big winner at this year’s Academy Awards? These are the exceptions to the rule.
The problem isn’t just about the lack of gay characters and gay movies, it’s about the portrayal. Hollywood sees gays as the kind of camp caricatures you’d find in Modern Family and Adam Sandler movies – not “normal”. One of the best gay movies ever made, A Single Man, by fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford (himself a gay man) plays homosexuality as inconsequential. It is almost entirely irrelevant to the characters and how they lead their lives. The homosexuality of the characters in A Single Man is presented matter-of-factly, which is how it should be.
Hollywood’s aversion to making movies with gay main characters is really quite something. They’ll claim gay movies have a market that is too niche, even though Brokeback Mountain was a huge success, as was Milk, and so were the independently-financed A Single Man and Dallas Buyers Club. The general public have proved they’ll come out for a gay-centred movie. Hollywood studios have no excuse. They’re just unwilling to make serious movies with gay characters or comedies where gays aren’t the punchline.
Gay stars, whether they be actors, directors or writers, are also a rarity, though fortunately they are becoming less so. Ellen DeGeneres, Jodie Foster, Matt Bomer, Neil Patrick Harris, Wentworth Miller, Alan Cumming and Ben Whishaw are just some of the openly gay and lesbian actors currently working in Hollywood, while behind the camera Gus Van Sant, Lee Daniels, John Waters, Alan Ball, Terence Davies and even current president of the Directors Guild of America Paris Barclay are all open about their sexuality. Yet there are still so few gay films in the mainstream, because this is an institutional problem that can only be solved by changes at the very top of the system.
Surprisingly, the UK has been a great producer of LGBT films despite the fact it was illegal to be homosexual here until as recently as 1967. The recently-released Pride, based on the true story of gay and lesbian activists campaigning on the behalf of miners from a small Welsh village, is exactly how you do a gay movie. It is insightful as it explores the complex emotions of young gay people in the 1980s, it isn’t afraid to be honest about their awkward self-consciousness, and it has some genuine moments of poignancy, such as when young boy Joe gets his first kiss in the shadows of a concert and when leader Mark has a haunting reunion with a past love. Other past British movies dealing with homosexuality include Weekend, The Long Day Closes, Young Soul Rebels and My Beautiful Laundrette – it’s a list that puts Hollywood to shame, and I could add a dozen more.
Television has managed to enter the twenty-first century with shows like Game of Thrones, True Blood, Looking and Orange is the New Black featuring excellent portrayals of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and yet cinema still languishes behind, unable to create a gay character that isn’t defined by their sexuality. To put it bluntly, Hollywood gives the impression that it doesn’t care about gay people. It has no interest in portraying them or making movies for them. That is an institutional problem. It shouldn’t be seen as “cutting-edge” in 2014 for a movie to feature fair representation of gay people.