Critics' Notebook: Hollywood's Big Queer Year That Wasn't

Singapore Media Festival  - H 2015

Don't be fooled by the A-list actors and Oscar buzz; LGBT cinema in America is suffering a major creative crisis as gay loses its edge thanks to wider societal acceptance, say THR reviews editor Jon Frosch and critic David Rooney.

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

JON FROSCH David, a few months ago you used this space to praise Hollywood for its history of thoughtful depictions of transgender charac­ters, but now we're back and the news isn't as good. This was a huge year for LGBT folks in the U.S.: The Supreme Court made same-sex marriage a nationwide right; Caitlyn Jenner was the country's favorite cover girl; Out magazine named President Obama "Ally of the Year." And the film industry seemed poised to reflect this dynamic new American moment with a bunch of buzzy gay-themed fall releases. What a sense of deflation, then, to discover the squarest, stodgiest group of movies imaginable. Freeheld and Stonewall were bland, gloppy slices of history. About Ray (starring Elle Fanning as a trans teen) was sniffed at in Toronto and scratched from The Weinstein Co.'s autumn slate. The Danish Girl (Nov. 27) is a yawningly polite portrait of the first gender-reassignment surgery patient. And you and I are less enamored of Todd Haynes' chilly lesbian romance Carol than most of our colleagues. This is a relentlessly somber, self-important group of films — all tears, torment and tragic poses, with characters who register more as causes and symbols than flesh-and-blood humans. As a happily wedded gay man who shuddered at old-guard arguments about marriage as a bourgeois betrayal of our "alternative" roots, I'm uneasy with the idea of movies systematically reinforcing gay "otherness" (promiscuous sex, drugs, sassy queens and various tropes and trappings of queer representation). But this year's LGBT films made me weirdly nostalgic for what now seem like guilty pleasures of gay cinema past — movies like The Birdcage, Bound and, gulp, even that dated circus of gay male dysfunction The Boys in the Band. As Freeheld scribe Ron Nyswaner recently said at the Vanguard Awards, in a veiled (and quickly retracted) disavowal of his own film: "[As] we become mainstream … we must resist the tendency to be de-gayed." Equally relevant was his statement that "We need … to insist that our gay characters are created within the fullness of their humanity."

DAVID ROONEY Jon, you hit the nail on the head about the discord between developments of the past year in LGBT rights and the toothless recent crop of queer-themed American movies. I'm more of a fan of Carol than you, but I admired it as a beautiful, if gelid, art object — exquisitely acted though emotionally quite muted for a drama about a love that blooms in hiding. But overall, this year's LGBT films don't match the storytelling assurance, vivid character detail or thematic universality of relatively mainstream American movies like Milk, Brokeback Mountain and The Kids Are All Right, which examined gay and lesbian lives without being bogged down by their own mission to Tell an Important Story. It's distressing that there's so little happening in American film that comes close to the ballsiness and complexity of TV's depictions of queer lives. I'm thinking Looking, Orange Is the New Black, Transparent and Steven Soderbergh's delicious Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra. I'm seeing a similar trend in new American plays, where attempts to take the temperature of gay life in large, liberal cities like New York seem depressingly vanilla. There's a parallel with comments Milos Forman and other Czech New Wave directors made about movies that followed the fall of communist regimes in Central Europe — that creativity burns brightest in cinema of dissent, and once you take away forces of marginalization and oppression, artists have to develop an authentic new voice grounded in a new reality. Not that anyone's arguing for a return to outsider status as an artistic stimulant, but that seems not a million miles from what Nyswaner was saying, don't you agree?

FROSCH If you're asking if I think gay-themed American movies have been more boring since we've acquired more rights, my answer is yes. Brokeback, Milk and The Kids were semi-mainstream — as you point out — Oscar-friendly and headlined by stars. But they were above all superior entertainment, works of deep feeling and artistry that were — I think this is crucial — made before the tides of law and public opinion had decisively turned in favor of LGBT rights. So in addition to being good movies, they were propelled by a sense of cultural and political urgency; their very accessibility — their presentation of potentially controversial material in classical packages of Western-melodrama (Brokeback), biopic (Milk) and comedy (The Kids) — felt purposeful, even subversive. Now that many hearts, minds and laws have changed, why are LGBT movies still so pleadingly honorable? Carol is unimpeachably well crafted. But the film feels aestheticized to the point of asphyxiation. I get it — it's about containment and the closet. But with its painstaking production design, precious score and gorgeous actresses in traffic-stopping vintage garb, the movie seems to be saying: "How could anyone oppose this lesbian love? It's so very pretty!" I have to add: Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett's sex scene was, for me, far more uncomfortable than the much-maligned spanking session in Abdellatif Kechiche's masterwork, Blue Is the Warmest Color. I was utterly conscious that these were A-list actresses pretending to make love; maybe it's because I barely believed the characters even liked each other. Also, amen to your point on TV. I'm still depressed about Looking's cancellation.

ROONEY I spent much of Carol asking, "Why would anyone leave Kyle Chandler?" But that's just me. Seriously though, I hear what you're saying about a lack of urgency. It feels like these recent movies are sliding back to the default (and retrograde) position of noble suffering rather than bringing a contemporary or — God forbid — provocative perspective. Even the politics feels pat rather than impassioned. What became of the defiant voices that made the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s so exciting, yielding audacious work from the likes of Gus Van Sant, Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin, Rose Troche and Todd Haynes in his less manicured pre-Carol days? This year's big gay movies also fail to measure up to the most memorable recent LGBT indies, a list I'd top with Andrew Haigh's Weekend (OK, it's British) and Dee Rees' Pariah, which manage to be simultaneously raw, real and poetic. The only recent American work that comes close is Sean Baker's wonderfully scrappy transgender girlfriend movie Tangerine, which cost a fraction of the titles you mentioned at the start of our exchange and has exponentially more grit, heart and playfulness. I want more of that kind of LGBT filmmaking.

FROSCH I also love Weekend and Pariah, and think that indies have sporadically been a sanctuary for smart gay-themed filmmaking. (Those disappointed by Freeheld should seek out Ira Sachs' Love Is Strange and Patrick Wang's In the Family, far more authentic and nuanced looks at how laws and logistics have tripped up gay couples.) And I'm with you on the fabulous Tangerine, the shining exception when it comes to 2015's queer films. I also would recommend two others: Desiree Akhavan's Appropriate Behavior and Sebastian Silva's Nasty Baby — the former a droll study of a Brooklynite navigating the competing pulls of her bisexuality and her Iranian immigrant parents, the latter a twisty tale of a gay hipster couple who helps a friend (Kristen Wiig) get pregnant. Both wring real drama — and comedy — from LGBT life as it's lived today, without underlining their themes or intentions. Maybe the lesson is that now that gays largely are seen as people "just like everyone else," gayness is no longer some exotic, movie-worthy novelty in and of itself. Filmmakers must find new narrative or stylistic spins to put on LGBT stories — as Baker, Akhavan and Silva did. That said, there's such a dearth of gay stories on the big screen these days that I'd even welcome more modest efforts, something akin to those playful, lightweight '90s indies about queer life and love — Trick, Billy's Hollywood Screen KissThe Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love and others (all of which tower above the majority of movies to emerge from insipid recent editions of gay fests like L.A.'s Outfest). But the question remains: Do audiences want to see gay-themed movies? And are studios and filmmakers willing to make them? Depressingly, I think high-ish-profile, acclaimed gay films of the past — Sunday Bloody Sunday, Personal Best, Kiss of the Spider Woman, the more recent I Love You Phillip Morris (starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor) and others — still would be risky propositions today.

ROONEY I can't imagine in today's climate who would finance edgy projects like those, or Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters (old dude preys on hot young gardener?!), Lisa Cholodenko's High Art (lesbian junkies lead a nice girl astray?!) or John Cameron Mitchell's disarmingly sweet queer porno experiment Shortbus (auto-what?!). It's sad to think that films like My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears (admittedly both British) are 30 years old or thereabouts, and they address gay sex with an unembarrassed candor that we rarely see in these more conservative times. You mentioned the tasteful aestheticization of Carol; I would add that the brief "tucking" scene in The Danish Girl is so reverent that it makes that glimpse of Eddie Redmayne's penis look like a holy relic. Frankly, the strongest queer-themed films are coming from abroad. This year's Venice Golden Lion winner, Desde Alla, was a transfixing probe into conflicted sexual psychology, with the kind of rich ambiguities the new American films are lacking. And I can't think of a friskier, more immersive trip inside the trans experience than Francois Ozon's The New Girlfriend, with its amusing Hitchcock-by-way-of-De Palma twists. Even a little Swedish movie at Toronto, Girls Lost, about a 14-year-old wrestling with gender identity, had a freshness absent from most of the movies we're talking about here. And while I haven't seen it yet, I hear great things about a new Canadian first feature called Closet Monster, a coming-out movie with body-horror elements and a hamster voiced by Isabella Rossellini! More crazy hamster movies, please!

FROSCH Count me in! The best gay films definitely are coming from overseas and have been for a while via Ozon, Pedro Almodovar, the great, undersung French master Andre Techine (whose Wild Reeds holds up as one of the great queer coming-of-age movies) and many, many others who explore not just homosexuality, but the fluidity of human sexuality in general. I would argue that it's not because those countries are more progressive than we are on LGBT issues, but because their film industries are less numbers-driven and squeamish about sex.

ROONEY And less obsessed with awards potential.