Lately, I’ve been rushing to cineplexes and studying critics’ picks so that I’ll be in shape for the 84th Academy Awards show, which airs from the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday.
People all over the world will watch as winners and losers dressed to the nines, walk the red carpet, muster up smiles for the cameras even when they haven’t won a coveted statue and try to thank everyone they’ve ever known before the music begins playing telling them to get off the stage. But for me and other LGBT viewers, this isn’t just another awards show. The Oscars are our Super Bowl. With stars glittering in glam, dazzling divas and a long homage to all things celluloid from costumes to acting, the Academy Awards packs a powerful queer quotient.
Why is our community so entwined with Tinseltown? Because historically, movies have played a vital role in forming the images that we have of ourselves, and LGBT people in front of and behind the camera have been instrumental in creating Hollywood.
Movies have intersected with the milestones in everyone’s life (gay or straight), I’d wager. Who hasn’t thought of a sigh, a kiss, a witty line or music from a film when falling in love, breaking up with a lover, mourning a loss or quarreling with a BFF?
This is even truer for LGBT filmgoers. Often isolated by homophobia, since the dawn of the silent pictures, we’ve turned to movies (even though many films don’t have openly queer characters) for romance, camp and beauty. For better, and until recently often for worse (in such films as “The Children’s Hour” with its stereotypical portrayal of lesbians or “Tea and Sympathy” with its “unmanly” teenage protagonist), movies have cemented cultural definitions of what LGBT people are like. As the narrator says in the 1996 documentary “The Celluloid Closet,” Hollywood has “taught straight people what to think about gay people and gay people what to think about themselves.”
In 1974, when I was 22, after some years of timidity, I got the courage to come out after seeing the 1971 movie “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.” Though dated today, the film’s story of a love triangle involving a bisexual man and his gay and straight lovers, revealed to me that I wasn’t the only LGBT person in the universe. The movie showed me that though being open about my sexuality wouldn’t be easy, I could have a life.
Years later, reel life meeting real life, I met the love of my life at a screening of “Desert Hearts,” a lesbian romance, at a LGBT film festival.
When my (late) partner was ill, we found solace in screwball comedies from the 1930s like “Bringing Up Baby.” Even if you’re dying, it’s hard not to laugh when, in “Baby,” Cary Grant (widely believed to have been bisexual), wearing Katharine Hepburn’s bathrobe, exclaims, “I’ve gone gay!” on being asked why he’s wearing such garb.
A gay presence and sensibility have long permeated Hollywood. “Lots of gay people” worked for the studios during Hollywood’s golden age, writes Scotty Bowers in his new tell-all book “Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars.” “Those behind the camera could be more open,” Bowers says, “but the actors and major directors and producers had ‘morals’ clauses in their contracts, which they would have violated by being openly known as gay or bisexual.”
Though until fairly recently, openly queer characters couldn’t be portrayed in films, LGBT directors, actors, choreographers and others involved in production (including George Cukor, James Whale and Greta Garbo) infused movies from “The Bride of Frankenstein” to “Camille” to “The Gay Divorcee” with fabulous beauty, camp and wit.
True, homophobia still exists in Hollywood, and there are far too few films that accurately portray queer life. But where would we be without the movies? Watching the Oscars, let’s say, “Hooray for Hollywood.”