August 13, 2020 at 8:53 am EDT | by Brian T. Carney
FROM THE VAULTS: Journeys to the LGBTQ past
Emma Stone and Steve Carrell in ‘Battle of the Sexes.’ (Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

The coronavirus may have forced a lot of people to change their vacation plans this summer, but movies can always whisk you away to fascinating historical landscapes. Here’s a curated collection of recommendations from the Blade archives that offer some journeys to the LGBT past.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” unfolds in New York City in the early 1990s. When literary biographer Lee Israel can’t get a contract for her new book, she turns to a life of crime. With the help of her gay best friend Jack Hock, she becomes a successful forger, until the FBI figures out what’s going on. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant are sensational as Lee and Jack and there are great supporting performances by Dolly Wells as Lee’s love interest and Jane Curtin as her exasperated agent.

Many readers of the Blade lived through the horrific early days of the AIDS pandemic, but for a younger generation of queer activists those times are just pages in a history book (pages that offer powerful lessons for navigating the latest pandemic). Two excellent recent movies do an amazing job at capturing the raw emotions of those turbulent times.

In “1985,” Yen Tan tells the story of a closeted HIV-positive gay man who returns to Texas to spend Christmas with his conservative family during the early days of the AIDS crisis. The black and white cinematography is stunning and the richly nuanced performances are heartbreaking.

“BPM” turns to the fight against AIDS in Paris. In the midst of demonstrations, ACT UP PARIS meetings and medical treatments, Nathan and Sean fall in love. The movie features outstanding performances from a great ensemble cast and strong direction by veteran activist and filmmaker Robin Campillo. Winner of the Queer Palm and the Grand Prix at Cannes, this excellent movie is proudly queer, deeply erotic and passionately engaging. (In French with English subtitles.)

Emma Stone earned Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for her great performances in two very different films.

In “Battle of the Sexes,” Stone is sports legend Billie Jean King. The excellent movie recreates King’s sensational tennis match against outspoken male chauvinist Bibby Riggs (Steve Carell) and tracks her relationship with her first girlfriend Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). The championship cast includes out actors Alan Cummings and Natalie Morales and LGBT ally Sarah Silverman.

In “The Favourite,” Stone is Abigail Hill, an impoverished aristocrat who is battling her cousin Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) for the affections of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). Director Yorgos Lanthimos and screenwriters Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis offer an irreverent but very timely take on English history. The contrast between the serious rivalry among the female lovers and the silly homoerotic rituals of the male courtiers is fascinating.

Pro tip: pay attention to the bunnies. They play a surprisingly important role in the unfolding story.

Finally, for fans of period drama, the movie of “Downton Abbey” is a delightful diversion. With almost the entire cast intact, the movie picks up where the series ended. The Earl of Grantham is informed that King George V will visit the estate during an upcoming royal tour. The event is, of course, a great success for both the aristocratic family upstairs and the domestic staff downstairs, but as the movie ends Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) realize that the days of the grand manor house are coming to an end, for better or for worse.

The movie is notable for the sparkling dialogue from creator Julian Fellowes, the splendid costumes and scenery and Maggie Smith’s brilliant deadpan performance as the Dowager Countess. Like the series, the movie also features Robert James-Collier as the gay butler Thomas Barrow, but this time his story has a more hopeful ending.

Bonus recommendation: “The Chaperone.” During the hiatus between the television series and the movie, writer Julian Fellowes, director Michael Engler and star Elizabeth McGovern worked together on a beautiful movie about Norma Carlisle, an unfulfilled Kansas housewife who serves as a chaperone to a young Louise Brooks on her first trip to New York. Norma’s adventures help her redefine the idea of family and create a radical solution to her domestic problems.

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