3 Out of 4 Ain’t Bad: Queer Characters Won Big at Last Night’s 2019 Oscars
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In an Academy Awards first, last night’s 2019 Oscars saw three of the night’s four acting awards go to actors who portrayed queer characters on the big screen. And while that’s hardly preferable to queer actors winning awards for portraying queer characters — or, hell, queer actors winning for playing straight characters — it’s clearly a sign of progress, and proof that people are bearing witness to LGBTQ stories.
Last night’s ceremony began with the award for Best Supporting Actress going to Regina King for a well-deserving performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, the only of the four acting categories to not award a queer character.
Here were the three actors who took home awards at the 2019 Oscars for portraying queer characters:
Mahershala Ali, Best Supporting Actor for Green Book
Perhaps the biggest point of contention from last night’s 2019 Oscars was the Best Picture win for Green Book, a film that has been mired in reproach since its release. There were the accusations by the family of concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley, one of the film’s real-life inspirations, that the story was factually inaccurate. (Mahershala Ali actually apologized to Shirley’s family for this.) Many more critiqued the film’s mishandling of race relations in the Jim Crow South and pointed out that Green Book was yet another “white savior” story, inappropriate for the big screen in an era when Hollywood should have moved past such insensitive tropes.
(And then there was additional controversy birthed from star Viggo Mortensen’s use of the n-word during a press conference, and stories that the film’s director, Peter Farrelly, had a history of exposing himself to people on set.)
But those rather large hiccups aside, Mahershala Ali took home the award for his portrayal of Shirley, a man who — though we aren’t sure exactly how the man personally identified, in terms of his sexuality — was known to engage in same-sex dalliances, if not more. There’s a scene in the film in which Ali’s Don Shirley character is arrested by a cop who discovers him having sex with another man at a YMCA.
During his 2019 Oscars acceptance speech, Ali gave thanks to Shirley himself. “Just trying to capture Dr. Shirley’s essence pushed me to my ends,” he said from the stage. “Which is a reflection of the person he was and the life that he lived. And I thank him.”
This was Ali’s second Oscar, making him only the second Black actor in Hollywood history to win more than one Academy Award, Denzel Washington being the first.
Olivia Colman, Best Actress for The Favourite
Another film also up for Best Picture (as each of the films that won in acting categories were), The Favourite was perhaps a longshot for the ceremony’s final award. A love triangle of sorts set in 18th century England, Colman plays Queen Anne, a hilariously mercurial ruler who relies on her right-hand lady, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), to run the country — and also please her sexually. When Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives at the manor seeking work, she quickly realizes the opportunity in attaching herself to the queen, sparking a rivalry that makes for comedic situations.
While there are historians who allege that Queen Anne might have been a lesbian, no one knows for sure, and director Yorgos Lanthimos without a doubt tweaks history in his film to suit a more enthralling story. Rumors at the time of Queen Anne’s rule that she was a lesbian definitely existed; Weisz’s character Sarah alleged these rumors publicly in an attempt to shame her former friend before she was ultimately dismissed from the court.
Though Colman’s win at the 2019 Oscars has been considered one of the night’s few upsets — Glenn Close, a legend of the industry who was nominated last night for The Wife (and who has never won), was expected to take home the honor — it was much deserved. Colman’s win was also the only win for The Favourite, which was a bit shocking considering it went into the night with the most nominations.
Colman also had one the night’s favorite acceptance speeches, sounding wholly unrehearsed and completely sincere. “This is hilarious,” she told the crowd while holding her statuette, apologizing to Glenn Close for stealing the win and uttering “Lady Gaga” before meandering offstage.
Rami Malek, Best Actor for Bohemian Rhapsody
A film mired in controversy even before its release, Bohemian Rhapsody was the big winner at last night’s 2019 Oscars, taking home four awards, more than any other film. There were the stories that emerged back in late 2017 of director Bryan Singer and lead Rami Malek arguing on set, and sporadic behavior by Singer, who was ultimately fired from the production. (Though he retained his director’s credit, reportedly due to union rules.) The more recent accusations of sexual abuse at the hands of Singer led to the film and its stars distancing themselves from Singer even more fully.
The film has also been notoriously polarizing. Most audiences enjoyed the biopic about the iconic rock band Queen and its lead singer Freddie Mercury, though critics were quick to point out the film’s alteration of the band’s (and the man’s) actual timeline. Many queer critics were particularly unhappy with the film, complaining that it “straight-washed” any queer sensibility out of the film, focusing more on Mercury’s relationship with Mary (played by Malek’s now-girlfriend, Lucy Boynton) and failing to showcase his raucous queer lifestyle.
One thing critics have largely been in agreement over — including those who found the film as a whole lacking — is that Rami Malek was a revelation as Freddie Mercury. The actor famously dove into studying the rock god, even obtaining a movement coach to assist in nailing Mercury’s mannerisms and onstage swagger.
Interestingly, in his acceptance speech last night at the 2019 Oscars, Malek referred to Freddie Mercury as a gay man, which is itself a point of contention. “We made a film about a gay man, an immigrant, who lived his life just unapologetically himself, and the fact that I’m celebrating him and this story with you tonight is proof that we’re longing for stories like this,” Malek said from the stage. It’s contentious because in the film — as in real life — the rocker had relationships with both men and women. Many are claiming “bi erasure” at attempts to convince the world that Mercury was a gay man when he was indeed bisexual.
Last night’s 2019 Oscars was a night of visibility for queer stories being told by the Hollywood machine, something that signifies a step forward for LGBTQ people everywhere.
Now, if only we can get more of those little gold men in the hands of actual queer people telling the stories of our own community, we’ll know we’ve truly made it.