The other day we looked at the last fifteen years of queer Hollywood, and realized that moviegoers wanting LGBT characters are pretty much out of luck, unless they’re looking for sad costume dramas. And even then, only six LGBT films have gotten any kind of major distribution since Brokeback Mountain in 2005. So we dug back a little further to see whether LGBT films always had such a hard time on the big screen, and we found five uncomfortable truths. Let’s take a look:
1) The ’90s had the most successful run of LGBT films.
If you feel like every new movie coming out is geared towards small children or teenaged boys, you’re not alone. We’re living in a time where movies are really, really far removed from reality. But two decades ago there were actually mainstream comedies featuring LGBT characters. The Birdcage — a remake of the 1979 French-Italian film La Cage Aux Folles — was one of the most popular films of 1996, spending three weeks as the number one film in the country, while other comedies like In & Out and To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar also scored big. Adjusted for inflation, To Wong Foo made about $70 million in 1995, and In & Out made the equivalent of $116.7 million two years later — not bad!
2) The ’90s also had the most diverse LGBT films.
In 1995, Whoopi Goldberg played a lesbian alongside Drew Barrymore and Mary Louise Parker in the drama Boys On The Side — it remains a fan-favorite even though it didn’t kill at the box office. The following year, Queen Latifah played a lesbian in Set It Off, an even bigger success that made over $41 million at the box office and was its studio’s largest grossing film that year. Unfortunately, black lesbian characters are hardly to be found anywhere since then, and certainly not in major roles. In 2004, Kerry Washington starred in Spike Lee joint She Hate Me, playing an entrepreneurial lesbian who uses her hunky male friend as a baby-making machine — it tanked.
3) This year’s crop of LGBT films aren’t looking so bright.
A number of LGBT releases are coming out before the end of the year, and while it remains to be seen whether they’ll do well, they don’t exactly sound very promising. Eddie Redmayne will surely get an Oscar nomination for playing real-life trans woman Lili Elbe in the film The Danish Girl; Elbe lived in Denmark in the 1920s, fitting The Danish Girl into the tired LGBT-movie formula: White? Based on a true story? Set in the distant past? Check. Check. Check.
But the film itself is getting mixed reviews (“I wish it moved me more,” says Entertainment Weekly.) Meanwhile, lesbian pension benefits drama Freeheld is apparently “oppressively worthy and self-satisfied,” with stereotypical characters including a flamboyantly gay Steve Carell. About Ray, a drama about a transitioning teenager, is “well-intentioned and earnest” but ultimately unremarkable, according to early reviews.
4) You’ll miss some of the best LGBT films if you don’t live in certain big cities.
The most original LGBT films might not ever come to your city, even if you live in a large one. Lily Tomlin road trip movie Grandma has grossed over $5 million recently, which is not bad for a movie whose protagonist is a septuagenarian lesbian. Tangerine, a trans comedy/drama starring actual trans people, has made over $600,000 in a small run — that’s over four times what Stonewall has made so far. That’s fine if you live in a big city, but Tangerine played on a total of forty-four screens in its biggest week of release. Even if you live in a major metropolis, you might have missed your chance to see it on a big screen.
5) The most successful LGBT-themed films of all time came out forty years ago.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show stars Tim Curry as “a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania” (who’s also an alien.) The film co-stars Susan Sarandon and Meat Loaf, of all people. The movie’s been playing non-stop for forty years now in late-night screenings where audience members dress up as characters and yell back at the screen, making it the longest theatrical release in American history. In fact, it’s currently #73 on the list of the highest-grossing movies ever made.
Also in 1975, Al Pacino starred in Dog Day Afternoon, which was based on a real-life hostage drama about a man who robbed a bank in order to finance his lover’s gender reassignment surgery. That grossed $50 million in 1975, the equivalent of about $204 million today. It was the fourth biggest movie of the year, a feat that seems unimaginable today for a film with queer themes.
The chances that a modern-day LGBT film would hit as big seems like a long shot, especially if they remain as homogenous and humdrum as they have been. But here’s hoping we get a breakout hit soon.
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