In December 2005, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was released into a handful of movie theaters. Despite the film’s relatively miniscule budget, it was heavily praised for its authentic depiction of a homosexual relationship and ended its theatrical run with over $83 million at the box office.
Professional movie critics pegged it as one of the year’s best and deemed it the frontrunner to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
While Lee would ultimately collect the Oscar for Best Director, Brokeback Mountain lost to the much less-touted Crash.
In an article published in The Los Angeles Times after the ceremony, Kenneth Turan commented, “In the privacy of the voting booth … people are free to act out the unspoken fears and unconscious prejudices that they would never breathe to another soul, or, likely, acknowledge to themselves.”
It appeared that when push comes to shove, many people were still too uncomfortable with the concept of homosexuality to anoint a film that legitimizes it as Best Picture.
Brokeback Mountain and its subsequent loss at the Academy Awards represented a pivotal moment in the film industry. Its critical and commercial success enabled more movies to authentically explore the complexities of gay characters and relationships, such as the recent indie dramas Weekend and Keep the Lights On.
Prior to Brokeback, representations of homosexuality in film tended to be stereotypical and lighthearted. In 1997’s In & Out, Kevin Kline plays a character that is accidentally outed by a former student during an awards ceremony. Later in the film there is a scene where Kline listens to an audio guide on how to act manly, yet ultimately ends up flamboyantly dancing to “I Will Survive.”
That’s not to say In & Out has a negative or derogatory stance towards homosexuality - it simply shows that even 15 years ago, gay characters weren’t taken very seriously. Another egregious example of this is 1996’s The Birdcage, which features Robin Williams and Nathan Lane playing a gay couple briefly pretending to act straight for comedic effect.
In & Out and The Birdcage are contemporary comedies, but older classics also use homosexual stereotypes to enhance their ludicrous tones. Some Like it Hot, which the American Film Institute named the number one best American comedy in 2000, features Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis dressing in drag as they befriend the buxom Marilyn Monroe.
While many films took gay stereotypes and played them for laughs, general deviations from the heteronormative lifestyle have often been depicted negatively throughout film history. While 1991’s Silence of the Lambs is considered one of the best thrillers ever made, it was met with much protest from the LGBTQ community, as the serial killer in pursuit is a transsexual man.
The current state of gay characters in film is somewhat unknown. For every time a serious drama like Brokeback Mountain is made, something similar to the insensitive Adam Sandler comedy I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is also released. The fact that any serious depiction of gay characters and relationships exists is a step in the right direction, but there is still more progress to be made.