Every story needs a hook, and some in the gay media decided that the nominations for the 91st Academy Awards should uncritically be heralded as “queerer….than ever before,” as Out Magazine wrote. While there are certainly some queer projects worth celebrating in this year’s crop, it’s also dangerous to ignore some of the failings within these films—is just being present really enough?
We must begin, of course, with Bohemian Rhapsody. There are countless reasons to be frustrated by its nominations, including for Best Picture. First of all, Bryan Singer directed the damn thing, and everyone has known about Hollywood’s most open secret long before the most recent allegations of child sexual abuse were levelled against him. The idea of further rewarding this monstrous man seems to run directly in the face of morality, yes, but also the Academy’s own so-called dedication toward the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements. Moreover, the film’s portrayal of Freddie Mercury’s sexuality is as surface-level and insulting as the rest of its storytelling. There’s the now-infamous scene in which Freddie admits to Mary, his lover, that he thinks he is bisexual, and she simplistically insists, “Freddie, you’re gay.” But the film also plays fast and loose with the facts of his AIDS diagnosis, moving it forward by years purely for the sake of dramatic tension. It’s an utter failure, and treating one of the queerest pop icons of all-time with such a formulaic film is just irresponsibly lazy.
Green Book, rather inexplicably, is also being included in these celebrations because Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali in the film, was queer. The film depicts this aspect of his identity in a sequence where he is caught in a YMCA pool with another man, held by police, and saved by his driver, Tony (Viggo Mortensen), who seems to accept Shirley’s sexuality (despite his racism) because he’s been in a lot of Manhattan clubs, so he knows that “life is complicated.” Okay! If that is enough to make the film part of your “queerest Oscars ever” rundown, be my guest, but I would’ve preferred to see more of how Shirley navigates his sexuality in addition to his race and class in 1960s America.
What Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book show, along with their combined ten Oscar nominations, is that the Academy (or a significant part of it) continues to have a repressive, dated perspective on queerness, and mainstream audiences still tend to reward (with tickets) simple films that treat their queer characters like political and cultural objects that signify but don’t live. While this is certainly not purely a generational issue, it does seem worth pointing out that the Academy’s much-ballyhooed initiative to increase their membership’s diversity is not going to solve everything within a couple of years, which could help to account for the success of these two repellent movies.
On the other hand, some of this year’s nominees fulfill their queer promise with aplomb. First and foremost is Can You Ever Forgive Me?, directed by Marielle Heller, the true story of writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) becoming a literary forger to make ends meet. We’ve seen the cold lesbian archetype far too often, and at first Israel seems to be more of the same. As the film goes on, she remains hopelessly bitter and sarcastic (there’s no lesson about how she must change her fundamental self), but she reveals deep vulnerabilities and even tenderness, whether through her crush on Anna (Dolly Wells), a book dealer, or her friendship with Jack (Richard E. Grant), a flamboyantly gay drug dealing flâneur. Jack and Lee trade insults and call each other gay slurs, relishing in the opportunity to be their acidic queer selves together.
Likewise, the three women at the centre of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite jab, side-eye, betray, and fuck each other with the physicality and feral passion of caged animals set loose on their favourite meal. Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) are, of course, jockeying for power by getting closer to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), meaning they are manipulating Anne’s desires for their own gain. At the same time, desire is complex, and it’s clear that Sarah and Anne in particular have a deep and genuine bond that transcends the political games at play. There is some conflation of power and queer desire, drawing parallels between personal and political domination and submission, but it works precisely because of how well we understand their emotion, their anger, and the unavoidable queer valence it takes on.
Some folks even included Vice, due to its subplot about Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter Mary. I’ll pass.
Regardless, the fact that seven acting nominations are for queer characters is welcoming news, even if some of them might be doing more harm than help. It’s also rather ahistorical to claim this as the “queerest Oscars ever,” when we’re faced with the cognitive dissonance between Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Bohemian Rhapsody, and the long history of queer projects being nominated for (and winning) Oscars (Midnight Cowboy, Cabaret, etc.). Plus, it remains remarkably rare for an out LGBTQ+ actor or filmmaker to be nominated—none of this year’s seven actors are. Frankly, I don’t have a problem with straight actors playing queer roles. That said, it does seem strange for this to be the queerest Oscars ever with only co-screenwriter Jeff Whitty for Can You Ever Forgive Me? nominated, along with Lady Gaga. I hear they’re still without a host, and Ellen’s busy advocating for someone else, so maybe they’ll snag RuPaul?
Jake Pitre is a writer and academic based in Ottawa, Ontario. His writing has appeared in Pitchfork, the Globe and Mail, Them, The Outline, Polygon, and elsewhere.