From Psycho to Pride – the evolution of LGBT cinema

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L-R: Psycho, Pink Flamingos, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pride

As Homotopia takes place across the city, Getintothis’ Stephen Moore takes a close look at the history and evolution of LGBT cinema. 

LGBT representation in cinema has had a long winding yellow brick road of a coming out story. The very early days of cinema featured the most over the top flamboyant gay characters referred to as “pansies.” These characters where very visible, designed to shock and entertain the audience without a clue of how offensive a stereotype this would later be deemed. However with the pressure of religious groups and the censorship laws anything deemed subversive or immoral was removed from film. LGBT characters where put back in the proverbial closet, meaning only those with a keen gaydar would be able to pick up on vague references and subtext.

This of course is preferable to the villainous, reclusive sadists LGBT characters would later often be portrayed as in films. Psycho (1960) for example centers on the cross dressing mothers boy Norman Bates and Cruising (1980) focuses on Al Pacino getting into some uncomfortable positions whilst searching for a serial killer in New York’s hardcore leather and S&M scene.

Psycho received universal praise upon its release, but after a series of initial protests, there has been a movement that has gained a cult following through the years. This cult phenomena is often seen in queer cinema especially during its early punk rock roots. The Punk Queer movement is the first of three distinct eras of gay cinema that take us to where we are now.

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Queer as Punk

After the Stonewall riots in 1969 and the beginning of the gay rights movement, films aimed at a gay audience where finally being considered as possible money makers by studios. The Boys in the Band (1970) is considered a milestone in gay cinema, but portrayed its gay characters as sad and somewhat bitchy people.

Queer cinema didn’t really break new ground until John Waters created the first of the cult gay films with his ‘Trash Trilogy’ beginning with Pink Flamingos (1972). It was a time when the punk and queer culture where growing hand in hand on the fringes of society. Even if you have heard of how counter-culturist Waters and his iconic drag queen muse Divine‘s films are, nothing can quiet prepare you for a first viewing of this film. It is shocking even to the most jaded of millennials and that’s even before we get to the infamous scene where Divine takes method acting to the extreme and actually eats the freshly excreted content of a dogs bowels just to prove how trashy she actually is.

This film was originally shown as a midnight movie, and is a testament to Divine’s enigmatic stage presence and its uniqueness that audience would regularly shout out lines to the film during screenings. This audience participation has continued and was extended upon with the release of the one film that still enjoys a limited cinema release four decades on from its original screening. We are of course referring to the sci-fi/B-Movie horror, classic musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).

If Pink Flamingos was a film mainly out to shock with its outrageous central queer character primarily existing to accomplish that end, Rocky Horror, in contrast, is actually a story about liberation from sexual and gender norms.

Tim Curry is phenomenal in his portrayal of a transvestite-mad-scientist-alien, Frank-n-Furter who has built his ideal Atlas seal of approval man. Naturally Frank also has some spare time to, ahem, awaken the sexual desires of newlyweds Brad and Janet. As ludicrous as the plot is, Rocky Horror‘s sense of fun and message of freedom to be whoever you dream to be inspired both queer and punk sensibility for years to come. The film’s popularity has propelled it out of the niche queer audience and into mainstream culture like LGBT people would also soon be.

Queens Just Want to Have Fun

 As the acceptance of LGBT people began to grow, the style of queer cinema changed. Gay films were no longer just concerned with trying to shock and stand separate from their straight counterparts. In the 90’s, gay characters became sources of humor and fun once again.

The comedy is often derived from the awkward clashing of gay and straight people. For example, just what would happen if a drag queen got off a bus in a dress made entirely of flip flops in the middle of the Australian outback?  Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994) set out to find the answer to that age-old question.

It is an unapologetically camp and entertaining experience. It is not, however, a unique experience, as at the same time in America another (and, in our controversial opinion, superior) tale of three drag queens travelling across the country was being created. In To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes and John Leguizame drag up in this fish out of water tale, where their style over substance rented car breaks down in hick town begging for a makeover montage. It is a predictable formula but its potential for quotable sassy one liners means it is never a dull one.

Robin Williams makes a flamboyant cameo appearance in Too Wong Foo, but in The Birdcage (1996) he truly embraces his inner gay man. He plays the owner of a drag club whose partner is the terribly dramatic star drag queen played by the camp, comic genius Nathan Lane. Once again the comedy comes from the merging of the straight and gay community. This time it takes the shape of two soon to be in-laws, one a conservative politician and the other gay man with his drag queen lover attempting to pass as a biological woman.

This culture clash played for comedy is not just an easy way to get a laugh but is also indicative of the time. Gay people where no longer outlaws or outcasts on the fringe of society, but they had not yet been fully accepted as equal. Therefore how LGBT people could fit into the straight world was at the forefront of a lot of gay people’s minds. These films as well as being funny also manage to sneak in some real character moments teaching us about families with gay parents, rejection, community, love and generally humanizing gay characters.

Cowboys and Gay Boys

As we approach and pass the turn of the century, LGBT rights begin to finally approach something resembling equality, and as such the face of queer cinema changed.

Hollywood stopped looking at gay people as outcasts or reducing them to comic relief, finally standing up and telling real heartfelt stories, with varying degrees of success. Probably the most well known gay love story is 2005’s Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain. Its acclaim is deserved. The acting and characters feel authentic, and it doesn’t shy away with the sex scenes either. It truly marked a change in gay cinema as a straight audience for the first time flocked to see a love story between two of Hollywood’s leading men with no comedy or gimmick in sight.

More and more Male Film stars are tackling serious gay roles, such as Benedict Cumberbatch portraying the genius war hero Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014) and gay rights activist Ian McKellen playing aging Frankenstein director James Whale. Gay characters have even made their first explicitly stated role in a children’s films with a gay stereotype defying jock appearing in 2012’s Paranorman.

As is always the case with Hollywood, some attempts of making profit from the so called “Pink Pound” feel like vacuous and shallow money spinners, perhaps even racist. If you are going to tell the story of the beginning of Pride and the Gay right movement, we suggest not white washing the story with fictitious generic middle class white boys taking the lead instead of the real African American genderfluid hero activists like Marsha P Johnson taking center stage.

Whilst Roland Emmerich’s 2015 film Stonewall leaves us feeling somewhat ashamed, Pride (2014) lives up to its name. It tells the story of how a group of lesbian and gay men supported the reluctantly receptive coal miners on strike in Thatcher‘s Britain. It’s a rare drama that tells a true story with both a sense of seriousness and fun without compromising either sensibility.

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So what’s next for gay cinema?

Whilst mainstream films finally appear to be representing LGBT characters as relatable and human, independent gay films are still managing push new boundaries and take LGBT films in a new direction. Tangerine (2015), for example, was shot entirely on iPhone 5’s and is a triumph of a high energy bustling comedy about transgender sex workers. The Weekend (2011) shows a truthful insight into two gay men’s sex life in a perceptive manner without feeling the need to tie things up in a nice neat little bow. GBF (2013) is an even camper version of high school comedy Mean Girls (and we really didn’t think it was possible to be that gay and function).

So what does that tell us? It shows that just because gay representation in cinema may now be natural and acceptable doesn’t’ mean it won’t continue to grow, evolve and revolutionise. Lets face it if there is one gay stereotype that rings true, we are never going to stay the same long enough to go out of style.

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