While Milk is unique in that its gay characters are not terrifying sociopaths, murders, criminals, dying or horribly closeted, it’s hardly the first gay film to nab Oscar gold for actors willing to don a shade of lavender for the limelight. Here’s a brief history of gay for pay, Oscar-nom edition. Asterisks denote a win
Sunday Bloody Sunday
1971- Best Actor: Peter Finch
John Schlessinger’s film about a Jewish doctor (Finch) vying for the affection of Murray Head and in competition with Glenda Jackson for his heart, the film was one of the first to depict gay sex on the screen. The film is notable since it doesn’t make a big deal about the character’s sexuality, despite how miserable they make each other. It also marks the screen debut of Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays a young hoodlum.
Dog Day Afternoon
1975- Best Actor: Al Pacino
Best Supporting Actor: Chris Sarandon
Attica! Sidney Lumet’s zeitgeist of the 70s bank robbery drama stars Al Pacino as John “Sonny” Wortzik, who holds a a bank hostage to get money to pay for his suicidal boyfriend’s (Sarandon) gender reassignment surgery. The film is a landmark of cinema and while “Sonny” is hardly a good guy, the idea that you could have a gay (or gay-adjacent, depending on how you want to see it) character touting a gun and holding up a bank, was — and is– groundbreaking.
Only When I Laugh
1981- Best Supporting Actor: James Coco
Based on Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady, a serious departure for the usually frothy playwright, Only When I Laugh transformed the dreary play into well, a dreary frothy comedy, with his wife in the leading role as a boozer cabaret lounge singer whose lost all her friends. One of the few who can still stand her is James Coco, who plays a gay actor whose miserable because he can’t find any roles.
1983- Best Supporting Actress: Cher
Sadly, we’ve wasted hours of our life watching Silkwood, the Meryl Streep vs. The Evil Nuclear Plant ripped-from-the-headlines story by Mike Nichols that hasn’t aged that well. Speaking of things that haven’t aged well, Cher got her first Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Streep’s lesbian roommate.
Kiss of the Spider Woman
1985- Best Actor: William Hurt*
Based on the novel by Manuel Puig, Spider Woman tells the story of a gay windowdresser (Hurt) whose imprisoned with a revolutionary (Raul Julia) in an unnamed South American prison. Hurt falls hopelessly in love with his cellmate and escapes from reality by imagining a fantastical Spider Woman. Things don’t turn out to well in the long-run as Hurt finds himself betrayed in every way possible, but the film remains a classic of the gay cannon.
1990- Best Actor: Bruce Davison
Starting off a wave of Oscar-baiting AIDS films, Longtime Companion follows a group of New York gay friends through the plague years of the AIDS epidemic. Relentlessly depressing and criticized for only focusing on white gay men, nonetheless, the film brought the horrors of AIDS to the mainstream.
1993- Best Actor: Tom Hanks*
Covering much of the same territory as Longtime Companion, but with Tom Hanks, Philadelphia became the gay movie that everybody saw. Hanks plays a lawyer who believes he was fired once the firm learned he was an HIV-positive gay man, and the story focuses as much on the systemic homophobia of the firm and the world around Hanks as it does his disease.
As Good As It Gets
1997- Best Supporting Actor: Greg Kinnear
Here, Greg Kinnear plays a nelly gay artist with an annoying dog who gets treated like crap by Jack Nicholson until he’s gay-bashed and Jack feels bad, thus beginning a “perfect strangers” friendship. Unfortunately, As Good As It Gets is not very good, unless you like seeing Greg Kinnear, Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson all try to out-quirky-cute each other.
Gods and Monsters
1998- Best Actor: Ian McKellan
Ian McKellan plays James Whale, the gay director of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein who falls hard for a hunky Brandon Fraser. Fraser’s character is interested in Whale’s career, but ultimately he just helps Whale fulfill his own masochistic self-hating desires.
Boys Don’t Cry
1999- Best Actress: Hillary Swank*
Hillary Swank’s portrayal of Brandon Teena, born Teena Brandon, is the first transgender film character ever nominated for an Oscar, though Linda Hunt was nominated for The Year of Living Dangerously for a male role. The film continues the “doomed gay” trend, as Brandon is eventually raped and murdered after his secret is discovered.
2002- Best Actress: Nicole Kidman*
Best Supporting Actor: Ed Harris
Best Supporting Actress: Julianne Moore
Based on Michael Cunningham’s three-part story inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours is an ambitious, sprawling work that looks how stories and depression linger and transfer from generation to generation. It’d be a major downer if it weren’t an opportunity for some of Hollywood’s leading actors to strut their stuff. Kidman dons a fake nose to channel a smoking, nervous Virginia Woolf, Ed Harris plays and AIDS-afflicted artist living in a pre-gentrified Meat Packing District and Julianne Moore plays a trapped 50s housewife, who would love nothing more than to play pattycake with neighbor Toni Collette.
Before Night Falls
2000- Best Actor: Javier Bardem
Javier Bardem plays gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabels’ moving and arresting film about gay life and politics under Castro’s regime. Weirdly, the film makes Cuba seem less like a horribly oppressive homophobic society and more like a great place for picking up hot guys in Speedos.
2003- Best Actress: Charlize Theron*
Charlize Theron nabs the triple-crown of Oscar-bait roles by playing someone who is both gay, ugly and horribly doomed in her role as real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos. A sensitive portrayal of a woman out of options, Theron’s performance inspired actresses to dress down to get a leg up in the Academy race.
2005- Best Actor: Phillip Seymour Hoffman*
Despite a mesmerizing impersonation of the fabulously nebbish Truman Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman couldn’t save Capote from being a listless exercise in precious, precious simonizing. The Academy disagreed and gave Hoffman the Oscar over that year’s other gay character nominee.
2005- Best Actor: Heath Ledger
We wouldn’t mind Hoffman’s win so much if it hadn’t deprived Heath Ledger from a much-deserved win for that “gay cowboy movie,” Brokeback Mountain. An iconic, star-making performance, Ledger’s portrayal of Ennis Del Mar opened the door to big-screen roles like The Joker, for which he is posthumously nominated this year.
2005- Best Actress: Felicity Huffman
Desperate housewife Felicity Huffman plays Bree, a pre-op transsexual whose forced to meet the son she fathered when she was still living as a man. Bree is one of the most fully-realized trans characters to every walk the big screen. Her persnickety nerdiness and uptight morality drive her down-on-his luck son nuts, but since this is a road-trip movie, you know that the two will develop a bond by the final reel.
Notes on a Scandal
2006 – Best Actress: Judi Dench
Judi Dench plays a mean, mean lesbian, who blackmails and extorts her fellow schoolteacher, played by Cate Blanchette so that she can be closer to her in this movie, which in its own way is a horribly regressive return to the ‘predatory lesbian’ films of the 50s. At least she gets away with it in the end.