Last year, dear reader, you may recall that we ran an essay highlighting the distinct lack of openly gay actors to nab an Academy Award. After 90 years, the grand total still comes to one: Linda Hunt, winner of the Best Supporting Actress award for which she played a man. Munch on that one a moment. This year is not any better.
While out-gay actors have yet to take home the prize, plenty of straight actors added the golden statuette to their mantle by playing a gay character. For real-life queer people, that distinction becomes a double-edged sword. While the community benefits from the visibility and empathy generated by the performance, it also stings with cruel irony: how is it that an actor like Ian McKellan doesn’t have an Oscar? (For the record he was robbed for Gods and Monsters. Roberto Benigni can bite us.)
But we digress. For Oscar season this year, we’ve decided to have a look back at the more than 300 winning actors and pick out some of the best performances as queer characters. Believe it or not, by our count, only 13 performances qualify, and of those, a handful are only arguably LGBTQ characters. Nevertheless, the performances remain some of the best ever to hit movie screens, and in that way, they make for powerful, high-profile part of our history.
Ergo, for audiences wanting to see some great acting and some great gayness, you won’t find it this year. So have a look at these ten Oscar winning roles…
1. Brandon Teena/Hillary Swank Boys Don’t Cry
With all the progress made for the visibility and rights of transgender people in recent years, a tense conversation has also erupted about cisgender actors playing transgender roles. We’ll not comment on the issue here, other than to say regardless, some cisgender actors have given brilliant, respectful performances in transgender roles.
Case in point: Hillary Swank, who gave one of the best performances ever in Boys Don’t Cry. Based on the true story of Brandon Teena, Swank immerses herself in her character, realizing Brandon’s yearning for a normal life as a man, his love for his girlfriend Lana, and his own shades of moral gray. Even if the title claims otherwise, we know that boys—or just about anyone else—will cry in this film.
Boys Don’t Cry streams on YouTube, Vudu, iTunes and Amazon.
2. Andy Beckett/Tom Hanks, Philadelphia
Tom Hanks skyrocketed from being a comic star to one of the best dramatic actors alive for his turn in Philadelphia as AIDS-stricken lawyer Andy Beckett. The film marked one of the first instances of Hollywood bringing attention to the ongoing crisis plaguing gay men in the 1980s and 90s. Hanks makes Andy into a tender, determined character unafraid to fight for his rights, even in the face of the inevitable.
Philadelphia streams on YouTube, Vudu, iTunes and Amazon.
3. Truman Capote/Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
In truth, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t really look much like the real-life Truman Capote, known for his impish veneer. The way Hoffman creates Capote’s psyche, though, makes the actor disappear into the role. His Capote has all the witty, shrewd, brooding qualities of the real thing.
Capote streams on YouTube, Vudu, iTunes, Hulu and Amazon.
4. Nina Sayers/Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Just what the hell happens in Black Swan anyway? The movie descends into a series of surreal and bizarre scenes as it progresses…though Portman, as the bisexual ballerina Nina, shines through the whole thing. That’s quite a feat considering some of the outrageous, glittery costumes and effects the movie uses in its climax. Oh, and her sex scene with Mila Kunis is still one of the best ever set to film.
Black Swan streams on YouTube, Vudu, iTunes and Amazon.
5. Aileen Wurnous/Charlize Theron, Monster
Claiming a spree killer like Aileen Wurnous as an example of a great gay character becomes problematic, to say the least. Still, Charlize Theron proved herself one of the best actresses alive for her embodiment of the pitiful Wurnous. In the role, Theron shows of her ability and her courage presenting Aileen as sympathetic…and just as crazy and violent as the real thing.
Monster streams on YouTube, iTunes and Amazon.
6. Sean Penn/Harvey Milk, Milk
What more can we say about Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk? Penn, whatever his real life pathologies, finds the hopeful determination and cleverness that made Milk such an effective civil rights leader, and a successful politician. Looking and sounding just like the real man, Penn gives one of his best ever performances as the character. Given the actor’s resume, that says something.
Milk streams on YouTube, Netflix, Vudu, iTunes and Amazon.
7. Luis Molina/William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman
Press at the time characterized William Hurt’s imprisoned character in Kiss of the Spider Woman as a gay man. As the subversive, film-loving, kimonoed Luis, Hurt gives a performance of sensitivity, humor and passion. His relationship with quasi-lover Valentin (played by Raul Julia, also brilliant) has an enduring poignancy, even if the character’s fate feels all too typical.
Kiss of the Spider Woman streams on YouTube, iTunes and Amazon.
8. Ben-Hur/Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur
Wait a tic, you say? Ben-Hur was gay? The same Ben-Hur played by noted, longtime right-wing nut Chuck Heston?
Why yes, dear reader, he was, at least according to Gore Vidal who wrote the screenplay to the film. And though his right-wing, NRA politics were easy to hate, Heston was a damn fine actor. Watching Ben-Hur today, the homoeroticism will score more than a few laughs, which Vidal and director William Wyler might have intended. Though Heston spent years denying that the movie had any gay subtext (hell, he also denied that Michelangelo was gay, but come on…), he did eventually concede that Vidal and Wyler had made the character gay without Heston ever realizing. That said, we wonder how he could get through the spear-throwing scene without the thought ever crossing his mind.
Ben-Hur streams on YouTube, Netflix, Vudu, iTunes and Amazon.
9. Rayon/Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Upon its debut, critics attacked Dallas Buyers Club for featuring a protagonist less an activist than a selfish bastard who incidentally happened to help others. We have to agree. The movie also got lambasted for featuring Jared Leto as transgender woman, rather than a transgender actress in the part. While that criticism has merit, Leto’s performance itself leaves little to quarrel with. Quiet, thoughtful, and warm, his Rayon is the best thing about the film.
Dallas Buyers Club streams on YouTube, Netflix, Vudu, iTunes and Amazon.
10. Hal Fields/Christopher Plummer, Beginners
It would seem that with his third Oscar nomination this year, Christopher Plummer finally has gotten the respect he deserves as one of the greatest actors alive. For further proof, look no further than his Oscar-winning performance as Hal, the loving father who comes out late in life. Plummer’s take on the character hinges on his tenderness; while Hal loves his son (played awesomely by the awesome Ewan McGregor) and wants to be the best dad possible, he also yearns for life as a gay man, and—like so many of us after first coming out—a real boyfriend. If nothing else, Plummer’s scene dancing at famed LA bar Ackbar should make audiences look at the old man in the corner of the club a bit differently.
Beginners streams on YouTube, Netflix, Vudu, iTunes and Amazon.
Hoffman as Truman Capote may have been the best acting I’ve ever seen in a movie. Mickey Rourke should have won for best actor over Sean Penn.
Both were great, but the way Sean Penn became Harvey was astounding. If you’d ever spoken with Harvey or seen one of his speeches, Penn truly captured the man. I forgot I was seeing an actor play Harvey and thought I was seeing the man himself.
I will admit for a man the size of Hoffman to play the diminutive Capote was great, but the actor never fell away for me as did Penn as Milk.
Can’t agree with Jared Leto. Felt like a one-note performance to me. I’m not for a complete ban on cisgender actors playing trans characters (as you correctly note, Hilary Swank was wonderful), but this performance is a textbook lesson on why casting a talented trans actor is almost always a better choice.
I agree about the performance, but I can’t disagree with you more about typecasting.
I believe it’s illegal to hire or not to hire an actor based their real life social or ethnicity. Even if some of the times, it benefits the actor.
Based on what examples?
Not hiring an actor based on his real life sex orientation or ethnicity is not illegal. Public performance is one of the few exceptions to discriminatory hiring. A producer can say, “I didn’t want a gay man playing this role” and that is legal. Not going to help the picture, but legal.
Where’s “Parting Glances?” “My Beautiful Laundrette?”
Low Country Boy
Great movies, but the article is about Oscar winning gay/trans performances. Those movies were completely overlooked during their time.
What annoys me is none of those actors were even gay themselves.
Yeah, but being there are more straight actors than gay, them’s the breaks.
The flip side is that gay actors frequently play straight men, usually with no objections.
Despite all the accolades, I always felt Sean Penn’s portrayal of Harvey Milk was more in line with caricature, rather than a genuine interpretation of the man himself.
Than you must have never met Harvey. It was a truly uncanny performance.
Well, Mac, I’ve seen enough footage of the man to know that either
a) he was in reality a nasally-voiced fem whose mannerisms Penn nailed, or
b) Penn’s portrayal of Milk was more in line with a caricature of how Milk is perceived by lefties intent on emasculating the entire planet.
I choose to believe the latter.
As usual you left out Susanna York in “The Killing of Sister George”, but I guess a lesbian film will never have the impact of a film with a trans or gay man as the protagonist.
Comments are closed.