The 2013 Academy Award are Sunday, so we thought we’d take a look back at actors and actresses that received nominations (and wins) for tackling LGBT roles. It’s been an interesting journey—from a time when even playing gay on the screen could jeopardize your career, to a point where it’s practically required.
Along the way we’ve been portrayed as sociopaths, murderers, closet cases, AIDS victims, and sometimes, just sometimes, fully actualized human beings.
This isn’t a complete list: there have been a lot of sexually ambiguous characters in the Academy’s long history—but if we missed your fave, let us know in the comments section. Now grab your popcorn and let’s get started!
Sunday Bloody Sunday
1971- Best Actor: Peter Finch
Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson vied for the attention of Murray Head in this pioneering drama from John Schlessinger, who also scored Oscar gold with the ur-hustler film Midnight Cowboy. One of the first mainstream films to depict gay sex, Sunday Bloody Sunday is notable for not harping on the characters’ 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
Sidney Lumet captured the 1970s zeitgeist with his bank-robbery drama. Al Pacino stars as John “Sonny” Wortzik, who holds a bank hostage to get money to pay for his suicidal lover’s (Sarandon) gender-reassignment surgery. The film is a landmark of cinema: While “Sonny” is hardly a good guy, the idea that you could have a sympathetic LGBT character holding up a bank, was—and still is—groundbreaking.
Only When I Laugh
1981- Best Supporting Actor: James Coco
Based on Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady, this film marked a serious departure for the usually frothy playwright. It transformed the dreary play into a bittersweet comedy—with Simon’s wife, Marsha Mason, starring as a boozy cabaret singer who tries to reconnect with her estranged daughter (out actress Kristy McNichol). One of the few who can still tolerate Mason’s character is James Coco, playing a gay actor who’s miserable that he can’t find any roles.
1983- Best Supporting Actress: Cher
Meryl Streep starred in Mike Nichols’ based-on-a-true-story account of a nuclear-reactor worker who questions how safe she and her co-workers are, and meets a tragic end because of it. But it was Cher who won our hearts, landing 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 flamboyant window-dresser (William Hurt) who shares a prison cell with a revolutionary (Raul Julia). Hurt, who falls hopelessly in love with Julia, escapes from his hopeless reality by fantasizing about the titular temptress (Sonia Braga). He ultimately finds himself betrayed in every possible way, but the film remains a classic of the gay canon.
1990- Best Actor: Bruce Davidson
Starting a wave of Oscar-baiting AIDS films, Longtime Companion followed a group of gay friends through the virus’ plague years and brought the epidemic into mainstream movie theaters. Davidson was nominated for his role as a blue blood New Yorker whose partner succumbs to the virus, but he lost out to GoodFellas’ Joe Pesci.
1992- The Crying Game
The androgynous British actor scored his only Oscar nomination in Neil Jordan’s disturbing thriller, playing a trans woman who falls in love with an IRA member indirectly responsible for her boyfriend’s death.
1993- Best Actor: Tom Hanks (WON)
The AIDS movie that everybody actually saw, Philadelphia starred Tom Hanks in one of his first non-comedic roles as a lawyer fired from his firm for being HIV-positive. While many complain the film isunrealistic—and Hanks’ relationship with boyfriend Antonio Banderas is especially stilted—it did raise awareness about homophobia and AIDS-phobia. And scored Hanks an Oscar for Best Actor.
As Good As It Gets
1997- Best Supporting Actor: Greg Kinnear
Greg Kinnear plays an fey artist who helps turn the curmudgeonly Jack Nicholson into something approximating a human being. (Of course Kinnear’s character has to get gay bashed for that to happen.) Unfortunately, the film was not as good as it’s title suggests—unless you like seeing Kinnear, Nicholson and Helen Hunt try to out-quirk each other.
Gods and Monsters
1998- Best Actor: Ian McKellan
Out actor Ian McKellan plays James Whale, the gay director of Frankenstein and Showboat, who falls hard for a hunky young Brandon Fraser. Their unlikely friendship made the film rather unique in queer cinema.
Boys Don’t Cry
1999- Best Actress: Hillary Swank (WON)
Hillary Swank was the first actress nominated for portraying a trans character (Linda Hunt donned male drag in The Year of Living Dangerously, but played a biological male). Brandon Teena was something of a con artist and met a horrible end, but the film is riveting nonetheless.
2002- Best Actress: Nicole Kidman (WON)
Best Supporting Actor: Ed Harris
Best Supporting Actress: Julianne Moore
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway inspired author Michael Cunningham, whose book The Hours in turn inspired this all-star film adaptation. It’s an ambitious work, interlocking three divergent stories that explore how lives can connect in unexpected ways. It’d be a major downer if it weren’t an opportunity for some of Hollywood’s biggest names to strut their stuff in queer Oscar-nominated roles: Nicole Kidman as a nervous Virginia Woolf, Julianne Moore as a despondent (and bi-curious) 1950s housewife and Ed Harris as an AIDS-afflicted artist. Alison Janney and Meryl Streep play a hip New York lesbian couple, but did not receive nominations.
Before Night Falls
2000- Best Actor: Javier Bardem
Javier Bardem plays gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabels’ moving film about gay life and politics under Castro’s regime. Weirdly, the film makes Cuba sounds like a great place for picking up hot guys in Speedos.
2003- Best Actress: Charlize Theron (WON)
Charlize Theron went full-ugly for her role as lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos, and scored a statuette for her trouble. 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 (WON)
Philip Seymour Hoffman delivered a mesmerizing characterization of Truman Capote, the literary favorite whose exploration of a small-town slaying in In Cold Blood redefined modern journalism. He won an Oscar for his efforts—which sadly meant Heath Ledger, nominated for his role in Brokeback Mountain, went home empty-handed.
2005- Best Actor: Heath Ledger
Best Supporting Actor: Jake Gyllenhaal
Hoffman’s win deprived Heath Ledger of an Oscar for his turn in that “gay cowboy movie,” Brokeback Mountain, and Gyllenhaal lost to Little Miss Sunshine‘s Alan Arkin. But their portrayals of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist opened the doors for more hetero actors to take romantic gay roles—and the pair won Best Kiss at that year’s MTV Movie Awards.
2005- Best Actress: Felicity Huffman
Felicity Huffman proved she was more than a desperate housewife as Bree, a nerdy trans woman forced to meet the son she fathered years ago. While Bree is one of the most fully-realized trans characters to every appear on the big screen, it’d be nice if one of these days a trans person was played by, oh we don’t know, an actual trans person?
Notes on a Scandal
2006 – Best Actress: Judi Dench
Judi Dench plays a mean, mean lesbian who blackmails a fellow schoolteacher (Cate Blanchette). It’s a return to the predatory-lesbian films of the yesteryear, but Dench is so delicious in it.
2008 – Best Actor: Sean Penn (WON)
The closet thing the gay movement has to a patron saint finally got his due in this bio-pic from out director Gus Van Sant. Sean Penn’s uncanny portrayal of Harvey Milk scored him an Academy Award, as did out screenwriter Dustin Lance Black for the film’s screenplay.
2010 – Best Actor: Christopher Plummer
Christopher Plummer got a looong overdue statuette as a loving father who comes out as gay in his 70s. Not only is Plummer’s journey out of the closet handled with depth and humor, but his straight son (Ewan McGregor) tries to follow in his footsteps—in embracing what life has to offer, anyway.
2010 – Best Actress: Natalie Portman
Portman’s Nina Sayers wasn’t a lesbian per se, but she does have a memorable, ahem, encounter with rival Nina (Mila Kunis). Was it real, though, or just the drugs? We’ve asked ourselves the same question more than once.
The Kids Are All Right
2010 – Best Actress: Annette Bening
Out director Lisa Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg brought us this unusual Best Picture nominee about a relatively stable lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) who saw their lives upended—and their marriage jeopardized–when one of their kids seeks out his birth father. Bening didn’t win Best Actress at the Oscars, but she did snag the Golden Globe for her role.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
2011- Best Actress: Rooney Mara
Portrayed with eerie perfection by Rooney Mara, Lisbeth Salander was the bisexual computer hacker that helped Mikael Blomkvist’s (Daniel Craig) unravel a woman’s 40-year-old disappearance. Mara might have lost to Iron Lady‘s Meryl Streep, but we sure wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers.
2011- Best Actress: Glen Close
Best Supporting Actress: Janet McTeer
This intriguing tale of a woman who passes as a man in Victorian England was a labor of love for lead Glen Close, who starred in a stage version and championed the film’s production. Sadly, she and co-star Janet McTeer, who played a working-class woman in a similar scenario, lost their bids for Oscar gold.