If you hadn’t heard, this year’s Sundance Film Festival was very, very gay.
With a robust lineup of LGBTQ+ films and filmmakers, the fest was a true testament to the incredible art we can create when queer folks are empowered to share their stories.
But it wasn’t always that way. In the not-too-distant past, queer characters were few and far between, and we held onto even the faintest hints of representation, for good and for bad.
With that in mind, while on the ground in Park City, Utah, Queerty decided to chat up and ask some of our favorite LGBTQ+ talent: “What’s the first time you remember seeing queer representation on screen?”
Read on below for their answers, and take notes—it’ll wind up giving you a great Watch List of films taking you through queer cinema history…
Filmmaker, actor (Euphoria, Zola, Fear The Walking Dead), co-writer of Oscar-shortlisted film New Moon.
“I’d say my first queer character was Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. That is a queer character, whatever anyone will say, everything about that character is queer. Between being fabulously dressed, you know, having lots of attitude, having that survivor spirit—and it’s just pure camp. So I would have to say Faye Dunaway’s incredible performance in Mommie Dearest.”
Ben Platt & Noah Galvin
Actors (Dear Evan Hansen), co-writers and stars of Theater Camp, which premiered at Sundance.
PLATT: “Ooh, that’s a really good question. I’m trying to think back: Who was the very first?”
GALVIN: “Maybe, like, LeFou [from Beauty And The Beast.] Queer icon! [Laughs.]
PLATT: “I keep thinking of Nathan Lane! I feel like Nathan Lane was actually one of my first queer comedic idols.”
GALVIN: “Yes, definitely. My parents showed me The Birdcage at too young of an age—I was the third child, so my parents were like, ‘Eh, he’s fine!’ So I was exposed to a lot of things I probably shouldn’t have been exposed to, but that was something that really sat with me in a positive way.”
PLATT: “And Robin Williams is gorgeous in it!”
GALVIN: “Also Hank Azaria, like, mwah, delicious.”
Songwriter, producer, director of the documentary Kokomo City, which premiered at Sundance.
“Oh, the very first time was The Crying Game—that was the very first time! My first experience with a trans character was in that movie, and it was totally unexpected how they showed her in her full form. And, even though it was new and I’d never seen anything like that, it felt right, it felt okay. People made it this big thing, but that was pretty impactful. Definitely ahead of its time.”
Actor (Gossip Girl, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party), star of Mutt, which premiered at Sundance.
“I feel like for me it was My Own Private Idaho. That’s definitely got to be up there. I feel like I went through a phase of being obsessed with River Phoenix and thinking he was the hottest person on Earth. [Laughs.] So I remember seeing that for the first time and it being like, ‘Whoa!,’ you know?
And then pretty quickly after that, I really sought out gay cinema. Like, even at Blockbuster—those vibes. My Beautiful Laundrette, or whatever I could get my hands on. But it was about that one movie, and then I had this ‘floodgate’ phase where I was like, ‘I’m going to consume all of this now.'”
Writer (Reservation Dogs), director of Fancy Dance, which premiered at Sundance.
“I remember Ellen [Degeneres,] and that was a big breakthrough for me because I was living in Southwest Missouri, Northeastern Oklahoma, and I don’t think I really knew what being gay was. So I remember when Ellen came out, that being a sort of ‘Oh, that’s what I am.’ realization. Or, like, part of me, but I didn’t know that it even I didn’t know what it really even was.
And then I remember High Art, and that being a film that, when I watched that, it changed my whole relationship to myself, to my own sexuality. Also the fact that a woman had directed it—I didn’t know that I could be a filmmaker—so it all kind of culminated in my like teen viewing of High Art. It was a big, big influence on me.”
Co-writer of Oscar-shortlisted film New Moon.
“When I first moved to United States, I learned English by watching two films: Poetic Justice and My Best Friend’s Wedding—and both films had queer characters in then. And My Best Friend’s Wedding it was Rupert Everett’s character, George, and in Poetic Justice, it was Roger Guenveur Smith’s character, who was Jessie’s friend in the hair salon. And his famous line was, ‘I got your b*tch!’ [Laughs.]”
Actor (We Crashed, Tales Of The City), star of Sundance premiere Mutt.
“Honestly, the first movie that I saw that activated some sort of queer awareness within me was Boys Don’t Cry. I mean, it’s a gnarly film—so sad and also really beautiful. And it was really striking for me, in just a really simple way, of seeing a girl playing a boy—and having Chloë Sevigny desire that boy. I couldn’t even process my feelings around watching Chloë desire Hillary Swank, and then Hillary Swank negotiate a desire back but in embarrassment about sharing themselves.
And then, once I started to get more into cinema, Moonlight was the first time I saw that very queer experience of having a best friend who you have these romantic undertones with, that you never really talk about or address, but you share an intimacy with them in private. Like, there’s a great love affair that’s happening, but is only just about them because they’re totally ‘not gay’ out in the world. It’s a secret and it’s so intimate, and it’s especially vulnerable to be the person in that dynamic that is actually queer, while maybe the friend is not.”
Filmmaker (Viper Club), director of The Persian Version, which premeired at Sundance.
“Well, the first music video that I saw was [Cyndi Lauper’s] “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and I remember watching that and there’s a lot of—not just people of all different ethnicities, but also of gender expressions. If you watch it again you’ll see it. And I guess Cyndi’s sister is gay, so she’s such an ally.
And, movie-wise, I’m trying to think of my first film with gay characters—well, i’ve always been a huge Hedwig And The Angry Inch fan. But before that, there was that early Mariel Hemingway film, Personal Best, and then the vampire film The Hunger with Catherine Deneuve and [David] Bowie. Oh, and Kissing Jessica Stein, I’ll always remember.”
Actor (Hacks, Dollface), star of Sundance premiere Theater Camp.
“So, interesting: Not a film, but I always thought That’s So Raven was very queer, right? And so I feel like that show influenced me a whole lot. And obviously Raven[-Symoné] is queer, and I know her character never really had female love interest, but it really felt queer to me. Although, she did have Chelsea [played by Anneliese van der Pol.]”
Filmmaker (River Fork), director of Sundance premiere Mutt.
“I have two! And the first one isn’t really queer, but to me it was queer, and that’s Fish Tank. It was really just about seeing a woman being a real tomboy and not really caring about femininity. Plus that relationship with the little sister was great.
And then the other one that really struck me was Weekend by Andrew Haigh from 2011. That was just an incredible film, and the portrayal of film was so heartbreaking.”
They picked some great movies. “My Own Private Idaho” and “High Art” should be required viewing for all babygays.