Gay for Oscar: Actors Who Have Lisped It Up for the Statuette

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
395px-sundaybloodysunday1971- 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

215px-498101020a1Attica! 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

200px-only_when_i_laughBased 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.

silkwood_imp1983- 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
200px-kiss_of_the_spiderwoman1985- 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.

Longtime Companion
longtime_companion_dvd_cover1990- 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.

200px-philadelphia_imp1993- 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
200px-as_good_as_it_gets1997- 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
200px-gods-and-monsters1998- 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
200px-boys_dont_cry_movie1999- 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.

The Hours
2002- Best Actress: Nicole Kidman*
Best Supporting Actor: Ed Harris
Best Supporting Actress: Julianne Moore

200px-hoursposterBased 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
before-night-falls2000- 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.

200px-monster_movie2003- 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.

200px-capote_poster2005- 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.

Brokeback Mountain
200px-brokeback_mountain2005- 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

200px-transamericaDesperate 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

200px-notes_on_a_scandalJudi 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.

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  • Sebbe

    I just realized I haven’t seen the first four, I’m going to add them to my list. Thanks Japh.

  • George

    You forgot Jake Gyllenhal for Brokeback

  • David

    I find it very sad that I’ve only seen Brokeback Mountain, Philadelphia, and Longtime Companion. Some of the others sound interesting. I’m gonna have to rearrange my Netflix queue. (I’m currently in the middle of season 3 of QAF though, so it’ll have to wait a week or so!)

  • Phil

    How about Chris Sarandon in “Dog Day Afternoon”?
    Or Judi Dench in “Notes on a Scandal”?
    Nicole Kidman in “The Hours”
    Salma Hayek in “Frida”
    Felicity Huffman in “Transamerica” (a great movie that defies the “doomed gay” convention.)
    Jude Law in “Talented Mr. Ripley”
    James Coco in “Only When I Laugh”

    Those are just some I can think of off the top of my head.

  • Paul Raposo

    And all films staring straight people as gay, or lesbian characters. I wonder if I’ll live long enough to see an openly gay A-lister walk on stage and accept an Oscar for portraying a gay charater. And let’s face facts, Penn will get the win because he’s straight and Milk died. If Harvey were still alive today, no one would be making a film about his accomplishments and straight actors wouldn’t be clamoring to portray him.

  • blake


    Jude Law did not play gay. He played a straight man a bisexual man desired and then murdered.

  • Rob

    “as Brandon is eventually raped and murdered after HIS secret is discovered.”

    Fixed that for ya.

  • Leland Frances

    1. Raposo Bozo: stop with the goddamn fucking retarded meme that only gay actors should be allowed to play gay characters. Do you want gays forbidden to play straight characters? Jesus H. Christ, how do these moronic lavender lunatic fringe ideas start?

    2. Note to many, including our host: the title is “GAY for Oscar.” Gay does NOT = transgender. Deduct Swank and Sarandon and move on.

    3. Whatever “Tom Ripley” might have been in the original books, the one Matt Damon played so brilliantly was NOT bi. And, in any case:

    4. Bi does NOT = gay. Deduct Hayek.

    5. SPOILER ALERT…….The desires of McKellan’s Whale were NOT “masochistic self-hating”—nor SM kinky—he simply tricked Fraser’s character into giving him what he had been longing for for decades—to be “reunited” with his lover killed in the war. PS: Fraser was robbed for Best Supporting. And:

    6. Two of the Greatest Oscar Robberies of All Time were motivated by Hollywood’s homophobia. “Yeh, we tolerate the Schwartzes now but the fagolas?! I’m voting for ‘Crash’. ‘Brokeback’? Forget about it! And, excuse me, but a butch fagola? Please! Ledger? Forget about it! Vote for the Capote guy—now there’s the kind of fagola I can live with! Well, not live with…you know what I mean!”

    7. If Penn and/or “Milk” wins, it will be in no small part Academy atonement for betraying the greater BBM and Ledger.

    8. Gay icon Shirley Bassey said that seeing her former boyfriend Finch kiss a man on screen made her sick to her stomach.

    9. “Attention must be paid” to the actors who starred in the first attempt at a serious, gay-positive film: Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean in the underrated-for-its-time but box office disaster “Making Love.” Some audience members noisily stormed out in raging, homohating disgust. [Unlike BBM, “Milk,” alas, looks to be something of a box office dud, too.]

    10. Equal attention particularly for some brilliant acting, are all the actors playing gay in “Boys in the Band”—most of them gay in real life, too, you’ll be childishly happy to learn, Mr. Raposo, if not “out.” And, NO, the film’s message was NOT “show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” but “If we could only learn not to hate ourselves so much.” A still REVOLUTIONARY concept in 1970 when most people, gays included, had yet to know about Stonewall.

    11. Regardless of the errors and omissions, thanks for informing others about films they might not be aware of, and for the excuse to link to Tom Hanks’ acceptance speech for “Philadelphia”—one of the greatest and least self-serving EVUH…and, ironically, better than the film itself.

  • BootsieGee

    For what it’s worth I loved Only When I Laugh. I saw it when I was stationed on an aircraft carrier in the mid 80’s. As a young gay man I got a chuckle out of the film and watched it two or three times. I was shocked when I went to the ship’s video library and went to check it out again to watch it with a friend and was told it was no longer available as it had been removed from the shelves for having a gay character and was therefore censored.

    I have checked Netflix as well and as far as I can tell it is not available on DVD. Shame is it is pretty funny watching Marsha Mason chew the scenery and the woman who played Toby was hysterical.

    BTW: Love the comments Leland, you are right on the money.

  • CPT_Doom

    Well, Leland makes a lot of good points, although it is sad how miserable most of the gay/lesbian characters are that have been nominated for Oscars. Because this post was specifically about nominated performances, it is natural to overlook “Boys in the Band,” although I agree it is an undervalued gem in the gay cinematic cannon. I just bought the DVD and am really impressed in the performances. Except for the idiotically effeminate Emory (wildly overplayed by one of the straight men in the cast) – which btw even the director now agrees was too much – the characters are refreshingly free of most stereotypes – especially for the timeframe in which it was made. Sure Michael and Donald are both in analysis trying to “fix” their sexuality, and Harold is horrifically self-hating, but those character flaws are not necessarily associated with their sexuality. Michael is running from something, and that may well be his sexuality, but we also learn Donald has major issues outside of sexuality, and Harold is much more affected by his obsession with his looks than with his sexuality (and no, they are not necessarily associated).

    As easy as it is to get depressed over this list, we should remember the wealth of gay roles in recent years that were not hideous stereotypes – Tom Selleck in “In & Out,” for example (although he was a hideous stereotype of a media whore, that had nothing to do with his being gay) or the main characters in “Trick.” My favorite, though, is still John Hannah in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” He plays the low-key partner in the one gay relationship among the group of friends, but is heart-breaking at this partner’s funeral (the one in the title, of course) as he expresses his love. Their relationship is later held up by Hugh Grant’s character as the ideal everyone should aim for, and in the montage at the end – which wraps up all the characters stories – he even gets to enjoy a hot young boyfriend.

  • Japhy Grant

    @Phil: Hey Phil- Thanks for the comment. I updated to include some of yr suggestions. I can’t believe I forgot The Hours. I had Cunningham as a professor in college and he’ll probably hunt me to the grave– or alternatively, show how my life is inestimably sad and ironic by comparing it to scenes from James Joyce’s Dubliners or maybe, Billy Budd.

  • Joe

    Please stop demanding people label or not label certain sexual orientations. For some people, bi and transgender are part of the queer, non-straight continuum; so deal. Also – Brokeback was a yawnfest. Well acted, but dull. That may have had an effect on it’s not winning the Oscar. MAY HAVE. Though, how Anne Hathaway’s wigs weren’t nominated is a crime.

  • Sebbe

    More to add to my list! Great idea for a post Japh. Some of us that are younger and maybe not cinema aficionados appreciate the guidance and suggestions and maybe even a reminder of movies worthy of a reviewing.

  • Leland Frances

    The TITLE was GAY not QUEER, Joe, so blow.

  • Sebbe


  • cruiser

    @CPT_Doom: In & Out was Kevin Kline not Tom Selleck

  • Leland Frances

    Not semantics—specificity. If one is incapable of using the precise word he/she means, then one should leave speaking and writing to those who can.

    You say “tuh-may-toe,” I say GROW UP!

    “In & Out” starred BOTH Kline and Selleck.

  • Sebbe

    @leland – I always read your comments, sometimes I agree with what you say and sometimes I don’t, but I must say that I hope you are not nearly as bitter and combative in real life. Not everything is a battle. I presume you are older than me, please enjoy some of your time left here.

  • Sebbe

    @Paul Raposo – ditto on my comment to leland.

    Now commence the attacks I fear.

  • Paul Raposo


    Sebbe, I’m fairly certain I made clear what I think of you in comment #42 in the comments section of the other post we were in.

  • Leland Frances

    Bozo: the predictability of the ignorant is that anger makes them only more ignorant.

    No one said you wrote that gay actors should be forbidden to play straight characters, but that would be the fair if unintended consequence of your STILL absurd “live long enough to see an openly gay A-lister walk on stage and accept an Oscar for portraying a gay charater.” You won’t if stupidity is terminal.

    No one should “support” someone simply because he/she is a “gay actor.” Seen anything featuring Reichen lately? He was barely believable pretending to give someone a blow job in “Dante’s Cove” and Goddess knows she’s had a lot of experience with the real thing! And the same applies to gay athletes, politicians, business people, etc. Support them when they’re GOOD at what they do.

    Out gay Ian McKellan’s getting the Oscar for “Gods & Monsters” may have been icing on the cake, but the cake itself was his spellbinding performance, just as Ledger’s was in BBM regardless of whom he did in his real bed.

    Further, GAY McKellan’s getting that Oscar puts the idiocy icing on your declaration that Penn would only get one for Milk because HE’s straight.

    Your assertion that no straight actor would one to play a LIVING real life straight person is really scraping the bottom of the loony bin. And please name all those “straight actors [who clamored] to portray [Milk].”

    I’ll avoid labeling you misogynistic in calling me “pussy,” but please prove how I am racist, transphobic, and anti-bi. No less imbecilic, of course, than your assertion that I “defend” the “dearth of A-list out actors.”

    With apologies to TBITB author Mart Crowley:

    “You are a sad and pathetic man. You are a [moron] and you don’t want to be, but there’s nothing you can do to change it. Not all the prayers to your god, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you’ve go left to live. … you’ll always be [a moron]. Always [Paul]. Always. Until the day you die.”

  • Leland Frances

    I appreciate your comments, Sebbe. Sincerely. While I am known among my friends [I actually have some] for my razor tongue, I reserve it in “real life” only for those instances in which there is no time to gently reason with the misinformed or mentally SELF-challenged.

    Internet posts, in my totally non-humble opinion, don’t give one that option. I probably am older than most posters here, and it is what I’ve seen and heard and read and felt [being fired for being gay; being clubbed to the ground for being gay] that leaves me with no patience for the WILLFULLY ignorant, which, I hasten to add, I distinguish from those who simply “don’t know about,” e.g., those in this thread previously unaware of this film or that.

    All the straight homohaters in the world could disappear overnight and many in our community would still be our worst enemies. I count perpetual victims among those, they who always look for homophobia under every rock, too often distorting it when they find it. Mr. Raposo’s essay was a textbook example of all of these needless, self-induced obstacles to our progress. There’s enough real homohatred to go around that we don’t need hysterical buffoons in the way of our defeating it.

    Thank you for your efforts to approach the same goal a more gentle way.

  • CPT_Doom

    @Cruiser (comment 17) – actually, I was thinking about Tom Selleck’s reporter character in the movie – the one who basically forced Kevin Kline out of the closet. I was trying to come up with non-steretypical potrayals of gay characters, and the joke in the movie was that Kevin Kline’s character was sooooo obvious in his sexuality. Of course, that let to two of my favorite lines “She was too old to play Yentl” (used to get Kline to stay at his very non-masculine bachelor party) and Joan Cusak yelling “Do you know how many times I’ve had to watch ‘Funny Lady’?!” at the wedding.

  • Tony

    “You forgot Jake Gyllenhal for Brokeback.”

    Jake is gay.

  • Gay for pay

    Well, Ian McKellan (Gods and Monsters, 1998 – Best Actor) is gay too.

  • scandi

    Don’t forget Jaye Davidson in THE CRYING GAME.

  • foster

    what about Macauly Culkin and Seth Green in PARTY MONSTER?

  • John

    @David: Hey David, enjoy, it’s such a good show, I miss it.

Comments are closed.