The Oscar nominations were announced this week, and with no clear locks (yet) in the major categories, the 2019 Academy Awards might turn out to be the least predictable ceremony in years.
Although it’s a tad too early to tie our Oscar ballots to any specific picks (the Screen Actors Guild Awards on January 28 and the BAFTAs on February 10 should paint a clearer picture in the coming weeks), one thing is certain: This year’s Oscars will be the most LGBTQ-friendly ever — which is why Kevin Hart was such a tone deaf choice for host.
Three of the eight Best Picture nominees feature central LGBTQ characters. Meanwhile, seven of the 20 acting finalists got their nods playing LGBTQ roles.
Factor in Best Picture nominee A Star Is Born‘s nod to drag culture in its extended when-Jackson-met-Ally scene (along with gay icon Lady Gaga‘s pair of nominations for the remake of a vehicle previously driven by gay icons Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand) and Best Picture nominee Vice‘s LGBTQ subplot featuring Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter Mary. Then consider the three nominations for If Beale Street Could Talk, based on a book by the late gay writer James Baldwin. Conclusion: The 2019 Oscars will be the Oscars that the year of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots deserve.
Well, sort of.
Despite Oscar’s contemporary gay-friendliness this year, why do the depictions of homosexuality in most of the nominated films feel so pre-Stonewall?
Green Book is actually set about a half-decade before Stonewall, but that’s no excuse for how gingerly the movie handles the sexuality of Best Supporting Actor nominee Mahershala Ali’s character, who is based on the real-life piano virtuoso Don Shirley. His sexual orientation is alluded to in the film, but the only time we see him in flagrante delicto with a man is when they’re naked and in custody of the YMCA security for getting it on in the swimming pool.
Shirley’s straight white driver, played by Best Actor nominee Viggo Mortensen, gets a family and romantic scenes with his wife, and Shirley doesn’t even get to kiss a boy onscreen.
Rami Malek pecks a man or two on the lips as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, but the film opts to tell us about the late musician’s sexual hedonism instead of showing it. Given that the movie’s climax hinges on the historically inaccurate moment when Mercury announces to his Queen bandmates that he has AIDS, you’d think that the film’s gay director Bryan Singer (who left the production before it was completed but retains a director’s credit) would have insisted on presenting the recklessness that contributed to Mercury’s medical destiny.
Instead the film focuses on Mercury’s heterosexual relationship with Mary Austin, and treats his bisexuality as a hobby. It wants us to believe that when he was hooking up with men (offscreen) and in a relationship with Jim Hutton, Mercury was pining for Mary and the white-picket-fence life with her that he secretly craved.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? revolves around LGBTQ characters played by Best Actress nominee Melissa McCarthy and Best Supporting Actor contender Richard E. Grant. The latter plays a swinging single, but his one true love in the movie is McCarthy’s professional forger Lee Israel. In some ways, it’s a variation on the role-playing that brought last year’s Best Picture winner The Shape of Water nominations in the same categories for Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins. At least we know Grant’s sidekick character has sex.
The only LGBTQ characters getting any significant love action onscreen this Oscar season are the trio in The Favourite‘s 18th-century royal sex triangle. In fact, the ladies in waiting (and wanting) played by Best Supporting Actress nominees Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz and the royal object of their calculated affection, played by Best Actress nominee Oliva Colman, have more exciting sex lives than any other character in a Best Picture nominee. They make Jackson Maine and Ally’s straight romance in A Star Is Born look positively chaste in comparison.
Perhaps The Favourite benefits from not having to please survivors of its real-life characters. There were no consulting bandmates to straighten out the narrative as with Bohemian Rhapsody. No surviving family members influenced the storytelling as one of Green Book‘s co-writers, the son of Viggo Mortensen’s character, did. (Don Shirley’s family had some unkind things to say about the movie’s depiction of Shirley, none of which, curiously, focused on the way the film treats his sexuality.)
There’s also the question of commercial potential. Before the nominations were announced, most of the Best Picture nominees had underperformed at the box-office. Although the ones that are still in cinemas should enjoy a nice financial boost, Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born, and Black Panther are the only contenders that entered Oscar season as solid hits.
Would Bohemian Rhapsody have made more than $200 million in North America to become the biggest musical biopic of all-time if it had given Mercury’s voracious sexual appetite as much screen time as Queen’s music? Would a more graphic portrait of LGBTQ sexuality have cost it Oscar love the way it may have cost the lesbian drama Carol a Best Picture nomination three years ago. (Before you mention 2017’s Best Picture Moonlight, remember: For all its ground-breaking, that movie left the physical aspect of the main characters’ sexuality mostly to our imaginations.)
After the dust settles and the prizes have been handed out on February 25, the film most likely to influence future LGBTQ storytelling (we hope) might end up being the period comedy featuring women in corsets and guys in poofy powdered wigs. Imagine that. A British queen and her loyal subjects acting more unabashedly gay than the flamboyant frontman of another British Queen.
This Oscar season, that just might end up being the most surprising twist of all.