Queer cinema is hard to define. To some, it means films that explore LGBTQ+ characters dramatically — most of these end up being romances. To others, it can simply refer to films that challenge our idea of sexuality and gender. That is the definition of queerness, after all: abiding by rules of instinct, not society, to define one’s identity. Rather than explore the greatest moments in LGBTQ+ cinema (of which there are many), I want to look at films that have redefined what sexuality and identity mean in stories. As a society, we have a lot of idealistic catching up to do, but these monumental works have shown us the way.
THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
Anyone who knows film must be aware that famed director James Whale was openly gay, a bold choice that may have led to his tragic suicide at age 67. It also brought us one of horror’s greatest films, and queerest as well. Considering that Mary Shelley, her husband Percy, and their infamous friend Lord Byron were all bisexual—and are all featured in the film’s wraparound story—the connection is obvious. There’s also the undeniable fabulousness of Elsa Lanchester in the title role, and queer actor Ernest Thesiger’s melodramatic villain Doctor Pretorius; but Karloff’s monster truly expresses the aberrant heart of the story, a cast-off creation who wants nothing more than to be loved.
THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975)
It’s famous for its silliness, sure, but this midnight favorite resonates beyond its campy borders — it made queerness charming, fun and visible. Gender and sexuality mean nothing in Richard O’Brien’s world, translated from an even more successful stage show; and imagine being a teenager in a place where gay people didn’t live openly, witnessing this boundless environment for the first time, and finding something of yourself. Tim Curry singing “Don’t dream it, be it” as an array of men and women luxuriate in sensuality, remains a transformative scene for many young people.
DESERT HEARTS (1985)
As with more recent landmarks like Brokeback Mountain, Carol and Call Me By Your Name, Donna Deitch’s film takes a poetically realistic approach to her soft-spoken, same-sex love story. Natalie Cooper’s nuanced, detailed script has a literary crispness to it, likely a result of its source novel by Jane Cooper – it pairs beautifully with the endearing performances and Hopper-inspired images of future PTA collaborator Robert Elswit. It’s a deeply American film in its imagery and characters, but it’s also soft and intimate in a way that penetrates beyond taboo; its protagonist’s nervous, passionate awakening speaks to universal love.
This is not John Waters’ queerest film, nor is it his best; but it may be his most accessible, and it displays his incredible gift for depicting the “bizarre” within a crystal-clear story structure. It’s queer for a number of reasons—the always-wonderful Divine in her last film role, the camera’s tendency to linger on beautiful boys—but the true heart of the film lies in its acceptance of everyone. Tracy may be overweight, but she’s still fabulous, and she gets to neck passionately with the boy of her dreams. Waters constructs a fantasy here, but it’s one without a shaming moral; like Dr. Frank N’ Furter, he wants you to own your identity.
PARIS IS BURNING (1990)
It’s a gay rite of passage to watch this groundbreaking film for the first time. As she was creating a documentary, director Jennie Livingston didn’t write this film in a traditional sense; but she uses her amazing range of footage to build a fascinating story that delivers crystal-clear information while exposing a beautiful, powerful group of people who the world has always tried to erase. Not only are these performers tough, survivors; they’re also fiercely talented. Move over, Madonna – these characters are the real pioneers of vogue.
The winner of 1991’s Sundance Grand Jury prize launched a career for iconic director Todd Haynes; but it remains a groundbreaking example of queerness on its own – not only through its frank depiction of gay sex, but due to its stylistic and thematic daring. With a black-and-white segment that stylistically turns Frankenstein into a pulpy sex movie, vivid documentary images tell of an aberrant boy who becomes a holy gift, and the most decadent of them gives luxurious seriousness to a steamy prison love story. As with Haynes’ future pastiche masterpiece Carol, it’s a passionate love letter to film history, but in a strictly queer, sex-positive way; but this effort feels even more earnest, more inventive, and more daring in its transformative approach to beloved tropes.
THE WATERMELON WOMAN (1996)
Cheryl Dunye’s frank depiction of queer life—featuring women, men, people of color—eschews shame or fear in its narrative, instead opting for a zest and energy that defies discrimination. Within it, a queer woman realizes that her little-known cinematic idol was also a lesbian — crossing identities across years in an industry that still devalues these stories to this day. Dunye’s ultra-indie tells a straightforward, traditional story through the lens of marginalized voices, and prove that sexuality has no factor in pure, cathartic entertainment value. Her final words echo deeply in today’s climate, too; she implores viewers to own their identity, honor the struggles of the past, and move forward.
With awards season overlooking her sophomore feature, Mudbound, it’s the perfect time to remember Dee Rees’s remarkably assured debut. Lena Waithe told a similar, though more hopeful, version of this story in her brilliant Master of None Thanksgiving special; but it owes a lot to Rees’s personal, complex, and intimate look at a Brooklyn teenager’s coming out. Not only does Rees direct her queer love scenes with earnestly adolescent realism, she forces us to question gender norms — Alike is both masculine and feminine, gruff and vulnerable, and her presentation hardly influences the core of her story: discovery and acceptance of one’s raw self.
Director Sean Baker is a straight white man, and in no way could have told this story through his own eyes — so he asked leads Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez to help him write the script. The result is a whip-sharp, frantically-paced, and deeply nuanced revenge saga; it may be 90 minutes long, it may be shot on an iPhone, but its core expands far beyond its limited confines. It shows us the way of life for two women, who must fight to maintain their dignity in a world that constantly shames them. And you know what? In spite of everything, they succeed.
Not only did A24’s first original production break boundaries by gaining a positive queer film the coveted Best Picture Oscar – it also brought a gay character into the hyper-masculine world of impoverished Miami drug dealers in the 80’s. Considering the premise, one might expect a hard-edged, invulnerable approach to the story; but Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece could hardly be more sensitive towards its central issues. When Little asks Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae what “fag” means, one might expect a negative answer; the ensuing conversation is so delicate, so open, and sets the stage for a deeply intimate experience. In a place where masculinity means survival, we get to witness one man coming into himself with all the gentleness of a prestige romance. This is the future of cinema, queer and hetero alike.
The history of queer film is far too rich to distill into a single list. Comment and discuss the LGBTQ+ films that changed your life or challenged your understanding of sexuality below.
And if you, yourself check off any box other than cisgender, heterosexual, white male, then you absolutely qualify for the WeScreenplay Diverse Voices Screenwriting Contest. The Spring 2018 contest season is currently open and the early bird deadline is February 15th, 2018 and regular deadline is March 15th, 2018. A portion of your entry goes directly to charity. This year we’re supporting Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY program, an independent film distribution and resource collective comprised of artist advocacy organizations, maverick volunteers, and rebel member donors worldwide. Their work is dedicated to the amplification of independent films by people of color and women filmmakers globally.
BEN LARNED is an independent genre writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. He has written for outlets such as Blumhouse, Bloody Disgusting, The Script Lab and ScreenCraft. His column Forbid