This year’s crop of films proudly marches into what may be LGBTQ history, with no less than 10 releases — many of them Oscar contenders — boasting one or more queer lead roles. Consider “Aftersun,” “Bros,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “The Inspection,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” “My Policeman,” “Spoiler Alert,” “Tár” and “The Whale.” And if you add in writer-director Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking,” based on Miriam Toews’ novel, there’s a supporting character many may interpret as a trans man.
Can this profusion be proof of societal progress?
“It wasn’t that long ago that most people living in this country could make the decision, ‘I never want to see or hear from a queer person, and I certainly never want to interact with one,’” says “The Whale” playwright and screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter, adding that — like for the heroes in the films above — being gay is an indelible part of who he is but doesn’t define him. “I don’t know if that’s really possible anymore.”
“Our stories couldn’t be told — or had to be told in a kind of code where we were hidden,” echoes Dan Savage, who with David Marshall Grant adapted “Spoiler Alert” from author Michael Ausiello’s memoir. All three men are gay. “Now straight people have reached a point where they can see themselves in our stories and in queer characters. That’s opened the floodgates.”
“There’s a real interest in being who we are now as people,” adds Grant, emphasizing that the tales from this season’s LGBTQ-friendly films are wildly eclectic. “That’s probably one of the biggest differences. There’s not just one story.”
“My characters are always going to be queer by default,” says writer-director Charlotte Wells, whose father-daughter drama “Aftersun” features younger and older versions of the girl. In one subtle scene, adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) sits up in bed beside her female partner. “The stories I’m interested in telling are my experience in the world.”
But it’s not just queer writers conceiving LGBTQ protagonists. Writer-director-producer Todd Field — who calls “Tár” a “fairy tale” because “anyone familiar with the history of classical music will know that not a single woman has ever been a principal conductor of a major German orchestra” — created his titular lesbian maestra for Cate Blanchett. He could have made Lydia a straight woman who abuses her power by grooming and misleading younger men. “I wanted to tell this story in a Germany where the fact that the conductor was a female was a given,” he says via email. “Her sexual identity a given. The same as it would be for any straight male.”
Some queer explorations once considered taboo are no longer. Via email, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” screenwriter-producer Anthony McCarten writes this of the Whitney Houston biopic: “From the outset, the creative team behind this project wanted to make a film that not only paid homage to one of the most brilliant and beloved musical artists in the world, but one that shed new light on the woman behind the music, and that would include all facets of her life.”
“My Policeman” screenwriter Ron Nyswaner — who’s gay, who adapted the script from Bethan Roberts’ novel and who was nominated for an Oscar for “Philadelphia” almost 30 years ago — supports any talented voice telling any tale. “I would never presume to tell people what they can and can’t write about,” he says, adding he doesn’t judge anyone who feels otherwise. “If you’re a good writer, you understand something about the human condition. I believe there is human drama — that can touch, move and inspire people — that transcends specific groups.”
While non-queer movie stars won queer roles — Blanchett, Daniel Craig in “Glass Onion,” Brendan Fraser in “The Whale” — many were played by LGBTQ (or famously non-self-labeled, in the case of Harry Styles) actors. To wit: the entire main cast of “Bros”; Emma Corrin, David Dawson, Rupert Everett and Styles in “My Policeman”; Jim Parsons and Ben Aldridge in “Spoiler Alert”; and Jeremy Pope in “The Inspection.”
“If you never give queer actors the opportunity to play queer parts,” says “The Inspection” writer-director Elegance Bratton — whose semi-autobiographical military drama, set in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era, focuses on a maltreated gay Marine — “when will you ever get to the point where there’s a queer actor on the level of an A-list movie star [powerful] enough to make a film?”
There are some who feel we’ve had enough period pieces about institutionalized homophobia and unbridled discrimination. “If we forget our past, it’s likely to repeat itself,” counters Nyswaner. “We need to know our history. The struggles we’re having now were born of the triumphs and the struggles of the past.”
“My story is not about struggle,” stresses Bratton. “My story’s about triumph.”
As for those who may take umbrage with the fact that yet another queer hero dies in the tearjerker “Spoiler Alert,” Savage has a riposte: “Everybody dies at the end. Every love story foreshadows a tragedy. What’s wonderful about our movie is that it’s a comedy full of life and humor, and it has that tragedy in it that’s coming for us all. When Harry met Sally, Harry buried Sally, or Sally buried Harry. And we know that. The funeral is a part of every wedding.
“That the hero dies in our movie isn’t a callback to that cinematic era where any time there was a queer character, they had to be punished with death — purged from culture and society for everything to be right. Our movie is about that sad miracle of two people falling in love and one person having to see the other person out. Which is the best we can all hope for, right? It’s not being beaten to death. It’s being loved to and through death.”