News & Notes

Guest Post: MOONLIGHT’s moment in the sun

by Brian T. Carney via Washington Blade

By now, everyone knows what happened at the Oscars on Sunday night. Due to an embarrassing gaffe by PwC, the accounting firm formerly known as Price Waterhouse Cooper, Faye Dunaway mistakenly announced that “La La Land” had been awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture.

With class, when the slip-up was discovered “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz stopped the acceptance speeches and told the “Moonlight” team that they had really been named Best Picture. Chaos ensued.

What most people missed, however, was the way the stage transformed during the confusion. The largely white, mainly male, presumably straight creative and production team of “La La Land” faded away and was replaced by the amazing rainbow crew behind “Moonlight.” The stage became a model for diversity and inclusion that should serve as a model for future Academy Awards ceremonies.

To take it a step further, a movie that erased the existence of LGBT people in Los Angeles and positioned a white man as a savior of jazz and a black man as the slick performer/producer/promoter who tries to steer him away from his sacred mission, was replaced in the spotlight and the history books by a movie that celebrated the life of a gay African-American man who triumphs against the odds on his journey of coming out and coming of age.

It was a neat reversal of the Oscars broadcast of March 2006 when “Crash,” another self-congratulatory film about Los Angeles that denied the existence of LGBT people, was awarded the Best Picture Oscar instead of the groundbreaking queer film “Brokeback Mountain.”

The Best Picture category at the Oscars has had a fraught relationship with queer material for more than 50 years. Starting in the 1940s, films with coded LGBT characters and censored LGBT material were Oscar favorites. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” with Judith Anderson’s magisterial performance as the repressed Mrs. Danvers, won the Best Picture Oscar in 1941. Anderson won as well.

Two heavily censored Tennessee Williams adaptations were nominated for Best Picture: “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1952 and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1959. The “Cat” script was so severely altered that Williams did not even receive screenplay credit.

More recently, in “The Color Purple,” nominated in 1986, Steven Spielberg removed all traces of lesbian activity from the film. In “A Beautiful Mind,” the biopic about mathematician John Nash that won Best Picture in 2002, the filmmakers did not mention Nash’s bisexuality.

In the late 1960s, Hollywood started to flirt with direct mentions of homosexuality. “The Lion in Winter” (nominated in 1969) mentions an affair between Richard the Lion-Hearted and King Philip II of France (played by rising stars Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton). “Midnight Cowboy” (1970) featured the homoerotic relationship between Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) and hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and included a number of gay men among Buck’s clientele. In “Cabaret,” nominated in 1973, Michael York reveals that his character has slept with another man.

Queer material assumed a more central role in two movies in the following decades. Trans issues were featured in the controversial “Dog Day Afternoon” (nominated in 1976). William Hurt won an Oscar for playing a gay prisoner in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” which was nominated in 1985. While the sexual politics of both movies are somewhat suspect today, they were groundbreaking at the time.

With its depiction of the trans serial killer Buffalo Bill, “The Silence of the Lambs,” which won multiple Oscars including Best Picture in 1992, was seen as a setback for queer representation in the movies. This was echoed in “American Beauty,” Best Picture winner in 2000, with its depiction of an abusive closeted gay character.

Things improved over the following decade. A number of films with sympathetic depictions of queer characters were nominated for Best Picture. These included: “The Crying Game” (1993), “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1995), “The Full Monty” (1998) and “The Hours” (2003). The Academy did cause some controversy in 1993 when actor Jaye Davidson was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category for playing a male-to-female trans character.

The relationship between the Best Picture Oscar and the LGBT community underwent a seismic shift in 2006. Two queer films received multiple awards and nominations: “Capote” and “Brokeback Mountain.” In a disappointing upset, “Crash” was awarded the Best Picture Oscar instead of “Brokeback Mountain.”

Things improved again in the intervening decade when several films with prominent and well-rounded depictions of LGBT characters were nominated for Best Picture: “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006 nomination), “Milk” (2008), “The Kids Are All Right” (2011), “The Dallas Buyer’s Club” (2014), “Philomena” (2014) and “The Imitation Game” (2015).

The 88th annual Academy Awards in 2016 were once again a disappointment for the LGBT community. Two outstanding films with impeccable queer credentials, “Carol” and “The Danish Girl” were not nominated in the Best Picture category. Despite four nominations, “The Danish Girl” only took home a Supporting Actress Oscar for Alicia Vikander. Despite six nominations, “Carol” left empty-handed. Queer film had been well and truly snubbed by the Oscars.

To the Academy’s credit, this changed during the 2017 ceremony when “Moonlight” finally broke the Oscar’s rainbow ceiling and took home the statue for Best Picture (along with wins for supporting actor Mahershala Ali and writers Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney).

While “La La Land” had some fine moments (the opening number “Another Day” is a cinematic masterpiece), the Academy deserves significant praise for breaking with tradition and recognizing “Moonlight” as Best Picture instead. It’s a historic move that shows that the tone-deaf days of #OscarSoWhite #OscarSoMale #OscarSoStraight could finally be on their way out.

May the rainbow crew of “Moonlight” be a beacon for Hollywood’s future.

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