Monday 24 July 2017

The real winners at the Oscars were... lesbians

After the steamy 'Black Swan', Donal Lynch salutes Hollywood's gay revolution

Donal Lynch

'It's a great year for lesbians," declared Oscars co-host Anne Hathaway at the start of this year's ceremony last Sunday night.

When Natalie Portman (who has a sex scene with Mila Kunis in Black Swan) beat co-favourite Annette Bening (who plays Julianne Moore's wife in The Kids Are Alright) to win the statue for Best Actress, it marked the most gay-themed Oscars since 2006 (the year of Brokeback Mountain).

It seems lesbian sex scenes have become a part of the Hollywood mainstream.

Portman acknowledged as much when she told Entertainment Weekly about the genesis of her Oscar vehicle, Black Swan: "I remember them being like, 'how do we get guys to a ballet movie and how do we get girls to a thriller?' The answer is a lesbian sex scene. Everyone wants to see that."

Bening's acclaimed role as the matriarchal head of a gay family in The Kids Are All Right involved showing moments of intimacy with her partner, played by Julianne Moore. The encounters had a note of sweet domesticity.

By contrast, Portman's Oscar-winning turn as the disturbed ballerina in Black Swan featured a scene so intense that co-star Mila Kunis was rumoured to have required a couple of shots of tequila before filming it.

What was perhaps most groundbreaking about either movie, however, was the extent to which this once incendiary content became incidental to the plot. The homosexuality in the storylines merely lent them a modern edge.

The sexualised rivalry between the two main characters in Black Swan is no longer an erotic subtext as it was in movies like Single White Female (1992) or Black Widow (1987). Instead it drives the action.

The Kids Are All Right is iconoclastic in its own way, a thoroughly mainstream hit that mirrors an American society in which gay women can now serve in the military and marry in many states.

While these developments in Hollywood have broadly been welcomed by the gay community, some have noted how it's often straight actors playing gay characters who have made a splash (Colin Firth in last year's A Single Man; Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain).

What makes this year's crop of hits notable is the absence of sex scenes with gay men as opposed to lesbians.

At the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, several new films feature lesbianism in their storylines.

Pariah, a coming-of-age film about a black teenager in New York, was greeted with standing ovations at early screenings, and was the subject of a bidding war between rival studios.

'Co-dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same', another well-reviewed feature, presented a more whimsical side to the trend.

Appealing to both prurient and art-house sensibilities, lesbianism may seem like an obvious theme for a movie but it was not always so.

Before the 1930s, the Hays Production Code meant that depictions of girl-on-girl action were specifically forbidden.

In the decades that followed, lesbianism occasionally emer-ged as a covert theme, but seldom did we get depictions of sexual acts.

Axel Madsen's 1996 book, The Sewing Circle, alleged that everyone from Greto Garbo to Marlene Dietrich had indulged in lesbian affairs, but in their lifetimes the merest whiff of homosexuality in an actress's private life would put her beyond the pale.

Quentin Crisp wrote that when scandal-rocked Tallulah Bankhead visited England, "people queued simply to see if a creature so evil could still move and speak".

Today, things have changed -- actresses like Glee's Jane Lynch and Portia de Rossi are openly gay -- however even a heavyweight like Jodie Foster always remained resolutely discreet about her sexuality.

It was 2007 before she paid tribute to "my beautiful Cidney", her partner at the time.

A big part of this can undoubtedly be traced back to the belief that stars gain their pulling power from the romantic mythology we build up around them.

If the majority of paying punters, i.e., heterosexuals, can't identify with an actor's love life, then they won't find that actor as plausible as a romantic lead.

Last month, Jane Lynch showed some sympathy for the problems facing casting directors.

"This is a business of projection and desiring people from afar," she said.

"And watching people go through trials and tribulations, so there has got to be some truth to it, in terms of, 'I could see myself with that person'.

"Because the leading man and lady are the people we want them to fall in love with, and most of the audience is straight. So, for right now, we can only use straight actors."

Several Hollywood actresses have come out in recent years, from Amber Heard, star of Pineapple Express to Samantha Kommer Loken -- of Terminator 3 -- and Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon, but while they have worked since they came out, they have not played romantic leads.

Historically, homosexuality has been associated with menace in film -- we are not that far removed from 1992 when gay organisations picketed Silence of the Lambs because of its depiction of the serial killer.

And in most movies with gay female content, preference is given to sex scenes with feminine women.

The lesbian novelist Sarah Waters has lamented that films tend to emphasise the "lipstick lesbian" element to the exclusion of others.

This sort of imbalance is perhaps inevitable, but Portman for one disagrees with the notion that the current trend for lesbian sex is purely male-driven. She told January's Vogue that it's all about context.

"There's a difference between being in a bra and underpants as an object on a men's magazine cover playing yourself and playing a woman with desires and needs who loves and laughs with her friends -- in a bra and underpants."

Irish Independent

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