LGBT representation in film is nothing new. Although most movies from the golden age of cinema could only allude to homosexuality, it dates back as far as the silent movie era, with movies like Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman in 1915. Other movies like Morocco (1930), that starred Marlene Dietrich, and featured her performing a song in a tuxedo and kissing a woman, have become iconic in the LGBT cinephile’s world. The history of LGBT cinema is a long and colourful one, here we take a look at just some of the best examples of queer cinema. Starting with the 1961 movie The Children’s Hour and ending with 2015’s Bare, these movies show that queer cinema does not have to be camp or kitsch or even adhere to any stereotypes to be entertaining.
One last thing: this list contains spoilers, so don’t hesitate to watch the movies you haven’t seen yet and come back to check out our opinion!
The Children’s Hour – 1961
The Children’s Hour is a tragic tale of unrequited love and how rumours destroy lives. Oh, and how kids are the absolute worst! Staring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, it follows the story of two school teachers who run a boarding school for young girls. When one of the children makes an accusation towards the teachers, the school is shut down and the rumour mill starts on full throttle. While the word lesbian is never used, and they never explicitly explain what exactly it is the teachers are accused of, it is alluded to, and we are led to believe that the child has accused her teachers of kissing and carrying on an elicit affair. This is not the case however, and this child is a particularly spiteful brat. But through all the accusations and here-say, one of the women discovers she truly does have feelings for her friend, and in the end the story is one of deep tragedy. A truly ground breaking film in its time, MacLaine’s monologue, where she essentially comes out, (without ever using the phrase gay, lesbian, or other), is what Academy Awards are made of. The movie is based on a 1934 play of the same name by Lillian Hellman, and had been previously adapted by William Wyler in 1936, but instead of a lesbian relationship, he changed it to a rumoured affair with the others fiancé. This was the first time we saw anyone actually coming out on screen, and despite the movie’s tragic ending, the themes of unrequited love are handled with delicacy and tenderness.
The Killing Of Sister George – 1968
What The Children’s Hour only alluded to, The Killing Of Sister George full on brandishes. The film follows June, an aging actress in a popular British soap opera. June lives with her lover Alice, a much younger woman. June is a flawed character with a fondness for booze. When June begins to spiral, a new television executive decides that she is too much of a liability and writes her character, Sister George, out of the show. June begins to become increasingly verbally abusive towards Alice, and her behaviour and insecurities begin to push her lover away. The movie showed the general public a glimpse at the hidden lesbian sub-culture that existed in London at the time. It also had a rather graphic lesbian sex scene, something that would go on to see the picture banned in many parts of the UK and Ireland. The movie was absolutely groundbreaking in its unflinching depiction of lesbianism and female-female relationships. It also explored the strange dichotomy that often exists in same sex relationships, where one will take on a more dominant, almost parental role and the other a more submissive, childlike role, (Alice’s nickname throughout the film is Childie, and June constantly brings her gifts of china dolls). It even explored unhealthy attachments coupled with violent tendencies, and what that means when it is between two women.
Cabaret – 1972
Cabaret is a 1972 musical drama starring Liza Minnelli and Michael York. It is widely considered to be one of the most important moments in queer cinema for its unabashed depictions of bisexuality. Something that was considered entirely revolutionary at the time of its release. Set in Berlin in 1931, it follows Sally Bowles, (Liza Minnelli), an audacious American cabaret singer. She meets Brian Roberts (Michael York), a British academic who has come to Berlin to finish out his University degree. Enraptured by Sally’s free spirited hedonistic lifestyle, the two soon become lovers. Brian is questioning his sexuality however, and the arrival of Maximilian Von Heune (Helmut Griem), throws a spanner in the works for everyone! A study in friendship and relationships, the movie is set against the backdrop of the rise of the Nazi Party and the collapse of the Weimar Republic.
Dog Day Afternoon – 1975
Al Pacino plays the inept thief Sonny Wortzik. He enlists the help of his buddy Sal Naturile (John Cazale) to rob a bank in Brooklyn. However things soon take a dramatic turn for the worst, and Sonny is forced to take hostages. During FBI negotiations, it is unveiled that Sonny is only robbing the bank to get the money together for his partner’s sex change operation. The tension builds and the fraught situation becomes untenable. It reaches its dramatic and inevitable climax. The movie dealt in themes that were not common place in the 70’s: sex change operations were not the thing of regular conversation. Interestingly, the movie is actually based on a real-life story that happened in the early seventies. The Chase Manhattan Bank in Gravesend, Brooklyn, was held siege by John Wojtowicz, an ex Vietnam vet who was determined to steal enough money for his male lover to undergo a sex change operation. However the real life story didn’t end as tragically as the movie adaptation did, and Wojtowicz was incarcerated for his crime. He later died in 2006.
My Beautiful Laundrette – 1985
Taking place in the 1980’s and set against the backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain, the movie follows the lives and romance of Omar and Johnny. Omar is a Pakistani boy, who looks after his father, who is an alcoholic. He is given the job of running his uncle Nasser’s laundromat. Johnny, (Daniel-Day Lewis), is a working class punk from South London and a friend of Omar’s since their school days. Johnny has joined a racist punk gang and has been alienated by the white community and all other racial groups in his area. However, after reconnecting with Omar, Johnny helps him to turn the laundromat into a disco, and the two eventually become lovers. But the focus of the story is more about the economic, race and family problems that existed in 1980’s Britain. The movie was directed by Stephen Frears, who later did Dangerous Liaisons, and High Fidelity. The movie tackled themes of interracial homosexual relationships in a way that hadn’t really been seen before.
Desert Hearts – 1986
Set in Reno in 1959, Desert Hearts tells the story of Vivian, a big city career woman who divorces her husband and takes solace in the comforts and quietude of country living. She stays in a guest house where she meets the vivacious Cay. The two begin an unlikely friendship, and Vivian’s world is turned upside down, when Cay ignites a fire in her she didn’t know was there. A beautiful love story set against an idyllic landscape, this movie is a gorgeous romantic film. No gimmicks just a good story with a happy ending, an absolute rarity amongst lesbian themed movies.
The Watermelon Woman – 1996
The Watermelon Woman was written by, directed by, and starred Cheryl Dunye. It is the first ever feature film to be written and directed by a black lesbian woman. The movie follows Cheryl, an aspiring film maker who works in a video store to pay her bills. She is making a documentary about an old movie actress from the 30’s called Fae Richards, or The Watermelon Woman. It transpires that Richards was in fact a lesbian herself, and had a white lover. During the time Cheryl finds this out, she begins to fall for her own white woman. Something that begins to cause unexpected problems between her and her peer group. The movie is a touching exploration of interracial lesbian relationships, and also examines how difficult it is to navigate archival sources that either exclude or ignore black queer women working in Hollywood.
Boys Don’t Cry – 1999
Boys Don’t Cry tells the heartbreaking true story of the murder of Brandon Teena. Brandon Teena (Hillary Swank) is a young transgender man. He flees his hometown under duress, when his ex-girlfriend’s brother discovers that he was born biologically female. He finds a new home in the small town of Falls City, Nebraska. There, he befriends a group of troubled youths and falls in love with Lana (Chloë Sevigny). Lana is an aspiring singer, and the pair begin to plan for a future together. Brandon is welcomed with open arms by all around him, but he is still keeping his past a secret from his new found friends. Lana’s ex-convict/ex-boyfriend,John, and his friend Tom, discover Brandon’s secret, and the whole world comes shattering down around them. John and Tom subject Brandon to a brutal and violent assault and rape. When Brandon tries to report it, he is met with disdain from the local police department and treated like a criminal rather than a victim. When he and Lana plan to run away to somewhere new together, things take a dramatic turn for the worse. Featuring and absolute powerhouse of a performance by Swank in the lead role, this movie is both moving and completely traumatic. The depiction of Teena’s treatment when he went to report the rape will leave you feeling completely infuriated, and the end is just heartbreaking. What makes this movie even more compelling is that it is a true story, and highlights the plight, discrimination and fear that the transgender community must face on a daily basis.
Mysterious Skin – 2004
Mysterious Skin is directed by Gregg Araki and deals with themes of pedophilia and male prostitution and the impact those things have on everyone involved. The movie tells the story of two pre-adolescent boys who are sexually abused by their baseball coach. Each of them has a very different reaction to this, and it shapes both of their lives in very different ways. One becomes a sexually audacious male prostitute, and the other retreats into reclusive fantasies of alien abduction. The two boys lives eventually become intertwined again as young adults, and they eventually find solace in one another. A beautiful unyielding look at the harsh realities of what abuse does to its victims, Mysterious Skin is a bold and unflinching tale. Difficult to watch at times, but ultimately a truly brilliant movie that is both harsh and tender.
L.I.E – 2001
Another movie that deals with themes of pedophilia, sexual manipulation and power, L.I.E follows the story of Howie and his friend Gary. Howie is still reeling from the death of his mother, he feels lost and abandoned by his distant father. He strikes up an intense friendship/relationship with local bad boy Gary. The two spend their days getting up to general mischief and burglarizing their neighbours homes. They eventually, unwittingly rob the house of Big John, an ultra-manly ex-Marine, who is also, an unapologetic pedophile. He propositions Howie, who declines, but the two eventually develop a strange and dangerous friendship. The film is an intense, but delicately handled portrayal of loss, and the effect that has on a young developing teen. Howie is sexually ambiguous and confused, and the extreme feelings of loss and guilt he feels over his mother’s death contribute to how lost he feels. This ultimately is how he ends up in the clutches of Big John in the first place.
Pariah – 2011
Troubled teenager Alike lives with her parents and her younger sister in Brooklyn. From the outset of the movie we learn that Alike knows she is a lesbian and is quietly accepting her identity on her own terms. She has a handful of lesbian friends and frequents gay nights in local bars. It follows her journey through meeting her first love, those first sexual experiences and inevitably the first heartbreak that comes along with that. A tender coming of age drama set against a super cool urban back drop, this movie is a heartwarming story of self acceptance. It also boasts an absolutely incredible sound track of young female hip hop and urban artists.
Bare – 2015
Bare follows the tale of a young woman, tapped in a dead end job, and a dead end relationship, who has her world turned upside down by a free-spirited female drifter. Sarah is bored with the monotonous humdrum of her day to day life. When Pepper shows up at her doorstep with nowhere to stay, Sarah allows the enigmatic stranger to stay on the couch. Pepper goes on to lead Sarah on a roller-coaster ride of drugs and danger and opens the melancholic young woman’s eyes to a world of unending possibilities. The movie’s rich and beautiful cinematography adds a wistful element to this sweeping tale of discovery and excess. An emotionally intelligent and sensitive portrayal of small town malaise and the yearn to escape it.