"Brokeback Mountain" the latest in queer cinema to be recognized for Oscars, film historian says

Thursday, February 2, 2006

The success of "Brokeback Mountain," which leads this year's Academy Award nominations with eight and recently received Golden Globe Awards for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Motion Picture-Drama, seems an overnight triumph for gay-, lesbian- and bisexual-themed films. The film had made $51 million at the box office as of the weekend of Jan. 28 and was the sixth biggest money maker for that weekend.

However, the movie, which has also won numerous critics' awards, is one of several independent films released in the 1990s and 2000s that are increasingly recognized at awards shows and by critics for their depiction of the complexity of gay and lesbian characters, according to a University of North Texas assistant professor of radio, television and film.

Harry Benshoff is the co-author of the recently released "Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America," which he wrote with his partner, Dr. Sean Griffin, associate professor of film and media studies at Southern Methodist University.

Benshoff, also the author of "Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film," says "Brokeback Mountain's" nominations and other Academy Award nominations this year were "pretty predictable," adding that he agrees with most of them "for the first time in many years."

"We're seeing (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) going back to honoring the smaller films which aren't huge blockbusters," he says. "Something like ‘The Lord of the Rings' films, which make lots of money and also win many awards, is rare."

Benshoff says that while "Brokeback Mountain" is seen by some as a movie about gay cowboys, he calls it a queer film instead, since the two main characters "don't claim a gay identity," but marry women and lead heterosexual lives.

"Sociologists would not call them gay. It's really a film that is dealing with homosexual desire that is hidden, and is similar to ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley' and ‘American Beauty,' which featured characters with homosexual desires but not gay identities," he says. "A queer film encompasses all sorts of sexualities, with characters that may or may not be gay."

Benshoff says several films from major Hollywood studios with queer subject matter -- "In & Out," "As Good As It Gets" and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" -- were released in 1997 and later nominated for Academy Awards.

"In & Out," he says, "is a typical Hollywood version" of a man realizing that he is gay, "and turns coming out of the closet into kind of a joke." The real switch toward the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizing queer cinema with complex characters came a year later, when "Gods and Monsters" received the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar and was nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, Benshoff says.

The Academy Awards were "also queer" in 2000, Benshoff says, when "Boys Don't Cry," "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "American Beauty" were all nominated. "Boys Don 't Cry" received Best Actress and "American Beauty" was named Best Picture.

Three years later, in 2002, the Oscars "were probably the queerest ever," he says. The nominees included "Chicago" and "Frida," which downplayed their lesbian characters; "Far From Heaven," which centers on the unraveling of a 1950s marriage of a closeted homosexual and a housewife; and "The Hours," in which all three female characters share kisses with other women.

"The bottom line is that these are all very good films," Benshoff says. " Filmmakers have discovered that people are willing to be interested in gay stories and deal with the complexities of characters and their sexualities. It's not just gay men in drag anymore; queer cinema has really permeated our culture."

In addition to "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote," a biography of gay author Truman Capote, and "Transamerica," about a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual, were nominated for Academy Awards this week and recently won Golden Globe awards. Like many of the queer films recognized in 2000 and 2002, these three films have benefited through "platforming" -- being released in only a few art theaters located in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco or other urban areas before slowly expanding to smaller cities and suburbs, Benshoff says.

"If a queer film makes enough money with its core audience, it crosses over into multiplexes," he says. "'Brokeback Mountain' was planned from the start to go wide. Now it's becoming a date movie."

He notes that not all audiences, including some in the gay community, are happy with the film.

"Some in the gay community don't like the tragic ending," he says. "But the film does a good job of showing that it's not love that's wrong -- it's the inability to act on it."

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