The Evolution of LGBT Films: The Equality Films

*This is part 3 of a 3 part LGBT feature series. Click here for part 1 and part 2

With there now being an understanding of LGBT films relating to the pre-Stonewall era and the many subtypes of awareness films, the final variation of LGBT films ought to be acknowledged in this final feature series. The films I am referring to are what I like to call the “equality films.” There are two types of LGBT films that fit within this category: Films whose LGBT environment is deemed normative by the principle characters and the occasional bigoted straight characters having to learn to accept it. Or, films whose main characters are gay but their sexuality is never an issue within the narrative or it’s discussed at a minimal level. Such films seemingly frame LGBT sexuality as a non-issue and strive to convey a normative life for these characters. The drama or comedy of such films are not directly related to the characters’ sexuality, but rather it is secondary to the main action of the film. However, such films occasionally make references to sexuality, many times making it the foundation of the film but building off of it to frame an overall narrative. The difference between equality films in contrast to awareness films is that equality films strive to convey those within the LGBT community as having the same societal issues as the straight community. Equality films try to portray a convergence of the two societies with a resolution that appeases both communities to function as one.

It can be argued that such films began to be produced in the mid-1990s with many independent films seeking to convey the LGBT community as normative. While many of these films deserve acknowledgement, it was 1996’s The Birdcage that truly opened the door to LGBT individuals being deemed as normative within a film narrative. Just like its original source material, the 1983 Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles, The Birdcage is a film whose environment is introduced to the film viewer The Birdcageas normative. The glitzy club setting and the drag queens who occupy the stage are not represented in a comedic sort of manner. Instead the club and its performers are introduced as regular entertainment for its target audience. The same courtesy was extended to the film’s characters, who weren’t relegated to clichés or commonly associated stock characters. The comedy of the characters is their conflicting personalities and how they clash with each other. It is their characteristics that add to the hilarity of The Birdcage. The characters’ sexuality is not being ridiculed for comedic gain, but rather it is their mannerisms that contribute to laughs. Instead what is being mocked for comedic gain is the very idea of “normative.” The film’s plot sets up the concept of “irregular” versus “normative”: A gay couple’s son is set to marry the daughter of a senator who leads the “Committee for Moral Order.” The couple is asked by their son to deemphasize their gay characteristics and pose as straight individuals when the girl’s family comes that evening to meet them. It is within this clash of demeanor that the comedy of this film thrives.

It is the conflicting personalities of the main characters that truly fuel the comedy of The Birdcage. The couple, Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane), are what provide for some of the film’s funniest moments because both of them The Birdcage 03are forced to conform to an environment they aren’t fully familiar with. They must adapt to the “moral” environment of the senator (Gene Hackman) and his wife (Dianne Wiest), which satirizes what the straight community has often deemed as “ordinary.” Yet despite the clashing of backgrounds in this film, what The Birdcage truly offers to the film viewer is the notion that acceptance is possible. The film offers the perspective that differing personalities are capable of being conjoined for a common purpose or link. While both sides may not agree with each others’ ambitions, they can at least respect each other for who they are. With The Birdcage, the very concept of a marriage union as the epicenter of the film’s plot emphasizes acceptance of family and loving people for who they are. That is the true achievement of The Birdcage.

The concept of “normative” and acceptance is also the basis of 2005’s Transamerica, which took the premise of a coming-of-age film and gave it its own unique twist. The film follows Bree (Felicity Huffman), a transgendered female who is days Transamerica 01away from her sexual reassignment surgery. Before she embarks on her trip to California to have the surgery, she learns she has a son from a former relationship when she was a male. This triggers a cross-country trip with the two of them continually clashing with each other as they both try to attain a form of happiness they can abide by. Like The Birdcage, the foundation of Transamerica’s plot is family and challenging what is deemed as “normative.” The primary issue of the film is Bree being a parent to her son and trying to decide how to unveil that she is his biological father. The various characters Bree and her son interact with are acceptant of her and do not label her as an outcast or deviant. Transamerica even suggests that transgendered individuals easily can blend in with the gender they identify with. This debunks the bigoted assumption that transgendered persons are easily identifiable. Yet it is with the introduction of Bree’s family that the theme of acceptance truly becomes a dominant plot point in the narrative. She is challenged by her family, primarily her mother, who insinuates Transamerica 02Bree’s decision is to spite her. However it should be noted that within these scenes the comedy is directed at the mother whose hysterical behavior is the source of laughter. The comedy is not at the expense of Bree, whose acceptance of herself keeps her at a superior standing in contrast to her mother. However, Transamerica is careful to emphasize that Bree’s mother is still a mother when events go sour and Bree is left in a vulnerable position. Despite all her mother’s qualms about her sex-change decision, Bree’s mother still shows love for her child by the time she leaves the film. She may view her child differently, but that doesn’t diminish the love she will always have for her, which is a form of acceptance in itself.

While The Birdcage and Transamerica challenge the concept of “normal,” there are also LGBT films whose plot barely touches on the theme of sexuality. Such films take the energy and time to tell viewers the principle characters are gay, yet place them within an environment where their sexuality doesn’t classify them as Gods and Monstersinferior. 1998’s Gods and Monsters is one such example, whose theme of legacy and mortality were given more emphasis than the main character’s homosexuality. The film’s focus was based on true-life director James Whale (Ian McKellen), who had directed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Gods and Monsters is sure to inform film viewers of James Whale’s open homosexuality, yet the film is primarily about his resentment of being solely known as the director of the Frankenstein films. Whale is a lonely individual with nobody to confide in except his gardener (Brendan Fraser), who he establishes a platonic friendship with. Whale continually views his gardener with desire, which reminds him of a time Gods and Monsters 02when he could have had anyone before he was reduced to being seen as a washed-up old man with a former directing career. His name being synonymous with Frankenstein ignores his experiences in the First World War and his work prior to the horror films he would go onto directing. Even his own homosexuality is immaterial when fans view him regarding the horror franchise, which reinforces Gods and Monsters being a film that transcends beyond the principle character’s homosexuality. The themes of legacy and mortality are more prevalent, which allowed for Ian McKellen to give his real-life counterpart the ability to be seen more than a homosexual, but rather a creative genius whose talents were grossly ignored.

This narrative style was also used in 2005’s Capote, which told the true-story of how Truman Capote, the noted writer of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was able to attain the story and facts to write the first crime novel that would go onto defining his career: In Cold Blood. Like the narrative of Gods and Monsters, Capote is sure inform film viewers of CapoteTruman Capote’s homosexuality, which was widely known then. However, Capote was such a renowned author that this detail about his life was immaterial and the film treats it as such. Instead Capote places more focus upon his ability to charm those around him to gain access to the information he needed to ensure his novel would be successful. The film especially focuses on the relationship he establishes with Perry Smith, one of two killers on death row who are the basis of Capote’s novel. The film focuses on Capote’s interest in Perry, which hints of homoerotic behavior, yet the film is more about how Capote was able to manipulate Perry’s trust to write one of the most profound pieces of literature that would go onto formulating the “true crime” genre of journalism. Capote’s homosexuality is explored, but it is done in a very minimal level, mostly by showing how his work put a strain on his relationship. The main focus of Capote is upon the writing talent and internalized struggles, such as the alcoholism Truman Capote experienced as a result of writing In Cold Blood.

Such films don’t seek to detach themselves from LGBT topics, but rather treat the characters as being capable of the same struggles and issues as anyone else. The films choosing not to exclusively focus upon sexuality encourages its film The Kids Are All Right 01audience to view the principle characters as though they were anyone else and extinguish the concept that they are “different.” 2010’s The Kids Are All Right especially touches on this notion by conveying that two gay parents are no different than any other family when it comes to issues of commitment and fidelity. The Kids Are All Right follows the unique plot of two gay parents (Annette Bening, Julianne Moore), who learn that their children have located their sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) with the intention of getting to know him. Upon letting this donor into their lives, the couple find their relationship tested and The Kids Are All Right 02threatening to end when its cracks become too big to ignore. It is with this plot that the film offers relatable themes to the viewer they can identify with, such as the issue of being satisfied with one’s relationship and being faithful to each other. The Kids Are All Right explores the topic of relationship stability, which is a plot device many films have long before used. The only difference this film has in comparison to others is that the couple central to the plot is gay, which further disables the opportunity to view them differently. Being gay is not the issue of this film; this film is about parenting and being a good spouse.

Films like The Kids Are All Right have begun to explore narratives that interject LGBT characters into settings that are ordinary and devoid of excessive drama, which allows for smaller LGBT details to be showcased in the films’ narrative. 2010’s Beginners takes the theme of “coming out,” a daunting life choice for any LGBT individual, regardless of age, and crafted a narrative around it. The film’s premise is simple, yet profound: An artist (Ewan McGregor) evaluates his own relationship Beginnersby reflecting on his recently deceased father (Christopher Plummer), who came out of the closet after his wife passed away and announced he was openly gay. While the film itself isn’t particularly groundbreaking, it is the film’s content that is inspirational to film viewers. The film captures an embracement of life that is devoid of shame and reflects a complete acceptance of self. Beginners also subtly hints that age is irrelevant when it comes to accepting who one is. Plummer’s Hal Fields is well into his senior years, but that doesn’t halt him from opening up about himself, engaging in the life he once couldn’t have, and having an open Beginners 02relationship with someone he cares about. The film’s plot isn’t farfetched when contrasting it with recent celebrities who have come out of the closet well into their older years, such as Broadway legend Joel Grey, who recently announced his sexuality at the age of 82. Beginners presents the world as welcoming with the straight and gay community, with both encouraging others to be themselves and eliminating any fears that they will be judged. That is the true success of Beginners: accurately portraying the sense of empowerment one feels when they finally step away the confines of being closeted.

The equality films provide portrayals of the LGBT community that deemphasize their being solely labeled by their sexuality. The purpose of the equality films is to suggest that we as a society aren’t as different from each other as it was once claimed. Of course, society is broken into subgroups and there are elements that are mutually exclusive to such groups, but each group compiles into an overall society that shares commonalities with each other. What truly provides a welcoming aura within a society; a society that is comprised of so many groups, is the simple human right of being treated as equals amongst each other.

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