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LGBTQ+ films dominated this year’s additions to the National Film Registry

A scene from "Pariah"
A scene from "Pariah"Photo: Screenshot

LGBTQ+ themes and subjects figure prominently in the list of movies selected as this year’s additions to the National Film Registry.

Of the 25 movies announced on December 14 for inclusion on the prestigious roster, a quarter of them were made by or about members of the LGBTQ+ community in America.

Administered by the U. S. Library of Congress, the Registry is a roster of motion pictures chosen for their “cultural, historic or aesthetic importance” to be preserved as part of the nation’s heritage.

The Registry was established under the terms of the National Film Preservation Act, which requires the Librarian of Congress each year to name 25 motion pictures

The Librarian makes the annual registry selections after considering nominations from the public and conferring with members of the National Film Preservation Board and Library of Congress specialists.

Because movies must be at least 10 years old to be eligible for inclusion, the list is considered a bellwether of films that have stood the test of time and have become part of the national dialogue.

This year’s additions were chosen from 6,865 titles submitted by the public for consideration. They bring the number of movies on the Registry to 850.

More mainstream films on this year’s list include Marvel Studios’ Iron Man; Brian de Palma’s adaptation of Carrie; director Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally; and the 1950 version of Cyrano de Bergerac. The oldest was an 1898 film of the “Mardi Gras Carnival” parade in New Orleans.

But out of the larger list of 25 films, several “broke ground in visually representing the LGBTQ+ community that had long been kept out of sight — or at least off screen,” the Library of Congress observed in a statement.

Similar to filmmakers depicting other groups struggling to gain acceptance, “LGBTQ+ creators used films to confront tough issues, make gay people more visible, urge greater empathy and show commonalities in society,” library representatives said.

The movies with a connection to the LGBTQ+ community are as diverse as their creators.

On one end of the spectrum is John Waters’s 1988 Hairspray, considered to be one of the gay filmmaker’s most mainstream movies. Set in 1962 Baltimore, it’s a fictional tale about a plus-size teenager and her friends who integrate a local TV dance show.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Pariah, a film about a Black teenage girl in Brooklyn coming to terms with her identity as a lesbian. Written and directed by Dee Rees, the 2011 film won numerous awards and is widely regarded as a key film in modern queer cinema. It’s one of the few films in the Registry made by a Black lesbian, and the most recent film added to the list.

The list also includes a student short film about Black gender fluidity in Los Angeles in the 1960s; a video essay about Black men loving Black men in the 1980s; a look at 1960s-era bikers and the New York leather scene; and a film featuring interviews with people involved in the gay rights movement in the 1970s. There’s also a Walt Disney Studios classic featuring gay composer Howard Ashman’s songs about a character who desperately wishes to be someone her family won’t let her be.

The range of subjects and creators is a sign of the effort made by the Library of Congress to select and preserve films that reflect America’s diversity, including different facets of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Films have become absolutely central to American culture by helping tell our national story for more than 125 years,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, in a statement about this year’s list. “We are proud to add 25 more films by a group of vibrant and diverse filmmakers…as we preserve our cinematic heritage. We’re grateful to the entire film community for collaborating with the Library of Congress to ensure these films are preserved for the future.”

“I am especially proud of the way the Registry has amplified its recognition of diverse filmmakers, experiences, and a wide range of filmmaking traditions in recent years,” said Jacqueline Stewart, director and president of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles and chair of the National Film Preservation Board, in a statement. “I am grateful to the entire National Film Preservation Board, the members of the public who nominated films, and of course to Dr. Hayden for advocating so strongly for the preservation of our many film histories.”

Hairspray was Waters’s first film to get a PG rating, and although it isn’t as raunchy or risqué as Waters’s earlier Celluloid Atrocity, it still reflects the filmmaker’s quirky sense of humor and tendency to root for the underdog.

The film that was added to the Registry is the original Hairspray, which was subsequently remade as a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical; a hit musical film in 2007; a live TV version in 2016; more than one national touring production; and countless high school and middle school productions. It’s the second Waters film to be added to the Registry, after Pink Flamingos was selected in 2021. It’s the latest in a long line of honors for Waters, who is getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a retrospective exhibit entitled “Pope of Trash” next year at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

The 1988 cast included Harris Glenn Milstead, also known as Divine; Ricki Lake; Jerry Stiller; Mink Stole; Debbie Harry; Sonny Bono; Josh Charles; Michael St. Gerard; Ric Ocasek; Pia Zadora and Waters himself.

“Sometimes described as affectionate yet mildly subversive, Hairspray is John Waters’ most mainstream film, an irresistible look at Baltimore’s teen dance scene in 1962, as well as a moving plea for racial integration,”says a description on the Library of Congress website.

As the “pleasantly plump teen misfit” Tracy Turnblad, Lake “gave the nation a cultural marker about acceptance for plus-sized women that reverberates to this day: The heavyset girl could win the dance contest and land the good-looking guy,” the description declared.

One of Waters’ subversive decisions was to cast a man in drag – his friend and muse Divine –-to play Tracy’s mother Edna, the loving wife of Wilbur Turnblad, played by Stiller. Although it’s clear to the audience that there are two men on screen – running a household, sleeping together – none of the characters in the film raises an eyebrow or questions the relationship in any way. It’s just a given.

That was Waters’s sly commentary on same-sex marriage at a time when it was illegal around the country.

Hairspray is the only really devious movie I ever made,” Waters told a class of college graduates during his 2015 commencement speech at the Rhode Island School of Design, the basis of his book, Make Trouble.

“The musical based on it is now being performed in practically every high school in America – and nobody seems to notice it’s a show with two men singing a love song to each other that also encourages white teen girls to date Black guys,” Waters said. Pink Flamingos was preaching to the converted. But Hairspray is a Trojan Horse. It snuck into Middle America and never got caught.”

Another addition to the Registry is The Little Mermaid, released in 1989 and well known within the industry as the film that kicked off Disney’s renaissance of making animated musical films – a return to the company’s roots.

“When you combine a beloved Hans Christian Andersen tale with the beauty and heart of truly remarkable Disney magic, you end up with an animated film for the ages,” the Library of Congress said. “Ariel, the titular mermaid, lives under the sea but longs to be human. She is able to live her dream with a little help from some adorable underwater friends and despite the devious efforts of a sea witch named Ursula (a recent addition to Disney’s peerless rogue’s gallery of cartoon villains).”

Much of the film’s success was due to the contributions of two composers, Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman. Menken composed the score and collaborated with Ashman, who was gay, on songs that have become modern standards, such as “Under the Sea;” “Kiss the Girl,” and “Part of Your World.” Sung by Ariel, the character who yearns to be someone her family won’t let her be, “Part of Your World” is considered by many to be an anthem for the LGBTQ+ community.

Ashman had AIDS when he was working on The Little Mermaid and died from it in 1991, while he was working on Beauty and the Beast for Disney. He has been largely credited for sparking Disney’s fabled animation department to make full-fledged Broadway-style animated musicals in the 1980s and 1990s by adapting material from other sources. The end credits of Beauty and the Beast pay tribute to his contributions: “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.”

“Although he’s not here to tell us, many subjects in the documentary feature ‘Howard’ believe that Ashman injected his own pain and suffering as a marginalized queer person into songs like [the ones in The Little Mermaid], going so far as having to fight to have “Part of Your World” included in “The Little Mermaid” when [then-Walt Disney Studios chair] Jeffrey Katzenberg wanted it cut,” Jeffrey Davis wrote for Collider in May.

Though Ashman worked on only three films for Disney, “it was he who really got to the core of what a movie musical, let alone an animated fairy tale musical, should be about: real characters living out circumstances portrayed as beyond our wildest imagination when it’s actually not all that far away from us, to begin with,” Davis added.

The Little Mermaid has another LGBTQ+ connection. The character of Ursula the sea witch is widely thought to be based on Divine, the gay drag performer who died of a heart attack shortly after Hairspray was released in 1988. It’s a further nod to Waters and the universe he created.   

A film with a different sort of gay vibe is Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising from 1963, considered a seminal work of Avant-Garde/Experimental cinema. The 28-minute film follows a group of young, leather-clad bikers as they prepare for a night on the town in New York, leading to a Halloween party that has male nudity and gay undertones if not explicit sexual activity.

The Library of Congress describes it as “a mesmerizing collage of songs from early 1960s pop artists (Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Martha and the Vandellas, the Crystals, Bobby Vinton, and The Angels), a paean to rebel heroes (James Dean, Marlon Brando), and a one-of-kind, rapid-fire exploration and juxtaposition of symbolism and ideas about religion, Nazism, biker subculture, mystique of the underground, gay life and more.”

Shot in and around Brooklyn garages and workshops, with no strict plot or fleshed-out characters, Scorpio Rising is filled with the sort of leather scene images that inspired Robert Mapplethorpe – boots, belts, bikes and the male body.

“From the title of the film, printed in silver studding on the back of a black leather jacket, to tight blue jeans and tucked-in white T-shirts, the male bodies, like the images of the bikes, are shown in lingering fetishistic close-ups, particularly as they dress and groom,” reviewer Jeremy Carr wrote for Senses of Cinema.

Are the bikers gay? It’s never made clear, but it’s suggested.

“The men are vain and very deliberate; everything is carefully arranged and, like their bikes, carefully constructed,” Carr noted. “They strike poses of intentionally stylized machismo, commonly derived from the icons of a brooding, troubled maleness like James Dean and Marlon Brando, shown via photos on the walls and movies on television.”

Four more Registry additions raise the visibility of LGBTQ+ issues in the subjects they explore and the stories they tell. They are:

Behind Every Good Man, 1967: “This flirtatious, heartbreaking, pre-Stonewall UCLA student short by Nikolai Ursin offers a stunning early portrait of Black, gender fluidity in Los Angeles and the quest for love and acceptance,” states the Library of Congress. “Following playful street scene vignettes accompanied by a wistful, baritone voice-over narration, the film lingers tenderly on our protagonist preparing for a date who never arrives.”

Pariah, 2011: “The roster of Black women who have been given a chance to direct features is criminally small, and artists such as Dee Rees show the originality and vibrant creativity that the industry should be supporting,” says the Library.

“In a 2018 conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival, Rees recalled being inspired to write Pariah when she moved to Brooklyn as an adult and was in the process of coming out. Rees encountered a group of teenagers who had come out and confidently knew their sexual identities at an early age; she wondered how difficult such a reveal was for the teens while they were still dependent on others.

“To her, writing ‘Pariah’ was ‘my first expression, the kind of thing I had to do first, for everything else to come.’ She describes how difficult it was to obtain financing given she would be in a meeting and describe the film as ‘Black, lesbian, coming of age,’ and they would say, ‘OK, let’s validate your parking and get you out of here.’ Audiences found the film raw, authentic and illuminating a world some have traversed and the need for empathy from those who have not.”

Tongues Untied, 1989: “Marlon Riggs’ brilliant 1989 video essay Tongues Untied is a riveting combination of interviews, performance, stock footage, autobiography, poetry and dance that elucidates the revolutionary potential of Black men loving Black men,” states the Library of Congress.

“The words of gay poets, personal testimony, rap tableaux, dramatic sequences, and archival footage are woven together with a seductive palette of video effects. Riggs was diagnosed with HIV while making ‘Tongues Untied,’ but continued to advocate for gay rights both on and off screen.”

Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, 1977: “Directed by a collective of six queer filmmakers known as the Mariposa Film Group, “Word is Out” had a profound impact on audiences and became a landmark in the emerging gay rights movement of the 1970s,” says the Library’s statement.

“The film is composed as a mosaic of interviews with over two dozen men and women of many ages, races, and backgrounds who talk about their lives as gay men and lesbians. As Peter Adair, one of the film’s directors noted, the goal was to erase their invisibility in American society. ‘Word is Out’ remains a groundbreaking film of that era, when ‘coming out’ was an act of courage and depictions of gay men and women as ‘everyday people’ were extremely rare.”

Many titles added to the Registry have already been preserved by the copyright holders, filmmakers or other archives. In cases where a selected title has not already been preserved, the Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia, works to ensure the film will be preserved by some entity and available for future generations, either through the federal government’s motion picture preservation program or through collaborative ventures with other archives, motion picture studios and independent filmmakers.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will present a television special about this year’s choices on December 27 at 8 p.m. A complete list of this year’s additions to the National Film Registry can be found at loc.gov/film

Nominations for next year’s list are being accepted until August 15, 2023.

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