‘Oscar Wars’ author Michael Schulman on Hollywood’s fraught LGBTQ+ history

‘Oscar Wars’ author Michael Schulman on Hollywood’s fraught LGBTQ+ history
Jimmy Kimmel will host the 95th Academy Awards. Photo: ABC/Matt Sayles

Michael Schulman’s new book Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears details the larger-than-life personalities, scandals, and unforgettable moments that have defined the Academy Awards over the past 90+ years. Among the stories of Hollywood triumph and celebrity gossip, the New Yorker staff writer includes glimpses of the LGBTQ+ movers-and-shakers who have moved and shaken the Oscars—including an entire chapter devoted to the disastrously campy 1989 telecast helmed by Tony-winning gay producer Allan Carr.

Of course, the Oscars—and Hollywood in general—have always had a complicated relationship with queer people and LGBTQ+ representation onscreen. The Academy famously tends to reward cis, straight actors for playing queer roles, and few, if any, of the films nominated for Best Picture have starred out performers.

Ahead of the 95th annual Academy Awards this weekend, LGBTQ Nation got a chance to chat with Schulman about LGBTQ+ Oscar movies past and present, the Academy’s evolving attitude toward queer stories and actors, and what exactly makes a film queer. We may have even gotten you some tips to win your Oscar pool! (Pro tip: Maybe don’t bet on Tár for Best Picture.)

LGBTQ NATION: Let’s start with your favorite LGBTQ+ Oscar movie.

Michael Schulman: I love Brokeback Mountain and I think it should have won [Best Picture]. I start the book, in the introduction, talking about how it lost to Crash [in 2006] and what an outcry that caused. However, many years later, Brokeback Mountain still really holds up. It’s a beautiful film, and when was the last time anyone thought about Crash—other than in the context of, Why did it win the Oscar?

LGBTQ NATION: What’s the most over-rated LGBTQ+ Oscar movie?

MS: Dallas Buyers Club? One thing that’s aged badly, in general, is cis, straight actors playing gay or trans roles. That’s just a perennial thing that’s still going on. This year we have Brendan Fraser in The Whale and Cate Blanchette in Tár, and I’m sure there are others. I mean, I feel like The Whale is a movie that’s aged badly since yesterday.

LGBTQ NATION: Which LGBTQ+ Oscar movies have aged particularly poorly?

MS: Silence of the Lambs. Buffalo Bill. That’s this trope of the psychotic crossdressing serial killer, and that movie famously is one of three movies that won the big five [awards] over all of Oscar history. I love that movie, but it has this asterisk on it, sort of like Breakfast at Tiffany’s has this asterisk on it with Mr. Yunioshi.

Some things you think have aged poorly, but they actually haven’t. If you go back and watch Tom Hanks’s Best Actor speech for Philadelphia, it’s incredibly moving, and to have him talk about two gay Americans who affected the course of his life in his Oscar speech, one of whom was his drama teacher—it was so meaningful that year, very much in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, to have Tom Hanks of all people get up and say that at the Oscars. I defy anyone to watch it and not tear up a little bit.

Tom Hanks will say now, if that movie was being made today, it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to take that role. But that wasn’t possible when it was made. I think he’s acknowledging that evolution, while at the same time, we should give that movie the credit it deserves and that speech the credit it deserves for being so important.

LGBTQ NATION: In prepping for this conversation, the thing that really struck me was, with so many Oscar nominees in so many categories over so many years—some of them out, some of them not, and also, so many nominees who are not big A-list names—how do we even begin to think about the Oscars’ relationship to LGBTQ+ films, filmmakers, and performers?

MS: Right, we probably don’t know a lot of people from the Golden Age of Hollywood who were queer in some way who won Oscars or were nominated for Oscars. We can look back now and see that Cary Grant was most likely queer, but who knows if there was some brilliant costume designer from the 30s or a production designer from the 50s who we should be counting?

I think we should mostly talk about what we do know and the depictions in the movies, because those are the things that we can know. So, in the book, I cover all the different eras, and it’s fascinating to see how certain LGBTQ stories pop up here and there through the movies.

For instance, Midnight Cowboy, which won Best Picture in 1970, is a movie by a gay director, John Schlesinger, and it tells a story that is sort of ambiguously queer about this gigolo who services both men and women. There’s an explicitly gay scene in that movie and a sort of pseudo couple, these two men living together. It’s never really said outright that that’s what it is, but they have a domestic life and a closeness and it’s about their bond. So, that’s what I can think of as one of the earliest queer stories to be a big Oscar winner.

LGBTQ NATION: I was looking up LGBTQ+ films that have won or been nominated for Best Picture, and unless I’m mistaken, not one of the 20 films that I saw listed starred an actual out performer. What do you think that says about the Academy, the Oscars, Hollywood, etc.?

MS: This is still a major hurdle. Hollywood casts cis, straight actors in these roles and it’s considered a risk or a quote-unquote “transformation,” which is catnip for the Oscars. So, we have Jared Leto winning for Dallas Buyers Club because he “transformed,” instead of having an actual gender-nonconforming person in that part. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle because it’s easy to say, “There are no trans movie star who could carry that movie.” But if you don’t put queer people in those major roles, you won’t create any queer movie stars and there won’t be any to carry a movie or win an Oscar.

I saw this dynamic with Bros this past year. It was a movie that very pointedly had an all-LGBTQ cast, and explicitly made fun of the fact that straight actors tend to get these parts. And it was a major disappointment at the box office. This was famously the first gay rom-com from a major studio, and a rom-com from a major studio traditionally has big stars carrying it—Julia Roberts, George Clooney. And Billy Eichner and Luke Macfarlane aren’t at the level of fame. So, what’s the solution here? You have to create new stars. You have to build people up so that they can carry a major movie from a big studio.

LGBTQ NATION: It’s funny because there have been LGBTQ+ actors who have been nominated for Oscars. But many of them weren’t out at the time, and almost none of them played gay in a film that was nominated for Best Picture.

MS: Well, one example might be Jodie Foster. She starred in The Silence of the Lambs and she was closeted for a very long time. And we talked about the fraught nature of The Silence of the Lambs, but it’s sort of ironic that it starred a lesbian woman in a part that is sort of asexual, as I recall.

Michael Schulman’s Oscar Wars

LGBTQ NATION: Do you think it matters if a film about LGBTQ+ people is written and/or directed by someone who doesn’t identify as LGBTQ+?

MS: What seems to me almost more important than who’s starring in the movies is who’s making them. I mentioned John Schlesinger earlier, who made Midnight Cowboy, and the first Best Picture winner to tell an explicitly queer story is Moonlight. That had a straight director, but a gay screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney, who based that story on his life. I don’t know much about the three actors who played the lead role [in Moonlight], but you had Janelle Monáe who’s a queer nonbinary actor in that movie, but more importantly, you had Tarell telling his own story, and that was reflected in the movie.

I’m not the kind of person who thinks you have to have a gay actor playing a gay character. I was a huge fan of Call Me by Your Name, which was nominated for Best Picture. I wouldn’t trade either of those actors for someone else—even despite everything that’s come out about Armie Hammer! Yes, it’s frustrating that gay actors weren’t playing those roles, but we were seeing Luca Guadagnino’s art, and I think that’s important too.

LGBTQ NATION: I found myself thinking about some of the big Hollywood films about LGBTQ+ people nominated for Oscars and wondering whether I’d actually consider them LGBTQ+ films as opposed to films about LGBTQ+ people. Most were directed by straight people and starred straight people in LGBTQ+ roles. I certainly don’t think of them as queer films. Am I being too rigid in my definition here? What do you think qualifies as an LGBTQ+ film?

MS: That’s a great question. I mean, there are certainly films that have a queer aesthetic but may not have an explicitly queer character in them, like Orlando. I’m actually doing this presentation at the Museum of the Moving Image—they have a series called “Snubbed,” and I’m presenting Todd Haynes’ movie Safe, which is just about Julianne Moore as this housewife in 1980s California. And of course, it’s a Todd Haynes movie, there’s something queer about it even though it’s about a straight woman in suburbia. I think that about Far From Heaven too—although, in Far From Heaven, the husband’s gay. But essentially it’s about a straight white woman having an affair with a Black man.

It’s really a straight woman’s story, but…it’s just a queer movie! You can tell by the audience it has.

It’s interesting: this year we have Tár, which is about a lesbian villain as our antihero. It’s written and directed by a straight man and stars a straight woman, and yet every gay man I know is absolutely obsessed with it. Is that a queer movie? Who the hell knows!

LGBTQ NATION: What characterizes the kind of LGBTQ+ movie that gets nominated for Oscars, and what does that say about the Academy?

MS: A lot of the time, in general, movies that tug at the heartstrings and are uplifting do well at the Oscars, more than colder movies. So, for instance, last year CODA won over The Power of the Dog. The Power of the Dog is a very queer movie. But it’s a cold movie, I would say. It plays it cards close to the vest. And CODA just absolutely jerks those tears out of your eyes. I think The Power of the Dog is a better movie, but I’m not surprised that it didn’t win.

So, I think uplift, at the end of the day. It’s not my bag, but it certainly helps. So, a movie like Milk has a very uplifting gay story, and it also has a famous straight actor playing a real gay role—a person who was inspiring and yet victimized by violence, who was assassinated. That is a combination of things that is very Oscar-y, you might say.

The Academy is quite large, and if something warms the heart of a straight audience, that is the kind of queer movie that usually makes some headway. And something that is slyer, like The Power of the Dog, might have more trouble. That’s why I don’t think Tár is going to win Best Picture. It’s a cold movie. It’s a movie that is unsettling and doesn’t give you any easy answers and certainly doesn’t give you any uplift.

LGBTQ NATION: What do you think of the idea that Oscar voters like to see LGBTQ+ characters suffer? That only tragic LGBTQ+ stories or stories of adversity get nominated?

MS: I like to think that we’ve moved past that and that it’s no longer…kill your gays. I don’t know, sometimes gays suffer in movies and I still think they’re great movies. I don’t always think that’s a bad thing.

I think what’s interesting about some of the movies this year is that queerness is kind of incidental. With The Whale or Tár, those are not movies about the plight of being queer. They just have characters who have other problems, and queerness is just part of the structure of their fictional lives. I think that’s interesting.

One of the things I found so moving about Call Me by Your Name is that you kept getting this sense watching it that it was going to end in tragedy, with someone dying from AIDS. And then that didn’t happen. It ended with a heartbreak, and also this beautiful speech from Elio’s father that was shockingly open minded for the period. So, it subverted your expectations of what a gay movie was in so many ways. And as I was watching it, I remember feeling this revelation that I had been trained in so many tropes from movies about gay men that when they didn’t happen, one after the other, I was kind of shocked and overwhelmed and very moved by that.

LGBTQ NATION: When we talk about LGBTQ+ Oscar movies, I think most people will immediately think of Moonlight, Milk, Brokeback Mountain—the big Best Picture winners and nominees. But are there any lesser known or forgotten LGBTQ+ Oscar movies that you would particularly urge people to seek out?

MS: Dog Day Afternoon! That’s a classic that people know, but I don’t think people generally think of it as a queer movie, but I think that it really is and it’s one that holds up shockingly well for something that was made in the 70s. There’s a chapter in the book about the 1976 Best Picture race, which includes Dog Day Afternoon—one of my favorite movies of all time. And I loved getting to know the story behind that story. This is the movie where Al Pacino plays a bank robber who needs money for his lover’s gender-affirmation surgery. Of course, that is not language that is in this movie. But this was a real thing that happened. I tell the story of John Wojtowicz, who was the actual guy it was based on and who really did have a transgender partner. There’s some beautiful stories about their crazy, eccentric love affair that drove him to commit this crime, and then that made it into this immortal movie.

LGBTQ NATION: Is there an LGBTQ+ film that you think was unjustly overlooked by the Academy?

MS: There’s so many. Carol. Carol wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. That’s unjust, in my opinion.

LGBTQ NATION: It seemed like LGBTQ+ movies—and specifically movies by and about gay men—were a big part of the conversation about movies last year. Post Bros and Fire Island, do you have a sense of what the outlook is like for queer movies?

MS: I would really hate to think that the performance of Bros at the box office would deter people from continuing to make mainstream LGBTQ movies. And I think that the industry has gotten the message that they have to keep evolving and they have to be inclusive, and that it’s bad for business if they’re not—which is usually the thing that convinces Hollywood to do things. So, I’m pretty optimistic. There are just so many great LGBTQ filmmakers out there, so as long as they’re doing what they want and making what they want to make, I think we’ll be good. I don’t think we’re about to go back to the 80s or anything like that.

The Oscars are the last stop on the chain, and I would like to think that the Academy will be less inclined to reward straight actors for quote-unquote “transforming” and have some really juicy, sophisticated performances by queer actors in queer roles to embrace and reward.

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