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Tag: Queer Cinema

Editorials

Dear Straight Actors Who Want to ‘Play Gay’: Don’t.

November 17, 2019

There is a utopia on the horizon, distant and hazy like tarmac in the heat. It’s one where people sit around in dark rooms watching films and say, without any level of irony or ignorance, that ‘acting is acting’. Where LGBTQ+ actors are playing straight and the straights are playing gay, trans folk are playing cis-roles and everyone is blissfully equal in what they’re offered. But looking around at the dingy and grim corners of modern cinema anyone can see that we’re not there yet. We’re only squinting at blurry figures just about coming into view. 

Earlier this month the author of Call Me By Your Name, noted straight man and self-confessed paedophile, André Aciman called those that question straight actors playing gay roles ‘small-minded‘ while promoting his second book to profit off LGBTQ+ experience. In the past, Cate Blanchett said she would “fight to the death” to play gay roles, while Rachel Weisz and Matt Smith compared playing gay to playing alcoholics and heroin addicts, respectively. Alternatively, Darren Criss recently announced that his role in American Crime Story would be the last gay role he would play. “I want to make sure I won’t be another straight boy taking a gay man’s role,” he said in an interview with Bustle. Similarly, Armistead Maupin, the gay author of Tales of the City, told the BBC he thought “a gay actor can bring something special to the role from their own experience” and that an LGBTQ+ actor would likely stay closeted to avoid getting typecast or overlooked.

Darren Criss is The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story / Credit: FX

As 2020 draws closer, the spectre of Jungle Cruise and Supernova are beginning to materialise. The former featuring Jack Whitehall’s controversial ‘openly gay’ character for Disney (who is conspicuously quiet in the films recently released trailer) and the latter, a recently wrapped dementia based film starring straight men Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as partners directed by up-and-coming straight director Harry McQueen. The announcement of both projects, once again, sparked debate. ‘IT’S CALLED ACTING,’ people cry on Twitter or in Facebook comments and yes, in that utopia, it is.  But maybe I should say it again, one more time, for the people in the back: We are not there yet. 

Earlier this year Ryan Gilbey wrote “Would there be enough out LGBT actors – brilliant, out LGBT actors, that is – to fill all these vacant parts?” in an article for The Guardian that failed to understand the crux of the issue; opportunity. LGBTQ+ actors are not often considered for straight roles under the guise that audiences won’t ‘believe them’. Out actors have routinely faced difficulty in finding work post-coming out, which has ultimately damaged their career while others are out but try to avoid the moniker of ‘gay’ altogether while straight actors don’t see gay roles in the same light. They are told that ‘playing gay’ will increase their range and potentially bring acclaim (and awards). Why? Rami Malek, Olivia Coleman, Hilary Swank, Jake Gyllenhaal, Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Jared Leto, Tom Hanks, and countless other straight (or assumed straight) actors to be have been nominated (or, in some cases won) a slew of awards for playing LGBTQ+ roles.  

Rami Malek / Credit: ABC Studios

The continued trend of straight folk being awarded for LGBTQ+ roles is a clear indicator of why they don’t want to give them up and what we are facing. For these actors, it is an experience akin to playing an addict and they don’t care that these comparisons trivialise sexuality and frame it as an experience, a passable affliction instead of something intrinsic to someone’s identity. They frame it as a phrase, something that can be thrust upon us and then overcome with a stay in rehab or the kindness of a stranger. And, simply put, it shows that they just don’t understand. 

What do we do then? Do we stop paying to see mainstream films that censor gay sex and reduce all queer intimacy down to quick pecks? The films that are made mostly to appeal to a straight audience and feature so little LGBTQ+ content that it can be edited out entirely and only lose three minutes of its two hours and thirteen-minute runtime. The short answer is: Yes.

L to R: Félix Maritaud, Adéle Haenel, Tracy Lysette, and Tessa Thompson

Maybe it’s time to say enough is enough? To put our money and effort into the rising European stars of Félix Maritaud and Adéle Haenel, who are proof that LGBTQ+ actors can create a name for themselves in queer cinema. Or into actors like Tracy Lysette, who had a role written specifically for her in the critical and box office hit Hustlers, or Tessa Thompson who came out as bisexual in an interview with Net-A-Porter. After all, the French author Édouard Louis suggests that LGBTQ+ people could be the best actors we have to offer as they spend their lives performing to ‘to protect [themselves] from homophobia and masculine violence.’

The aforementioned utopia only shimmers into existence if we are the ones to manifest it. We can explain over and over again to straight cisgender actors that taking the only roles Hollywood will consider queer people for is a problem or we can stop paying to see these movies. We can make movie stars of LGBTQ+ actors, ask LGBTQ+ directors to hire LGBTQ+ actors, shout from the rooftops about the films that get the experience right, and chastise those that get it wrong (or those that try and water it down). We can build that utopia, brick by queer brick. 

Note: The term ‘actor’ has been used throughout this article as a gender-neutral term (as opposed to the gendered ‘actress’) and as such its use is not intended to misgender but rather to level the playing field and avoid unnecessary gender divisions. 

Also Read: Sorry We Missed You: Film & The North

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Editorials

Is Queer Autobiographical Cinema Subtly Political?

August 30, 2019

‘It’s about my inability to love… but I’m fine now,’ says Benjamin, the titular filmmaker at the heart of queer comedian Simon Amstell’s latest film. It’s a film about intimacy and it’s challenges, about pressure and it’s ramifications, and it finds itself in an interesting position. It’s at the intersection between two genres; autobiographical cinema (a genre that is ever-expanding and gaining popularity) and queer cinema (a genre that has experienced a major boom since the nineties).

Autobiographical cinema is easy to explain, it’s a film based on the writer-directors own personal experience, but ‘queer cinema’ can be harder to define. In their book ‘Queer Images’, film critics Benshoff and Griffin suggest there are at least five ways to categorise queer film. Their first two categorisations, about subject matter and authorship, are the most commonly adhered to. If a film concerns itself with queer characters and focuses on a queer narrative, generally it is considered a queer film. However, if it was written, directed, or produced by queer people (regardless of subject matter), then it could also be considered queer. Often, these two things overlap with queer filmmakers commonly making films about the queer experience. 

It is this authorship though that defines Autobiographical Queer Cinema, as the filmmaker infuses a narrative with their own personal experience which will be, inherently, queer. For example, the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Ackerman’s art film News From Home (1977) features images of New York City played over Ackerman reading letters from her protective mother. The narrative itself isn’t queer but Ackerman’s identity as a queer woman could classify it as such. The same could be said of the work of Terence Davies, whose films like Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) or The Long Day Closes (1992) create a tableau of his childhood and family life in Liverpool during the 40’s and 50’s. They’re not explicitly queer, but his viewpoint is. 

Simon Amstell, writer and director of Benjamin (2018) (Photo: HARRY CARR)

Benjamin (2018) is an insight into Amstell’s own fears. As Benjamin, an avatar for Amstell himself reconciles his anxieties about the release of his second film, a romantic comedy based on a Buddhist philosophy of the self, he finds himself drawn to a French musician called Noah (Phénix Brossard). In their relationship, Benjamin is needy, insecure, and unable to fully commit but not really able to let go either (some of which has been addressed in Amstell’s stand up and subsequent memoir, Help). 

Amstell finds himself in territory that has been explored by filmmakers before; the anxiety that comes with revealing your art to the world. The same issue plagued Federico Fellini with  (1963), which in turn inspired Bob Fosse and Woody Allen’s All That Jazz (1979) and Stardust Memories (1980), respectively. Amstell himself, in a Q&A at the London Film Festival in 2018, cited Allen as an influence on Benjamin.‘It’s a bunch of people looking for love in a major city and it’s funny,’ he said. He also referenced Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005), from which he found the blend of comedy and drama a point of interest. 

Desiree Akhavan, creator and writer of The Bisexual (Channel 4) and, the feature film, Appropriate Behaviour (Peccadillo Pictures) (Photo: TEREZA CERVENOVA)

It stands to reason that a lot of queer filmmakers have found inspiration in the work of cis-straight-white-male filmmakers because it is what they have been exposed to. Desiree Akhavan’s 2012 feature Appropriate Behaviour, for example, shares a lot in common with the Woody Allen comedies from the seventies and eighties, as does her TV show The Bisexualbut what makes it different is her identity as a queer Iranian woman and the experience she brings to the table. 

What does it mean then, when queer people who have contextually absorbed the mechanics of this type of film make their own? Is their response, their queering of the conventions, political? Is it postmodern or more explicitly post-heterosexual? The idea of postmodern art is that it reacted to the ideas and values of modernism, which had maintained dominance in the middle of the 20th Century. Could this style of queer filmmaking be a reaction to the kinds of films made by straight men that have enjoyed dominance since the dawn of cinema? 

There is a political connotation to any queer film. In a time in which rights can be stripped away and hate crimes are on the rise, the idea of exploring queer life in a nuanced and tender way becomes a counter-argument that people wish didn’t need to be made; that queer people are people too with intricate lives and not just statistics on the evening news. 

Benjamin, and films like it, subtly challenge the way we absorb queer identities. They are influenced by a cis-straight-white-male style of filmmaking, they even share similarities in subject matter and character types, however, they stem from a queer experience and that is key. The autobiographical nature of these films adds a level of visibility as if to say ‘This is how queer people live and it cannot be denied because this is my experience’. They use their own experience, and the building blocks of hetero-normative film, to create something that can be quietly political, distinctly queer, and specifically true.

Also Read: The Rise of Nigerian-British Filmmakers