25 Gay Films Everyone Should See: Part 3D

Third installment in Metro Weekly's popular look at gay, lesbian, bi and transgender films that moved cinema to new heights

COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN (1982)

Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

Robert Altman was never known for making conventional films, and this screen adaptation of Ed Graczyk’s 1976 play was plenty unconventional in that it was an exact replica of the Broadway production, also helmed by Altman. The whole thing is a bit of a slow potboiler, with long-hidden secrets revealed as a James Dean fan club, known as The Disciples, reunites in 1975 on the 20th anniversary of the actor’s death. The story is related in both the present and a 1950s flashback, and it has a deliberately stagey feel. So, what makes it gay? To tell would spoil one of the film’s greatest surprises — and trust us, it’s a surprise you don’t want spoiled. Suffice to say, Jimmy Dean deals with themes that, at the time, weren’t all that frequently dealt with in such a forthright manner. The film also features Cher, whose acting was a revelation on its own. (She later proved it was no fluke, giving incredible performances in Mask and Moonstruck.) Jimmy Dean also features Sandy Dennis, Kathy Bates and that priestess of high camp, Karen Black. Gay enough for you? Thought so. –RS

DIE MOMMIE DIE! (2003)

Die Mommie Die

Die Mommie Die

Watching Die Mommie Die! can feel a bit like tripping on acid, especially for cineastes of the old Hollywood, high-camp style. Charles Busch’s dark farce, based on his off-Broadway play, lovingly sends up those mid-20th century movies in which ruthless, domineering women were the star attraction. (Think over-the-top caricatures of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis). Directed by Mark Rucker, Die Mommie Die! is peppered with references to and tropes from such camp classics, but adds its own modern twist on the genre: Busch plays the lead role, Angela Arden, a washed-up Hollywood actress, and in the words of the daughter who hates her, ”a money-grubbing selfish bitch … and a promiscuous slut.” Did you catch that? Here we have a real-life gay man channeling, in drag, some of our earliest gay divas, larger-than-life Hollywood screen legends who were essentially drag queens themselves. Naturally, the plot is unbelievably far-fetched, featuring murder, a revelatory – and truly far-out – acid trip, even an undercover FBI agent played by Beverly Hills, 90210‘s Jason Priestley. Priestley’s character doubles as a well-endowed gigolo who seduces Arden, her daughter and her gay son, all as part of his investigation. Is this a good gay trip or what? –DR

DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)
SET IT OFF (1996)

Dog Day Afternoon

Dog Day Afternoon

Set It Off

Set It Off

An odd double feature? Sure. But, pairing the (unforgettable) Dog Day Afternoon with the (mostly forgotten) Set It Off accentuates the tragic gay-and-lesbian sentiments that run throughout both films, even if they aren’t necessarily intended to stand out. In the former, Al Pacino plays Sonny Wortzik, an amateur crook who robs a bank to pay for his partner’s sex-change surgery. In the latter, Queen Latifah plays Cleo, a hard-nosed lesbian who convinces three friends to rob a bank. Although Sonny and Cleo couldn’t be more different, these characters drew difficult, multifaceted performances from Pacino and Latifah that add an incredible degree of emotional heft to each film. Both films are marked by a boldness. Pacino’s performance in the mid-’70s and Latifah’s in the mid-’90s stand against difficult periods of LGBT violence — especially in cities — subtly challenging social prejudices without lionizing themselves. All of this is to say: There’s a lot more to Dog Day Afternoon and Set It Off than bank robberies and tragic endings. –Chris Heller

FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002)

Far From Heaven

Far From Heaven

It’d be easy to deem Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes’s Oscar-nominated drama, as simply a clever pastiche of the infamous 1950’s housewife genre — which characterized itself in tales of bored wives, social angst and tempestuous love. Indeed, Haynes borrows heavily from the Douglas Sirk films of that era, with lush colors, period direction, lavish costuming and deliberately clunky dialogue, but he uses the genre and its penchant for examining the lives of the traditional white, middle-class family, and injects a postmodern emphasis on racial tension and sexuality — topics explicitly disallowed in Sirk’s time. Julianne Moore, in a stunning performance, is Cathy Whitaker, the housewife in question, whose seemingly perfect life is shattered when her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) reveals his repressed homosexuality. What follows is a close examination of the reaction typical of the time – therapy, secrecy, an emphasis on maintaining the veneer of perfection – and the inevitable destruction it wreaks on their family. Brilliantly acted, Far From Heaven is a beautifully crafted modern take on the effects of sexuality on the nuclear family. –Rhuaridh Marr

GODS AND MONSTERS (1998)

Gods and Monsters

Gods and Monsters

Bill Condon’s breakout film is a pleasant biographical work, for sure, but it truly shines as a thoughtful meditation about the corrosive power of desire — the Hollywood sort, in particular. Ian McKellen plays James Whale, the troubled film director who made Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, as his life and health slip away with old age. Whale’s romantic life becomes the subject of conflict and flashbacks, and he indulges memories of former flings and taunts his young gardener (Brendan Frasier) with the lurid details of his love life. McKellen’s performance alone is reason enough to watch Gods and Monsters, if only to watch in awe of the dizzying, unusual array of emotions that play across his face. In a long, magnificent career, this is McKellen at his best — he does splendid, clever work in this odd little film. His talent, coupled with the film’s haunting message, makes Gods and Monsters a gay classic. –CH

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE (2012)

How to Survive a Plague

How to Survive a Plague

A tremendously important film, the Oscar-nominated How to Survive a Plague is the story of how AIDS victims were treated is so outrageous and upsetting, it’s nearly unbelievable to consider today — but it happened. Our society’s demons need to be remembered. Enter David France — an investigative reporter who has spent decades covering gay-rights issues — with this astonishing, meticulous documentary. How to Survive a Plague carefully charts the early years of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, better known as ACT UP, an aggressive gay-rights advocacy group that spontaneously came together at the nadir of the AIDS crisis in 1987. France combed through hundreds of hours of footage to recreate the desperate air of the times, lending credence to the righteous outrage that fueled ACT UP through the group’s early, controversial years in New York City. It’s an inspiring method of storytelling that keeps attention toward the filmmakers — the original ones who filmed on camcorders during ACT UP’s rallies and demonstrations. If you care about gay rights, civil disobedience or social activism — and, really, who doesn’t? — you need to see How to Survive a Plague. It’s a history lesson that boils with indignation. –CH

THE HUNGER (1983)

The Hunger

The Hunger

The ’80s may have been the decade when AIDS became part of the American landscape, but it was also the decade when being bi became a trendy social stance, at least along the Los Angeles/New York City axis. But when it came to seeing that trend on the big screen, L.A. got the short end of the stick with the neutered Less Than Zero, whereas Manhattan got the hottest lesbian sex scene on either side of the Mississippi when Susan Sarandon went sapphic with French sex goddess Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger. Years before vampire chic invaded every last corner of the culture, director Tony Scott had already laid the cinematic groundwork that seeps through to this day: dark and moody lighting, goth rock from Bauhaus, sunglasses at night and a heavy touch with the mascara. It was sold as ”sensual” and ”perverse” purely because there was lesbian sex. But it was hot lesbian sex, as hyper-eroticized and unrealistic as any straight sex scene on screen. Who cares if the ending doesn’t make much sense? By that point, Deneuve’s seductive presence had already satisfied a hunger audiences were just realizing they had. –SB

JEFFREY (1995)

Jeffrey

Jeffrey

The late ’80s and early ’90s were among the most dire years for gay men as AIDS tore away so many from the community’s fabric. For many, it seemed odd that gay men would want to laugh in the face of an epidemic, would desire to show the world the difference between the too-common AIDS ”joke” and the uncommon AIDS comedy. Enter playwright and screenwriter Paul Rudnick, whose stage play Jeffrey broke that barrier by taking a particularly acerbic and silly look at gay dating in the age of an epidemic. The film’s origin on the stage shows through, despite attempts to open it up. But Rudnick was happy to have fun playing meta, even making a joke at the expense of the audience he knew would be shocked by an on-screen man-to-man kiss. And he had a great cast to play with: Patrick Stewart prancing merrily out of his Star Trek captain’s chair; Steven Weber cashing in his then-current straight cachet to play the lovelorn title character; and a pre-Mad Men Bryan Batt as the wildly dim but always perky Cats dancer. Between Jeffrey and In and Out, Rudnick managed to show America that not every story about gay men had be about either death or wild sex. It was a much-needed cinematic service. –SB

THE KING AND THE CLOWN (2005)

The King and the Clown

The King and the Clown

While many still hear the phrase ”gay foreign film” and think European, those who pay close attention to the festival circuits know that over the past decade Asia has been the source of many excellent films. Too bad that too few people pay close attention to the festival circuit, because it means too few people have seen the amazing Korean historical drama The King and the Clown. Set in 17th century Korea, it follows two traveling performers — brash, bold Jang-sang (Woo-seong Kam) and effeminate, beautiful Gong-gil (Jun-ki Lee) — who find themselves entangled in the royal court of the country’s most notoriously cruel king. At heart, the film is a love story between the two, turned into a tragedy when the king becomes dangerously enraptured with Gong-gil. Funny, violent and tear-jerking by turns, The King and the Clown became one of Korea’s highest-grossing films of all time and launched Lee into superstardom. And underneath all the costumes and pageantry, the film never loses its focus on two men who come to understand how deep their connection is, in this life and the next. –SB

THE MUDGE BOY (2003)

The Mudge Boy

The Mudge Boy

Written and directed by Michael Burke, The Mudge Boy is a quiet, smoldering powerhouse about loss and sexual awakening. Following the death of his mother, Duncan Mudge (Emile Hirsch), a shy outcast in a small rural community, enters into a friendship with Perry, a virile, sexually feral young man. Through this unlikely relationship, both boys’ lives are forever altered. Hirsch, at the start of his career with this film, brings startling poignancy to Duncan, while the always-marvelous Richard Jenkins hits just the right understated notes as Duncan’s grieving, stern father. Burke’s movie is steeped in a Days of Heaven-reminiscent luminosity, courtesy of cinematographer Vanja Cernjul, and one shot in particular, set in a field aglow in sunlight, is so ravishing, it takes your breath away. You might grow impatient with The Mudge Boy‘s methodical, deliberate pace, but the payoff is worth it. The final moments leave you emotionally winded, and the film fully displays the acting chops of Hirsch, who went on to become one of the finest actors of his generation. –RS

 

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