There is always a buzz in the LGBT gay press when a film with gay or lesbian characters is nominated for an Oscar or even wins a Golden Globe. So it was no different this year when The Kids Are All Right—the lesbian family drama starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore—was a winner at the Golden Globes and was nominated for several Academy Awards. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (also written by Cholodenko along with Stuart Blumberg), The Kids Are All Right is being hailed as the new "big breakthrough movie" that will bring queer themes and characters to a large, non-homosexual audience.
This, of course, was the refrain when Brokeback Mountain was released; then Milk was the big film that was going to bring gay politics to a non-queer audience; and then A Single Man was going to bring the plight of queer love for a deceased partner to heterosexual moviegoers.
Now The Kids Are All Right will be the first Hollywood movie to bring a lesbian family drama to a non-queer audience. But is it really such a big breakthrough? And, more important, is it the gayest film being nominated?
As a breakthrough, The Kids Are All Right does score a modest win. Most Hollywood films with queer characters and content are about men. A narrative that centers on a lesbian couple raising children together—even if one has a fling with the biological father of the kids—is a step forward. But at heart The Kids Are All Right is essentially a sudsy family drama that has its roots in such weepers as the 1934 and 1959 versions of Imitation of Life and the 1937 Stella Dallas. The major difference is that all of those films dealt, in their own way, with themes of feminism, race, and class that elevated them above their genre. Although well acted and well directed, The Kids Are All Right is boring and its smug platitudes about middle-class family, albeit lesbian, relationships and loving your kids do nothing to challenge or startle its audience. True, it was a cross-over film and many heterosexuals saw it, but those were the sort of heterosexuals who already approve of same-sex couples raising children. At heart, The Kids Are All Right is totally straight in its sensibilities and its approach to how people live their lives.
I don't want to argue that all of the other films nominated for Best Picture are radical in their approaches to sex, orientation, and gender. That is clearly not the case. But this year's nominees include a number of films that have surprising queer sensibilities, or at least inclinations. Take The King's Speech, directed by Tom Hooper. While it involves matters of State and royalty, as well as two heterosexual couples, its main trope is the problem of overcoming a personal flaw that makes you a social outcast (even though you might become King of England). In this case it is Prince George's serious stutter. Clearly, there is no overt gay theme here, but the use of a physical or personal infirmity to signify sexual difference has deep literary roots. Think of Somerset Maugham's use of Philip Carey's clubfoot to signify the character's (and the author's) "deviant" sexuality in Of Human Bondage or any of Carson McCullers's characters whose physical deformities are stand-ins for queerness. Part of why The King's Speech is so moving is its innate, unconditional sympathy for the outsider who, through no fault of its own, is alienated from society.
David Fincher's The Social Network is a variant on this theme, but more complex since Mark Zuckerberg, the film's heroic anti-hero, is a dickhead most of the time. But what makes the film so interesting is that he is a nerdy, Jewish dickhead at Harvard who longs to be accepted at one of the school's elite clubs. As a history of the evolution of Facebook the film has some interest, but the emotional pain of the film—which drives its story and its character development—is the pain of the outsider. This film speaks more clearly and loudly to queer college kids than anything in The Kids Are All Right or Brokeback Mountain. David O. Russell's The Fighter is also about an outsider, but the emotional impulse of the film is in its subtext of the homo-eroticism of one-on-one contact sports. The taut, emotional relationship between brothers is reminiscent of Luchino Visconti's 1960s homoerotic masterpiece Rocco and His Brothers (which also features a boxer) as well as the weird, sexually ambiguous/ambivalent tensions of 1999's Fight Club. The Fighter is fueled by unspoken emotions of a same-sex, in this case brotherly, relationship.
Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, is mostly silly. A camp romp of female madness with serious artistic ambitions, which several critics have compared to Michael Powell's highly-lauded 1948 The Red Shoes, Black Swan is a hysterical, compelling mish-mash of temper, temperament, and devotion to art (with a capital A). But the soul of Black Swan resides in seeing a diva go to pieces, which is a total treat for queer fans of diva worship. The falling-apart diva is a long established tradition of gay male culture—Bette Davis's 1952 The Star based on her own life, Susan Hayward's 1955 biopic of Lillian Roth, I'll Cry Tomorrow, the entire life of Judy Garland—and Black Swan is icing on an already too rich and unhealthy cake.
There is nothing very gay about Danny Boyle's 127 Hours or its star, the now ubiquitous James Franco. What is interesting is Franco's unorthodox career decision to play gay male role after gay male role: beginning as James Dean in the 2001 TV movie James Dean to Harvey Milk's boyfriend in Milk to Allen Ginsberg in Howl to playing gay poet Hart Crane in The Broken Tower (currently in production). Franco has been so bombarded by the question "Are you gay?" from the LGBT press, he has retreated from the "No, if I were I would say so" to "Well, maybe I am gay." Now that's progress, at least in Hollywood.
The Cohen Brother's True Grit is hardly queer, but it is feminist. The tale of an 11-year-old, take-charge female in the old west seeking revenge on the man who killed her father is at once a revisionist western and a feminist fairy tale that is feisty and funny. Far closer to Charles Portis's 1968 novel than the Henry Hathaway 1969 version, True Grit has a stronger female empowerment message than any five Julia Roberts movies put together.
So if The Kids Are All Right is not the queerest film of the year what is? My vote is for Toy Story 3. Since the beginning of the series in 1995, few films have managed to convey such isolation, fear, and potential tragic loss of a loved one. Sure, I know it's toys that are being left by a boy named Andy who is off to college (leaving the toys he has always loved behind) and the toys once again find themselves adrift in a world they cannot control and have to use their wit, energy, and ingenuity to navigate and survive. The emotional appeal of the Toy Story films is that they bring us into the inner world of an unnoticed, tightly knit, and loving community. The fact that they love Andy, even when he forgets them for long periods of time, makes the story even more poignant.
So what does it tell us about the state of queer life in the United States that the most "out" film up for an award this year is really, in the realm of what is being considered, the most conservative? As the LGBT movement fights for the right to same-sex marriage and the inclusion of queers in the military, seeking acceptance in the traditionally most conservative institutions America has to offer, is it any wonder that a band of raggedy toys battling for their survival and their sense of purpose in life would represent the true spirit and energy of the LGBT movement?
Michael Bronski is a senior lecturer in Women's and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College. His articles have been published in the Village Voice, the Boston Globe, GLQ, and the Los Angeles Times. His books include the current Queer Ideas and Action series (editor) from Beacon Books, Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps, and An LGBT History of the United States (forthcoming in May).