When Brokeback Mountain was released in 2005 and nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, it was hailed as a watershed moment in Hollywood history: finally, mainstream cinema was embracing films with gay characters in the lead, and gay love stories at the center. Given that Capote and Transamerica were both released in the same year (and earned acting nods for their leads, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Felicity Huffman), it might have seemed for a moment like Hollywood was ready to come out of the closet. But, two years later, where are the gay characters in cinema? (and, no, 300 doesn’t count)
There is no doubt that Brokeback is an important film, primarily because it is a mainstream Hollywood picture, and because it stars two rising young actors – both of whom conform to mainstream ideals of masculinity – and it subverts conceptions of one of the most traditional and revered of American icons, the cowboy (more on that later). However, it is also apparent Brokeback’s impact on Hollywood is - and was even at its release - fairly small. Consider that some members of the Academy, most notably Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis, refused to even watch the film due to its subject matter (I mean, Tony Curtis, of the Spartacus bathtub scene? Come on). Brokeback is certainly a good film and definitely deserved to be nominated (and win, in my opinion), but if 2005 had been a stronger year for films, I think that it would have been left out of Oscar’s top five. It was lucky enough to be released in a year when the Academy had too few choices, and so grudgingly accepted it as a nominee, and then handed the award to Crash, a film that’s about as subtle and nuanced as a bullet in the head.
The problem for Brokeback is that it centers on two characters who aren’t stereotypically gay. These are “straight acting” (well, except for the gay sex part) guys, and that makes straight guys nervous. For a gay male character to be diffused in cinema, he has a) be so flamboyantly gay and over-the-top that no one would think he was straight, b) be the best friend to the female lead in a romantic comedy, c) have HIV, or d) be evil and die at the end. There isn’t any place in mainstream cinema for gay men who might look straight. For lesbian characters, it’s the exact opposite. In mainstream films lesbians are always the femmy, straight male ideal of a lesbian, and always paired with another femmy chick. The only time you ever seen a butch lesbian in mainstream film is when they’re the punch line to a joke. What does all this show? That the only lateral move that Hollywood has made in terms of gay subject matter is to capitalize on straight male fantasies.
In the wake of Brokeback subverting ideas about cowboys, we’re now seeing a re-emergence of the Western genre (which has been periodically re-emerging and fading away again since the 1980s) and the reclaiming of the cowboy character as an icon of straight masculinity (not that I think this can be entirely contributed to Brokeback; after all there’s a self-styled cowboy in the White House, and it’s only natural that at a time when the U.S. is feeling threatened on all sides and from within, that Americans would drift back towards the archetype of the solitary figure standing up for what’s right in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds). Meanwhile, gay characters elsewhere in Hollywood are… back to where they were before Brokeback: non-existant.
I hold out hope that someday mainstream films will feature gay characters as prominently as they do, say, klutsy/neurotic romantic heroines. Until then, however, I’ll continue to make do with smaller, harder to find films that are willing to show gay characters as complex human beings, rather than an assembly of stereotypes and jokes. On that note, here’s a heads up for likeminded Canadian film fans: later this year will see the release (maybe even in a theater or two!) of Breakfast with Scot, a drama/comedy centering on a gay male couple, one half of whom is the most Canadian of cultural icons: the NHL hockey player.