Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

Latest LGBT Films Move Beyond 'Coming Out' Narrative


Here is what our movie critic Bob Mondello noticed at the Toronto Film Festival a couple weeks ago.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: There were so many movies centering on gay, lesbian and transgender characters.

MCEVERS: As you can hear, Bob is with us to talk about this because some of these films that you saw - right? - are now in theaters or are about to be out very soon. Tell us about some of them.

MONDELLO: Well, that's right. There's "Stonewall," which is about the birth of the Gay Rights Movement.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) We wear our hair in curls. We wear no underwear.

MONDELLO: Then there was Julianne Moore and Ellen Page playing an embattled lesbian couple in "Freeheld."


JULIANNE MOORE: (As Laurel Hester) When my heterosexual colleagues die, their pensions go to their spouses, but because my partner is a woman, I don't get to do that.

MONDELLO: And next month, "The Danish Girl," in which Eddie Redmayne plays a transitioning transgender woman.


EDDIE REDMAYNE: (As Einar) There was a moment when I wasn't me. There was a moment when I was just Lili.

ALICIA VIKANDER: (As Gerda Wegener) But Lili doesn't exist. We were playing a game.

REDMAYNE: (As Einar Wegener) It's not a game.

MCEVERS: Wow, so a lot of films to cover. I mean, how are these films different than the ones we've seen with LGBT characters in the past?

MONDELLO: Well, these are central characters. They're not the star's gay friend who lives in the apartment upstairs and consoles her when she breaks up with her boyfriend. These folks are central.

MCEVERS: And it sounds like they're also not just coming out stories. They're more complex, right?

MONDELLO: That's true. Even when they are coming out stories - "Stonewall," for instance, is about a guy who's coming out, but it's also about the birth of the Gay Rights Movement in 1969 at the Stonewall Inn. "Freeheld" is about Julianne Moore playing a police officer who's dying of cancer and wants her benefits to go to her partner. There's "Carol," a '50s romance between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. There's a picture called "Legend" that's coming out some point this fall, and it's got twin British gangsters, both of them played by Tom Hardy - one straight and the other gay. And they do not make a big deal out of that.

MCEVERS: I mean, this makes me think back to some of the major LGBT characters we've seen in the past. You know, there was Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct." You had Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia," of course, the two cowboys in "Brokeback Mountain."

MONDELLO: That's true. And they were always controversial. Look at the history a little bit. Back in 1992 when "Basic Instinct" opened, Sharon Stone played the only bisexual character in a major movie that year. And she was a crazed, murderous, ice-pick wielding bisexual. I mean, you can imagine why the LGBT community would be furious. Today, she would be one of many, many characters, and there'd be no fuss.

MCEVERS: And of course, in "Philadelphia," there was a gay character played by Tom Hanks, but it had to be about HIV-AIDS.

MONDELLO: Right. It was a year later, a hugely sympathetic gay character but doomed by a disease that was then known as the gay plague.

MCEVERS: And then what about "Brokeback Mountain?" Wasn't that a breakthrough?

MONDELLO: Well, it's a gay romance, but again, it was doomed.


JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (As Jack Twist) I wish I knew how to quit you.

HEATH LEDGER: (As Ennis Del Mar) Then why don't you? Why don't you just let me be? It's because of you, Jack, that I'm like this.

MONDELLO: You know, I have to say, it and "Philadelphia" qualify as a breakthrough of sorts because prior to that, straight actors were afraid to play gay characters for fear that they'd never get romantic leads again. We're in a different world now.

MCEVERS: But then one criticism is that it's only straight actors who play gay and transgender characters, right?

MONDELLO: Right. Rupert Everett was famously shut out of straight parts for a while because he was an out gay man. So it cuts both ways. But more gay actors are now willing to play gay. And of course, Neil Patrick Harris, who's married to man in real life, plays a straight womanizer on TV and in the movies. I think we're kind of over that now.

MCEVERS: But even with this new batch of movies, I mean, there was a recent critique in New York Magazine that in several of these films, the focus is still on the straight characters.

MONDELLO: Yeah. You know, I have to say, the majority of the audience is straight. And I suspect writers and directors think that this is a way into the story for them in the same way that they used to think that stories about the black experience, like "Cry Freedom" about South Africa or "Mississippi Burning," needed a white character at the center so that audiences would go. Sandra Bullock is the main character in "The Blind Side" though it's really about an African American football player. I think things have slowly gotten better, but that'll eventually be true with LGBT movies too.

MCEVERS: So why do you think we're seeing this trend of a lot of LGBT movies now?

MONDELLO: Well, there's something in the air. There's no question about that. The gay marriage debate in the last year or so has been representative of social forces that are transitioning, and audiences are transitioning too. Remember that movie audiences tend to skew young, and that's an age group that's relaxed (laughter). I joke that it's relaxed to the point of indifference towards sexuality. They grew up on "Will And Grace." Ellen DeGeneres was a TV star by the time they were around. They're not nearly as likely to be surprised or put-off by stories like this. And you've got to remember that people have to buy tickets to movies. They can't just sort of tune in on television and see them. They have to buy a ticket. So you have to have the audience willing to go to these things.

MCEVERS: That's NPR movie critic Bob Mondello. Thanks so much, Bob.

MONDELLO: It's always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.