The 88th Academy Awards will be held this Sunday, and, if Oscar voters so choose, three of the four winners in the acting categories could go to actors playing LGBT characters: Eddie Redmayne (Best Actor forThe Danish Girl) and Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for Carol, respectively). In fact, in the history of the Oscars, there have now only been 40 nominations for performances of LGBT characters. Eleven of those performances have won, even, but each winner has been a cisgender, white person. That trend would continue if any of the three nominees take home a gold statue this year.
We wanted to look at the language used in film reviews for the winning performances. Was the language coded when reviews of Philadelphia were published? Were references to the actors' real-life "straightness" made? Has the way performances of LGBT characters are described even changed?
William Hurt, Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
''KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN'' begins with a theatrical-sounding homosexual describing the plot of an old movie (''her petite ankle slips into the perfumed water'') for the benefit of his prison cellmate, a political radical."
Mr. Hurt also succeeds in making the campy, flamboyant aspects of Molina's homosexuality seem credible and metaphorical in equal measure.
This review was written following a 2001 re-release of the film and plays up Hurt's straightness in a subtle way.
Think of it as a gay "Casablanca."
Hurt, one of the hottest serious film actors of the era…was nonetheless not the obvious choice for the role of an effeminate window dresser.
Hurt, tall and henna-haired, subtly underplays the flashier role of the self-dramatizing Molina, who entertains himself and Valentin with descriptions of old movies, one of them a Nazi propaganda film which the drag queen grasps only in terms of the romance.
The film's setup plays right into a perceived gay fantasy of seducing a straight man…Don't be too quick to jump on Hurt with complaints of old-fashioned gay stereotyping…it's also good to remember that the character he is playing is not sophisticated.
His name is Luis. He is played by William Hurt as an affected homosexual, a window dresser who has been jailed for sex offenses.
William Hurt, who won the best actor award at Cannes this year for this film, creates a character utterly unlike anyone else he has ever played—a frankly theatrical character, exaggerated and mannered - and yet he never seems to be reaching for effects.
Tom Hanks, Philadelphia (1993)
Mr. Hanks gives a brave, stirring, tremendously dignified performance as a man slowly wasting away. But Mr. Washington, who is also very fine as the small-minded shyster who becomes a crusading hero, has the better role.
[The] screenplay allows Andrew almost nothing in the way of individual characteristics. It makes him a gay Everyman whose love of opera—awkwardly underscored in a scene that shows the audience how little it really knows about Andrew—hardly qualifies as a distinctive trait. Andrew's domestic relationship with Miguel (Antonio Banderas) is presented so sketchily that it barely seems real.
Actors don't come any more average-Joe-like than Hanks, who shows both enormous courage and immense ability in the role of Andrew. Bald, emaciated and marked by purple Kaposi's sarcoma lesions, Hanks heart-wrenchingly re-creates the dreadful cost of the disease.
Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry (1999)
Brandon's secret joy in discovering that he can meet and flirt with women is indeed touching and not merely a matter of sexual orientation.
As Brandon, the talented Hilary Swank has a delicateness and a fine-cut androgyny that seem supremely out of place in the film's trailer-trash milieu.
She inhabits the part so fully that it's nearly impossible to remember that she's a woman.
She is a he, not just in the way he dresses, but in the way he moves, speaks, gestures, jokes. Every inch of the character exudes a male sensibility so powerfully, and at times so vulnerably, that Swank's performance crosses into a realm of veracity rare in any film acting.
Nicole Kidman, The Hours (2002)
"A performance of astounding bravery."
Charlize Theron, Monster (2003)
Again, the actor's appearance, and straightness, is alluded to when countering the character being played.
At the very least the disappearance of the cool and creamy blond star into the body of a ruddy, bedraggled street person is an astounding cosmetic stunt.
Once their affair is under way, Wuornos takes the reins and plays the role of a blustering, pseudomacho breadwinner and promises her sullen, needy partner the moon and stars.
With courage, art and charity, she empathizes with Aileen Wuornos, a damaged woman who committed seven murders. She does not excuse the murders. She simply asks that we witness the woman's final desperate attempt to be a better person than her fate intended.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Capote (2005)
Philip Seymour Hoffman's precise, uncanny performance as Capote doesn't imitate the author so much as channel him, as a man whose peculiarities mask great intelligence and deep wounds.
Sean Penn, Milk (2008)
Here he creates a character who may seem like an odd bird to mainstream America and makes him completely identifiable. Other than the occasional employment of Harvey Milk's genitals, what makes this character different? Some people may argue there is a gay soul but I believe we all share the same souls.
Mr. Penn, an actor of unmatched emotional intensity and physical discipline, outdoes himself here, playing a character different from any he has portrayed before…This is less a matter of sexuality — there is no longer much novelty in a straight actor’s “playing gay” — than of temperament.
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008)
Often, especially in later reviews, sexuality is removed almost entirely.
As Maria Elena, Juan Antonio’s unstable former wife (an incident with a blade botched their happily ever after), Ms. Cruz has her own type to surmount, which she does with fire, smoke and comedy. With her artfully tousled hair and watchful eyes, Maria Elena is a classic screen siren (and totally crazy chick), but one with the pulse of a real woman.
Suddenly, and for the first time, her stardom makes sense. As Maria Elena, Jose's Antonio's gifted and neurotic ex-wife, Cruz is on fire - hysterically funny, abandoned, passionate, poignant, with a performance full of shading and wide in range.
The tragedy is, she and Juan Antonio are still deeply in love with each other — but they can't live together without violence flaring up. A menage a quatre takes shape — shaky, but fascinating.
Natalie Portman, Black Swan (2010)
It centers on a performance by Natalie Portman that is nothing short of heroic.
Still, her emotional repression and physical intensity are impressive, and she goes deep into every area Aronofsky offers her, doing absolutely everything she can do with what's there.
Portman's role as Nina the ballerina in Black Swan is her most mature to date, though not precisely her most grownup.
Played by Natalie Portman in a smashing, bruising, wholly committed performance, the young dancer, Nina, looks more like a child than a woman, her flesh as undernourished as her mind.
Christopher Plummer, Beginners (2010)
It’s a perfect role for Plummer, whose sexuality in movies has skirted the domain of orientation and yet has always had the debonair trappings associated with homosexuals of a certain vintage….The elliptical structure saves Plummer from veering into camp.
Christopher Plummer, an actor filled with presence and grace, brings a dignified joy to his new gay lifestyle. He delights in the gay pride rainbow, dances in clubs, throws parties and introduces Oliver to his boyfriend, Andy.
The material with Plummer is so spectacular—exuberant, poignant, vastly entertaining—that it swaddles the rest of the film like a warm blanket. A reliably good character actor for decades, Plummer sells the film’s never-too-late message with his broad smile and infectious personality, but undercuts it with a subtle note of obliviousness to anything outside the pursuit of his character’s happiness. The performance threatens to overwhelm the film, if not transcend it.
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyer's Club (2013)
But it is Jared Leto—fearless, funny, openhearted, sympathetic and totally believable as the transsexual who opens Woodroof’s eyes to people and lifestyles he cannot begin to understand—who literally steals the picture. What a performance from an actor who grows in stature every time out of the starting gate.
As for Leto, he takes a role that is physically flamboyant and doesn't get seduced by that. Rather, he inhabits the character's internal life, all the secrets and contradictions—Rayon's mix of garishness and delicacy, grandeur and self-loathing, gallantry and despair—and the result is something deep and lovely.
Mr. Leto is always a subtle and intriguing actor, but Rayon essentially revives the ancient stereotype of the tragic, self-destructive queen, suffering operatically and depending, at last, on the kindness of strangers.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: email@example.com