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This Year’s Oscars Will Be the Queerest Ever. But There’s a Bigger Story Behind the Numbers

6 minute read

On Tuesday morning, Tracee Ellis Ross and Kumail Nanjiani announced the nominees for the 91st Academy Awards. And while some categories are disappointingly homogenous—no women were nominated for Best Director, for starters—the 2019 Oscars race is groundbreaking for queer cinema. Almost every category includes an LGBTQ movie, and many even boast more than one. Five films with queer plots or sub-plots were nominated for Best Picture—Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Green Book, A Star is Born, and Vice—accounting for more than half the nominees in that category, and a staggering number compared to previous years.

This year’s most recognized movies are The Favourite and Roma, both of which scored 10 nominations. While Roma makes history as Netflix’s first Best Picture nominee, The Favourite earns a place in LGBTQ movie history: Yorgos’ Lanthimos period film—about Queen Anne and the two women vying for her favor—received the most nods for a lesbian or queer female-centric film ever, and tied Cabaret (1972) for the most nominations for any LGBTQ film.

Historically, even when LGBTQ films have been nominated for Oscars, they have stood alone. Call Me By Your Name (2017), Moonlight (2016) and The Imitation Game (2014) were the only LGBTQ films nominated for Best Picture in their respective years. In 2015, no queer movies were nominated for Best Picture, despite Carol receiving six other nods. The Academy has also favored gay male narratives but snubbed lesbian ones. Very few movies which center woman-loving-woman characters or stories have been nominated, and even fewer have won. Not only does a queer female movie lead the nominations this year, but it’s in good company: Can You Ever Forgive Me, based on the life of lesbian author Lee Israel, picked up three nods, and Vice, which features a sub-plot involving Alison Pill as Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter Mary, earned eight.

The year’s acting nominations offer much to celebrate, as well. Rami Malek was nominated for Best Actor for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, and both Mahershala Ali and Richard E. Grant received Supporting Actor nods for playing queer characters in Green Book and Can You Ever Forgive Me, respectively. Both Olivia Colman and Melissa McCarthy nabbed Best Actress nominations for playing lesbian characters. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, who round out Olivia Colman’s queer love triangle in The Favourite, were nominated for Best Supporting Actress, making for a total of four Oscar-nominated queer female roles this year, and seven LGBTQ roles total (and that’s not counting Marguerite, a live-action short film about queer women).

But this year’s race had been queered before the Oscar nominations were even announced. The female cast of The Favourite has been overtly queer in promoting the film, from their giddy lesbian innuendo while presenting at the Golden Globes to the numerous, candid interviews they’ve given about the joy of kissing each other and pranking one another during sex scenes. These women are not shying away from speaking about lesbian sex, and their suggestive press tour was the icing on the cake to an already standout gay film.

Perhaps the most refreshing takeaway from this year’s nominees—beyond a simple tally of LGBTQ characters or quotable acceptance speeches—is the way several of the nominated films differ from their predecessors in the nuanced way they tell queer stories. These aren’t movies entirely about coming out or being queer—though those stories are still important. They’re just excellent films that center same-sex narratives, sometimes almost incidentally.

None of the characters in The Favourite or Can You Ever Forgive Me come out during the movies’ events, and no one’s queerness is revealed as shocking; they’re accepted by peers and enemies alike, and any criticism they face is for some other trait (for Lee Israel, her general misanthropy, for Queen Anne, her petulance). They are idiosyncratic and unique, rather than one-dimensional stereotypes: Queen Anne (Colman), Sarah (Weisz) and Abigail (Stone) are at times cunning and demanding, and at others tender. Never are their portrayals of queer women harmful, and often they are quite the opposite: They get to both have fun and be funny onscreen, opportunities queer female characters aren’t often afforded, as lesbian movies are often dreary and tragic (think Carol, Disobedience, or Blue is the Warmest Color).

Lee Israel and her hustler sidekick Jack (Grant) are complex in different ways. Sure, Lee lives alone with her cat and dresses like a librarian slob, but there’s so much more to her: She rejects emotional intimacy, uses humor as a defense mechanism and masterminds a scam to forge hundreds of literary letters to pay her bills. Jack lives with AIDS and puts up a blithe façade to cope with his own fear of mortality. The movie is a platonic love story about two lonely gay people.

Despite these wins, the 2019 Oscars race hasn’t been all rainbows. Some fans and critics have criticized queer nominees for troubling inaccuracies in their scripts, for casting straight actors to play gay characters and hiring straight writers to tell queer stories. One critic called Bohemian Rhapsody “homophobic” for shying away from the realities of Freddie Mercury’s sex life. Others have slammed Green Book, a story about a queer black man, because his sexuality felt swept under the rug and was only referenced when he was legally penalized for engaging in gay sex in a public place. And still others found the depiction of drag in A Star Is Born to be, well, shallow.

While there’s certainly progress to be made, the 91st Annual Academy Awards are a landmark year for LGBTQ cinema, and especially queer women. But the real tell will be who takes home the trophies on Feb. 24—and hopefully The Favourite doesn’t get snubbed where it matters.

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