The Favourite Was A Victory For LGBTQ+ Representation, But What About Bohemian Rhapsody & Green Book?
The 91st Academy Awards may have been riddled with controversy, and some disappointments, but they made history. Spike Lee won his first Academy Award, for Best Adapted Screenplay, after a 30-year shutout. Black Panther’s Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler became the first Black women to win in their categories, for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design, respectively. And in the major acting categories, three stars took home the gold for portraying LGBTQ+ characters — all based on real-life figures — on screen.
Olivia Colman, who played the tragic, mesmerizing Queen Anne in The Favourite, was the night’s surprise winner, upsetting both projected winner Glenn Close, and audience favorite Lady Gaga. Rami Malek, who won Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, and Best Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali, as classical musician Dr. Don Shirley in Green Book, were pretty sure bets.
The fact that this year’s race included seven (!) representations of LGBTQ+ characters is amazing.(Remember that it was only two years ago that Moonlight became the first Best Picture winner to ever center around an LGBTQ+ storyline.) Along with those three winners, Can You Ever Forgive Me’s Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy, and The Favourite’s Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, all played queer characters in their respective films.
But even as we celebrate that major achievement, these wins mark a good opportunity to take a step back and assess Hollywood’s track record for LGBTQ+ representation onscreen. Because let’s be real: Neither Bohemian Rhapsody nor Green Book, despite their aggressive marketing, were positive depictions of gay identity.
In his acceptance speech, Malek tried to frame his win as Mercury as a win for diversity and tolerance. "We made a film about a gay man and an immigrant who was unapologetically himself,” he said, adding that this is “proof we're longing for stories like this. Part of my story is being written right now, and I could not be more grateful."
Still, as some pointed out on Twitter, the fact that he failed to acknowledge Mercury’s story as part of the larger narrative of the HIV crisis was a major oversight. Especially since Richard E. Grant, whose character (spoiler alert!) ends the film with a positive diagnosis, had made a special point to dedicate his performance to “the generation of men wiped out by AIDS” at the Film Independent Spirit Awards just 24 hours before.
(In a separate controversy,Malek, like the entire cast of Bohemian Rhapsody, spent most of awards season ignoring the elephant in the room: Fired director Bryan Singer’s alleged sexual assault of young boys, long-rumored but comprehensively reported by The Atlantic while the film was still in theaters.)
But even if you managed to put those accusations aside, Bohemian Rhapsody’s treatment of Mercury’s sexuality has been heavily criticized for its moralistic approach. Without erasing Mercury’s gay identity (although some have called out the heteronormative depiction of bisexuality), the film went out of its way to frame it in the most sanitized way possible — the vast majority of screen time is devoted to Mercury’s straight lover and longtime friend, Mary Austin, with only about 10 minutes spent with Jim Hutton, the man with whom he spent his final years. . Poor Alan Leech, who was largely ignored in the awards narrative around the film, played the film’s Big Baddie — a gay man shown to corrupt Mercury and lead him down the road to perdition.
As for Green Book — it’s a choose-your-own adventure of backlash and controversy. The film’s overly simplified depiction of the friendship between a Black man and his white driver in the 1960s South isn’t the only thing viewers have objected to. Dr. Shirley’s own family has voiced serious concerns about the way he was portrayed on screen, calling the film “a symphony of lies.” Ali, who gave an excellent and nuanced performance in a largely broad-strokes, in-your-face film, has been conscientious about addressing their concerns. Shirley’s nephew Edwin Shirley told Shadow and Act that Ali called him to apologize.
“If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry,” Ali reportedly said. “I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character.”
Screenwriter Nick Vallelonga (who wrote the script based on his father Tony’s real-life trip with Shirley), on the other hand, continues to claim that Edwin Shirley himself asked him not to consult anyone other than his own father’s memories.
Even then, the way Don Shirley’s sexuality plays into the script feels somewhat regressive. In one scene, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) has to bail him out of a Southern jail after he gets arrested in a sexual situation with another man. That’s not problematic in and of itself, but it’s the only hint we get of his identity as a gay man — and it’s framed as a hindrance, yet another thing that Shirley hates himself for.
Both of those films feel like dated portrayals of gay identity. The Favourite, on the other hand, even though it’s set in a much more distance past, offered a much more nuanced approach. For one thing, there’s no villain in this story, only strong-willed and cunning women vying for power. Sex is used as a weapon for advancement, but also for pure fun. Queen Anne’s sexual relationships with Lady Sarah Churchill (Weisz) and Abigail Masham (Stone) is framed as just another facet of their complex identities. No one around them takes a negative stance, nor do the women feel ashamed.
There’s been some suggestion that the All About Eve dynamic uses gay identity as a pawn in the royal game of favour, but ultimately, there is true tenderness and affection between all these women. (Plus, it’s not as if heterosexual sex has never been used towards gaining power, onscreen and off.) The rise of Rachel Weisz as a queer icon on social media over this awards season underscores the significance this kind of in-depth portrayal of queer love between women on screen — especially as the 18th century setting normalizes LGBTQ+ identity throughout history.
Still, the fact remains that all seven queer characters nominated this year — including Colman, Rami and Ali’s — were played by straight actors. And it’s a pattern — even recent films like Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, Boy Erased, Love, Simon, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post — all hailed as groundbreaking in their representation of gay identity — have been accused of “straight-washing” in their casting decisions. For straight actors, playing gay characters has long been considered a straight path to Oscar gold — Tom Hanks, Sean Penn, Eddie Redmayne, Charlize Theron, and Hilary Swank are among many others have won Academy Awards for their portrayals of queer characters.
But if we’re really seeking to open up film canon to new and fresh perspectives, the important next step in representation is to give gay actors the opportunity to tell their own stories. And for some, that might mean taking a step back.
Just take Darren Criss. The actor, who has dominated awards season for his portrayal of Andrew Cunanan in American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, has overwhelmingly played queer characters. And yet, despite his Emmy and Golden Globe wins, he made news in January when he told Bustle that he would no longer be playing gay characters as a straight man.
“There are certain [queer] roles that I’ll see that are just wonderful,” he said. “But I want to make sure I won’t be another straight boy taking a gay man’s role.”
As Hollywood continues to expand its understanding of whose stories are considered “important,” it also needs to start paying attention to those who get to occupy those stories. That doesn’t mean policing who gets to play whom — simply that straight (and often white) actors shouldn’t be the only option.
Still, Colman’s victory and performance (and her delightful speech — ”Lady Gaga!”) remains a bright spot in a fraught, and often dispiriting awards season. Queen Anne’s rabbits would be proud of their mama.