9 LGBT characters Hollywood used to make a point

Like Rayon in "Dallas Buyers Club," these LGBT characters were stripped of agency and used to teach a lesson

Topics: dallas buyers club, Matthew McConaughey, terry gross, fresh air, NPR, jared leto, LGBT, Movies,

9 LGBT characters Hollywood used to make a point

“Dallas Buyers Club,” a film about patients enduring the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s, is, despite its noble intentions, deeply flawed, foremost in its focus on a heterosexual protagonist (he’s a real figure but, truly, what are the odds?). The movie is tightly focused on individuals subverting the FDA by importing unregulated medicine from overseas, while ignoring the coordinated protests that actually got the FDA to speed up its trials of AIDS drugs. The film’s heart is in the right place, but it seems unaware that gay men in the 1980s were politically engaged.

That became all the more clear when Jared Leto, among the front-runners for the best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Rayon, a transgender AIDS patient, did an interview with Terry Gross in which he seemed not to know who the president was during the early years of the AIDS crisis. Describing his method of getting into character, Leto said:

… it’s not about me thinking I’m in 1985 and trying to convince myself that, you know, Reagan is president, or whoever was president in 1985. It was really about trying to learn and using it as practice, as rehearsal. You know, does one of the grips reach out and, you know, offer his hand when I’m stepping out of the makeup trailer, because he starts to treat me like Rayon?

This statement cuts to the very heart of depictions of gay people on-screen in the sort of films that major studios put forth at year’s end for academy consideration. Leto, a man who dates women, wanted to be sure that his queer character presented as pathetically as possible, so that other people on the set would feel bad for him. He didn’t bother to consider that, during the AIDS crisis, Ronald Reagan was a galvanizing figure for the gay movement. Indeed, Reagan’s recalcitrance in the face of an epidemic disproportionately affecting society’s perceived undesirables contributed to the climate that made the FDA drag its feet, and this was hugely important to the LGBT community in the 1980s in a way the film, putting a tragic human face on AIDS, fails to acknowledge.



Nothing in “Dallas Buyers Club” is, per se, wrong. But it’s becoming clear in Leto’s press rollout that the film is dedicated to portraying queer people as desperate and in need of rescue. Far more pivotal in moving the ball forward than a single “buyers club” providing unregulated medication to AIDS patients and run by a straight man were the coordinated efforts of gay people to bring the fight to the government’s doorstep. But in “Dallas Buyers Club,” to use Leto’s politically incorrect term on “Fresh Air,” a “transgendered” person is automatically a victim, unaware of how she could help herself and existing entirely outside political discourse. It seems hardly an accident that Rayon, the most prominently featured queer person in the movie, is entirely self-destructive, continuing to abuse intravenous drugs long after diagnosis. We can safely blame her, if only a little; her experience can be explained according to terms we understand, including pity, mild revulsion, and distance. Leto, on “Fresh Air,” said he got into character by standing in Whole Foods and watching people stare at him with “that condemnation, the judgment, and those sorts of things.” The movie treats queer people as objects of scorn with no agency on their own terms.

And it’s of a piece with a long history. Queer folks in Oscar-adorned films rarely fight back, unless it’s out of malice. They’re victims of circumstance and need straight people to advocate on their behalf. They’re, of course, sexless, usually obsessed with thwarted or impossible love. They’re on the fringes of narrative even when they’re protagonists, because they are unable to act in their own defense. These characters exist to make straight people, like the actors who play them, feel good about themselves.

Not every queer character Hollywood has ever created falls into this trap. Though their fates are tragic in a way that ratifies mid-2000s American prejudices and though the film’s desexed marketing was problematic in the extreme, Ennis and Jack in “Brokeback Mountain,” respectively played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, fight for their love and the chance to live life on their own terms (if in a manner proscribed by time and place). “Milk,” starring Sean Penn, explicitly focuses on a political leader with an active and fulfilling sex life. And, strangely enough, “My Best Friend’s Wedding” had a gay best friend character with his own life, thoughts and wit; as played by Rupert Everett, he was nobody’s victim.

These are the exceptions, though, and their relative progressivism (“Milk” depicts events that took place in the 1970s, and feels more up-to-date than even contemporaneous depictions of gay life) only shines a light on how much more “Dallas Buyers Club” and its ilk could do. Here are a few prestigious films that spun gay life as an endless series of victimizations, films that, though they show their age, continue to influence what filmgoers feel comfortable with.

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    9 LGBT characters used to make a point

    Tom Hanks, "Philadelphia" (1993)

    “Philadelphia” is a well-made film about how a gay man teaches a homophobic lawyer about tolerance! (That gay man, played by Tom Hanks, also teaches that homophobic lawyer, played by Denzel Washington, about how AIDS is and is not transmitted … in 1993.) It’s probably a net good that this movie exists, but one hopes (and doesn’t expect) that the 2013 version might feature the gay man as its actual protagonist, and make his journey toward justice the film’s central one, rather than his existence as a vehicle to teach tolerance.

    9 LGBT characters used to make a point

    Matt Damon, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999)

    “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is a gorgeous and compelling movie, centering on an evil queer creature who will kill the object of his affection if he can’t have him. It’s at once delirious fun and somewhat stomach-turning -- just how much is Ripley’s villainy tied up in his sexuality?

    9 LGBT characters used to make a point

    Leonardo DiCaprio, “J. Edgar” (2011)

    The same queasy queer-evil melange from “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is there in Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-bait performance in “J. Edgar.” As the former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, DiCaprio puts on his late mother’s dress -- but he isn’t depicted as having a sexual relationship with his lifelong friend, weirdly ignoring long-standing rumors. The film lands in the sweet spot, depicting Hoover as at once de-sexed and completely weird.

    9 LGBT characters used to make a point

    Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Boogie Nights” (1998)

    “Boogie Nights” is one of the great humanist films of the past couple of decades, giving all of its characters rich inner lives and aspirations. But Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character is one of the only ones who fails to find fulfillment -- he spends his time on camera pining away after Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler and dealing with rejection. Sure, this is how a gay man on a straight porn set would act; it also dovetails nicely with the story of isolation and victimization Hollywood can’t stop telling.

    9 LGBT characters used to make a point

    Greg Kinnear, “As Good As It Gets” (1997)

    This gay man’s brutal beating puts into action a chain of events that teach Jack Nicholson’s character to be less misanthropic and accept the love of a good woman. Good for him for teaching straight people so many lessons even despite his obstacle of having no real personality; all the pain was worth it!

    9 LGBT characters used to make a point

    Ed Harris, “The Hours” (2002)

    The complexity of AIDS patient and poet Richard in Michael Cunningham’s novel got lost in translation along the way; a film that depicts female sexuality with sensitivity uses its AIDS-afflicted gay male character as a plot device to bring about other people’s epiphanies.

    9 LGBT characters used to make a point

    Colin Firth, “A Single Man” (2009)

    Being gay is about, in the period world of “A Single Man,” pursuing impossible love interests, existing in misery, planning for suicide and knowing no one will miss you. Sure, it’s true for the character, but the film’s obsessive indulgence in visual excess makes gay misery seem chic, a best-case scenario.

    9 LGBT characters used to make a point

    Jaye Davidson, “The Crying Game” (1992)

    This film’s shocking twist that the femme fatale is actually a former homme fatal is one thing; poor Dil’s descent, once the secret gets out, into heavy drinking and attempted suicide, requiring rescue from the straight male paramour who once threw up over Dil’s gender identity, is just a bummer.

    9 LGBT characters used to make a point

    Chris Cooper, “American Beauty” (1999)

    The obsessive, lovelorn gay character in “American Beauty” kills Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham out of thwarted desire; to be gay is necessarily to have a twisted, foreign mentality. Lester is kind and sympathetic toward his gay neighbor, making the whole thing even more unfortunate; his killing is entirely unjust, the cost of living around one of those put-upon gays.

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Daniel D'Addario is a staff reporter for Salon's entertainment section. Follow him on Twitter @DPD_

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