Kate McKinnon is having a very good year.
After winning a much-deserved Emmy for killing it on “Saturday Night Live,” the gifted comedienne is set to headline her first star vehicle. The 32-year-old has reportedly signed on to play the title role in “The Lunch Witch,” an adaptation of a young adult novel about an evil sorceress who takes a job at a school cafeteria. Helmed by Clay Kaytis (“The Angry Birds Movie”), the film will be the director’s first foray into live action.
But for McKinnon, “The Lunch Witch” will prove an even greater test. She’s had a stellar run of eclectic roles in films like this weekend’s “Office Christmas Party,” as well as “Sisters,” and “Masterminds,” but in these productions, the actress was a just one member of an expansive ensemble. McKinnon, who is a lesbian, has never been front and center before. “The Lunch Witch” will make her one of an extremely small number of out actors who are allowed to topline their own projects in an industry that remains decades, if not light-years, behind on LGBT representation.
While increasing numbers of actors have come out in recent years, few are making movies that are playing in middle America — the kind your grandmother might happen to catch on AMC a few years from now.
Ellen Page, who came out in a 2014 speech for the Human Rights Campaign, has favored smaller projects since going public about her sexuality. The 29-year-old co-starred with Julianne Moore in 2015’s “Freeheld,” based on the acclaimed documentary about a woman who lobbies for same-sex benefits after the death of her partner. Page followed up with a strong performance in “Tallulah,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before getting picked up by Netflix. Directed by Sian Heder (“Orange Is the New Black”), the actress plays a down-on-her-luck slacker who kidnaps a child.
Although Kristen Stewart made her name on the “Twilight” series, she has since focused on quirkier, less conventional projects more attuned to her talents. Stewart, who is currently dating musician Annie Clark, was terrific this year a variety of roles — Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” Drake Doremus’ “Equals,” and Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society.” Two years ago, she also became the first actress to win a Cesar for playing the put-upon assistant to Juliette Binoche in “Clouds of Sils Maria,” also directed by Assayas.
Chasing acclaim, though, has its tradeoffs. Aside from Page’s fairly small part in “X-Men Days of Future Past,” neither she nor Stewart have acted in a movie that has grossed over $20 million since 2012. That means that most viewers won’t have a chance to see an out LGBT person on the big screen all year long — aside from maybe Zachary Quinto once every three or four years when a new “Star Trek” movie comes out.
This is partially by choice but also beyond these actors’ control. Hollywood creates extremely few opportunities at the mainstream level for LGBT representation, whether that’s showing a fully realized, out character on screen or casting a queer person in a big-budget production.
GLAAD’s most recent “Studio Responsibility Index,” released in 2016, found that not a single studio boasted a “good” rating when it came to portraying the LGBT community in a positive light. Paramount, WB, and Disney all received the lowest possible grade, producing films that either used LGBT people as punchlines or ignored their existence entirely. For instance, the Reese Witherspoon-Sofia Vergara buddy comedy “Hot Pursuit” contains a brief scene in which Witherspoon’s character, then a young girl, sits in the back of her father’s cop car with a trans woman in handcuffs. She is startled to find her fellow passenger has a deep, masculine voice.
Disney, which had no LGBT characters in 2015, has attempted to resolve that invisibility by including queer people in extremely brief cameos. “Zootopia,” an allegory for racial prejudice with cute cartoon animals, features an Easter egg for its LGBT audience: Bucky and Pronk, the neighbors of aspiring police officer Judy Bunny (Ginnifer Goodwin), are a gay couple. Astute viewers who browse the film’s IMDb page will note that the furry “roommates” just so happen to have the same last name: Oryx-Antlerson.
“Finding Dory” was applauded for being the first Disney film to showcase an lesbian couple, but like “Zootopia,” their appearance was blink-and-you’ll-miss-it — at the very best. Two women, one of whom has short hair, appear pushing a stroller together in the park, which leaves their relationship open to interpretation. Are they hanging curtains together or just good friends? As Ellen Degeneres pointed out, it could be that one of them just has a bad hairdresser.
Andrew Stanton (“John Carter”), who co-directed the film, claimed that their relationship was a queer Rorschach test. “They can be whatever you want them to be,” he said. “There’s no right or wrong answer.” You’d have to ask Alfred Kinsey to be certain, but that’s not really how human sexuality works.
These LGBT-inclusive moments were lauded as progressive, but they’re indicative of a studio that wants to pay lip service to diversity without during the work of actually being diverse. As Brent Lang (no relation) pointed out in Variety, LGBT representation remains a struggle for major studios who don’t want to alienate foreign audiences. “It’s one thing for a studio executive to support gay marriage,” he writes. It’s another to risk $200 million on a movie with a gay protagonist that needs to play in China and Russia, countries where LGBT citizens face discrimination, legal challenges, and violence.”
“Finding Dory” represented a small step forward for Hollywood — but not in the way coverage of its lesbian couple, who generated major excitement after appearing in a trailer for the film, suggested.
The sequel to the studio’s 2003 smash grossed over $1 billion worldwide and is still the biggest movie of the year in the U.S., taking in $486 million at the domestic box office. While its queer characters might be onscreen for just a handful of moments, the protagonist of “Finding Dory” is voiced by Ellen Degeneres, one of the most recognizable LGBT people in the world. Despite the reported concerns of film executives about the impact of queer representation on international distribution, the movie grossed $38 million in China and $9 million in Russia, not too shabby.
Although McKinnon has been the best thing about “SNL” for years, it’s notable that it took this long for the comic to get her own movie. Kristen Wiig started landing key roles in films like “Knocked Up” and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” shortly after joining the sketch comedy program in 2005. Should “The Lunch Witch” bow in 2018, it will have been six years since McKinnon’s “SNL” debut.
If she’s finally getting the big break for which she’s long overdue, that is because audiences are ready for an out lesbian A-lister, even if Hollywood is struggling to catch up. Whatever your feelings were about the “Ghostbusters” reboot, just about everyone agreed McKinnon, who played the ambiguously queer Dr. Jillian Holtzmann, stole the show. She has that rare quality that megastars have of commanding our attention even when they aren’t actually doing anything. No matter if McKinnon is licking a proton blaster or trying on funny hats, you simply can’t take your eyes off her.
Director Paul Feig — at Sony’s behest — played down the character’s sexuality in interviews, saying that it was up to audiences to decide, but it seems they already have. And they’ve decided that they want more than what The Daily Beast’s Samantha Allen memorably called “Schrödinger’s lesbians — gay and straight at once, all things to all viewers.”
The titular Lunch Witch isn’t queer, but the woman who plays her will be. That’s a pretty good start.