My relationship to queerness and my relationship to cinema is a real “chicken/egg” situation, although I was more cognizant of my love for film at an earlier age than I was of my queer identity. But, since I came out, the two have been near inextricable: Through film, I saw what queerness could be, what it was once seen as, what it has been coded as. I have watched queer history and politics, queer joy and pain, queer holiness and profanity, queer pride and protest. Cinema, as an art form that reflects and refracts the culture within which it is made, can be as limitlessness as queerness itself. To find oneself in cinema, latently and explicitly, is rare when you’re not of a dominant social group. When you do find a version of yourself, or many, a tectonic change occurs. You see the world, and you see cinema, in a different way. You can even find community. That’s queer cinema’s power.
For the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, I thought it might be fun to reach out to some of the writers I most respect and admire and share what their favorite queer films are—all the explosive, exciting, strange, erotic, titilating, bizarre, tragic, thrilling queer cinema that has haunted and shaped us as writers, as queer people. But, the legacy of the gay rights movement in general extends beyond just a 50-year mark. Queer cinema and the writers and critics who adore it and support it, here and elsewhere, look to the queer future, like icons Vito Russo and B. Ruby Rich. So, as opposed to limiting our critics and movies to just 50, I thought it might be an even greater symbolic gesture to include the responses from everyone who graciously submitted.
Here she is, girls, here she is, world: 50+ queer writers and their 50+ favorite queer films (listed in chronological order).
Daniel Mallory Ortberg
@Danielortberg; Slate’s “Dear Prudence”
Sylvia Scarlett (1935, George Cukor)
Before Bringing Up Baby, before The Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant fell for Katharine Hepburn as a boy in Sylvia Scarlett. It’s directed by George Cukor, who was at that point the unofficial social director of gay Hollywood. Obvious transmasculine resonance of The Boy Kate aside, there’s also Cary Grant’s fabulous vocal drag as he slides in and out of a Cockney accent and deeper into a wonderfully bewildering T4T, con-artist-on-con-artist vibe. (Kate kisses Dennie Moore, too, just to keep the score even.)
@jake_pitre; Catapult, The Globe and Mail
Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray)
Nicholas Ray’s expert fusion of the western and the melodrama is a politically aggressive metaphor for McCarthyism, bursting with a kaleidoscopic color palette and the underlying tension of (queer) sexual repression. Johnny Guitar probes the violent vagaries of masculinity, matched with a dedication to exploring the power of desire, a power that can be destructive and generative at the same time. This has a defining performance from Joan Crawford, but there’s also Mercedes McCambridge, who plays the vengeful Emma, an all-time queer character, a vile and vindictive woman who stands in glorious contrast to the expectations of unproblematic LGBTQ+ representation we’re supposed to want now. Johnny Guitar is a reminder that being absolutely singular can be the most liberating thing in the world, but danger is inextricable from that defiance of the status quo.
@cinementalist; New Review of Film and Television Studies, film/TV professor
Scorpio Rising (1963, Kenneth Anger)
Kenneth Anger’s 1963 short Scorpio Rising is a wet fever dream about the homoeroticism of then-new symbols of white male masculinity—from the fascination with leather, boots and motorbikes to the lithe beefcakes gracing “physique magazines.” In asking audiences to re-see their recent past, it suggests things may never be as simple as they appear. And as the 30-minute montage builds we find ourselves challenged. Why are gay men drawn to fashions reminiscent of Nazis? When is spitting an assault and when is it an expression of sexual feeling? (Todd Haynes will return to this question in his 1991 film Poison.) By the final scenes—as a leather daddy defiles a Catholic altar with thrilling gusto—Anger reminds us that gender, religion, fascism and so forth are about the repression of queerness not just in policy but in style, that aesthetics and politics are inseparable. However, Scorpio Rising’s real sting lies in its wit. Of course, it seems to say, queers are experts in the drama of gender and cultural morality, in the costume and choreography of sadomasochistic relations. The film’s peppy pop soundtrack is vital in this respect. It makes the images ironic, teaching us that listening is as important as looking (and might free us from the scopic regime rooted in Christianity’s fetishization of iconography). Scorpio Rising’s camp attitudes showed we might stand apart from the trauma, even get turned on by it and laugh at it, modeling a way of thinking that would become a crucial survival skill for the rest of the 20th Century.
Funeral Parade of Roses (1969, Toshio Matsumoto)
Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses shocks you into realizing what cinema is capable of. Matsumoto descends gleefully into the underground culture of 1960s Tokyo, loosely transposing the story of Oedipus Rex onto the life of a drag performer named Eddie (played by Shinnosuke Ikehata, also known simply as “Peter.”) Funeral Parade of Roses eludes genre—coolly slipping between noir, tongue-in-cheek gags, horror, vox pop interviews and balls-to-the-wall insanity—operating through total anarchy, passing between melodrama and surreality in the flicker of a frame. Matsumoto proudly uses the lexicon of the French New Wave, but to be simply radical in presenting his narrative is not enough. He plunges through his work, like the dagger well-bloodied by the film’s end, with the spirit of experimental filmmaking. One character meant to simultaneously stand in for and poke fun at Matsumoto, a handsomely bearded revolutionary artist who goes by “Guevara,” showcases his mind-bending films for his friends as they all pass around a joint. (The film they watch is actually an earlier work by Matsumoto himself.) An awed, blissed-out spectator quotes avant-garde legend “Monas Jekas.” This hazy hangout captures in a microcosm the experience of watching Matsumoto’s feature-length mind-fuck. His Funeral Parade is a textbook case-study in the dance between what Parker Tyler dubbed, speaking of the films of Andy Warhol, “drag time” and “drug time.” It’s a celluloid hit of amyl nitrate, never to be forgotten.
@RebeccaPahle; Boxoffice Pro
Something for Everyone (1970, Hal Prince)
Michael York embodies pure bisexual chaos energy in the 1970s comedy-drama Something for Everyone, one of the three films directed by legendary Broadway producer/director Harold Prince (Cabaret, Company, Sweeney Todd, Fiddler on the Roof, and a whole boatload of others). Something for Everyone’s poster crows that York’s butler character “did it… to everyone!” That “did it” is “had sex with,” all with the goal of worming his way into the circle of a post-war Austrian family with a big fuck-off castle and a fancy title but no money. But, oh, Michael York’s charisma (and his penis) can change that “no money” thing. A social climber with scruples as dull as his cheekbones are sharp, York sets about manipulating a countess (a fantastically arch, not to mention fantastically garbed, Angela Lansbury), her son (Anthony Higgins) and her daughter-in-law (Heidelinde Weis) in this dark-yet-gleeful romp. Something for Everyone is loosely based on an excellent novel called The Cook by Harry Kressing; in adapting it to the screen, Hugh Wheeler, who wrote the book for musicals A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd, added more A) gayness and B) scheming. What else do you need?
Trash (1970, Paul Morrissey)
Paul Morrissey’s Trash was shot with ten bucks and a roll of Scotch tape in the basements and back-alleys of Manhattan in the winter after Stonewall, but it contains one of the best lines in American cinema (“We need welfare and you can’t have my fucking shoes!”) as well as its most tragic performance: The bravura screen debut of Holly Woodlawn. I’d describe the story, but like a foggy evening, Trash is best enjoyed with no warning. In the corrosive spirit of the best pre-Code movies, Trash reveals the truths of its time while rendering its era even more inscrutable, and it has profoundly moved me since I first saw it on VHS as a teenager in my parents’ basement. I return to it because it offers a tutorial in human dignity, but also because it reminds the artist that there are no excuses: one must simply keep turning on the camera, keep pointing it in the right direction, and keep listening closely. A key high-low cultural enigma and the essential masterpiece of the American queer cinema, Trash has the guts to rescue the viewer who needs it most, as well as the immortal courage to demolish any and all customary notions of taste. No volume of queer history is satisfactory without working knowledge of Trash’s last half hour, and no list of the best American comedies is complete without it either.
@blakersdozen; The Daily Beast
Pink Flamingos (1972, John Waters)
John Waters taught me queer could be anything I wanted, even a murderous drag queen who eats shit. The worry that I’m too This or too That melts away before Her Filthiness Divine—her eyebrows, her voice, her malignance. I’m positively humdrum in comparison, but we all succumb to the narcissism of small differences measuring ourselves against the people around us. Pink Flamingos, which depicts two families competing for the title of Filthiest Person Alive, asks you to unbind your imagination and think of how strange things could be rather than how boring they are. It sprints beyond any bounds of taste or politeness, disregarding them as only starting lines in the race to the bottom. It is the opposite of Positive LGBTQ Representation In The Mainstream Media. It is the ur-outsider movie that shows, far better than any kind Pride slogan could tell, that you can be whatever you aspire to be—beautiful and/or disgusting.
@ShelleyBFarmer; RogerEbert.com, Slate, Paper Magazine
Je, tu, il, elle (1974, Chantal Akerman)
Akerman’s Je, tu, il, elle was the first film I saw as a young woman, increasingly aware of my bisexual identity, that felt as though it had my number. It wasn’t simply the acts of bisexuality, though the main character played by Akerman has sexual encounters with men and women (with the former, a desultory handjob; with the latter, an extended sequence of ravenous communion). I had seen literal examples of bisexuality onscreen—most notably the simultaneously prurient and bloodless sex of Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, seen as a sex-mad and tragically chaste teenager. Varda’s film did something more interesting, more shockingly personal: She captured the psychic and spatial qualities of queerness, of bisexuality in particular. The first sequence of the film—in which Akerman’s character recites letters in voiceover, lies on a mattress on the floor, eats endless spoonfuls of sugar from a bag, and methodically moves the position of her mattress within her room—uses extended takes, deliberate motion and repetitive gesture in a way that creates an atmosphere of longing (a state that we all know is canonically queer). Her constant shifting of position and various attempts to achieve some sort of fulfillment (gulped sugar, rearranged furniture) suggest an identity in flux. The final sex scene between Akerman and her female lover is characterized by a kinetic, voracious hunger for each other’s bodies—an explosion of delayed desire, the bursting into fullness of a coming out.
@schlockvalue; Instagram: @askanybuddy
Passing Strangers (1974, Arthur J. Bressan, Jr.)
Though it may be hard to imagine now, adult films were once one of the primary forms of gay media. They told gay stories for a gay audience at a time when the most Hollywood could bother with was trash like A Different Story and Partners, and are the direct forerunners of both the gay indie film movement of the mid-’80s and the much-lauded New Queer Cinema of the ’90s. At the forefront of that transition was Arthur Bressan, whose eight theatrically released features blurred the lines between the “adult” and the respectable, the private and the public—films that would be invited to play festivals like Berlinale abroad, but were relegated to the porno houses back home.
His debut, Passing Strangers, is many things—a loving portrait of hippie-era San Francisco, a romance, a porno movie—but at its core, it’s a coming out story, not just for its 18-year-old protagonist, but for the emerging queer community itself. While it wasn’t the first film to tackle that age-old subject (Dick Fontaine’s Happy Birthday, Davy and Gorton Hall’s The Experiment beat it by a couple of years), it is the first to feel truly emotionally authentic and to successfully translate those intertwined feelings of sexual liberation and awakening political consciousness to film. The finale—shot at one of San Francisco’s first Gay Freedom Day parades—is exhilarating. A landmark film.
@ryanhoulihan; The Outline
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
(1975, Jim Sharman)
When released, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was a flop. At the time, American audiences weren’t so into musical numbers and definitely were not flocking to see a grindhouse take on the genre. But in true queer fashion, the film took to nightlife to spread its wings. Thanks to midnight screenings and word-of-mouth, a cult following soon assembled, blending drag, camp, call-and-response cues and genuine appreciation for dance numbers and dark aesthetics. The story of the film itself follows a boring, newly married heterosexual couple as their minds and bodies are toyed with (and expanded) by a transvestite alien and their other-worldly friends. Sex, sequins and rock and roll await both fans new and old—but please note that the fully Rocky experience can only happen in at a live-screening stocked with toilet paper, confetti, toast and rubber gloves.
Norman… Is That You? (1976, George Schlatter)
This 1976 feature-length sitcom took a flop Broadway show, African Americanized most of the leads, then somehow flopped again, but I have a soft spot for its good-badness. In the film directed by George Schlatter (Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In), Sanford and Son’s Redd Foxx plays Ben Chambers, an uptight man who is horrified to learn that his son, Norman (Michael Warren), is gay and boyfriends with the swishy Garson (Dennis Dugan, who went on to direct Adam Sandler films). Blustery Ben does everything to try to turn Norman straight, including fix him up with a female hooker (the statuesque Tamara Dobson), but nothing seems to work! The result—despite all the wisecracks and stereotypes along the way—is kind of gay positive, especially since camp icon Pearl Bailey plays mama, there are bits for Wayland Flowers and his puppet goddess Madame, and disco diva Thelma Houston sings the witty theme song, “One Out of Every Six.” This silly farce has precious little queer insight or sensitivity, but I love it, like a fabulous old pair of shoes that don’t fit but you can’t seem to toss. Norman Chambers may not be perfect, but he’s a better queer icon than Norman Bates, and I enjoy the fact that Ben bonds with Garson. Best of all, having an interracial gay couple at the core of the film was quite bold, though audiences of all races and sexualities stayed home in droves.
Brian Eugenio Herrera
@stinkylulu; author of Latin Numbers: Playing Latino in 20th Century Popular Performance
Carrie (1976, Brian De Palma)
No film captures queer interiority as vividly as Carrie. Sure, it’s not a film “about” homosexuality, but this story of a bullied teen outcast reverberates for GenX-me as deeply and truly queer. The film begins as Carrie White (the indelible Sissy Spacek) experiences menstruation for the first time at school and is spectacularly humiliated (“Plug it up!”) by her fellow students. We soon understand that everyone in her community considers Carrie a queer and pitiable freak, someone easier to ignore than to treat with kindness. So, naturally, no one notices that Carrie’s sexual quickening has also supernaturally activated her latent telekinetic powers. “Creepy Carrie” is first mocked or ignored by her community; then, when welcomed to normativity (aka “invited to the prom”), the display of tolerance becomes its own cruel and humiliating joke. But Carrie bashes back, manifesting a vengeful vision of high school as hellscape, before finally staggering home only to be reminded that, for freaks and queers, home houses the most hellish hazards of all. Here again, the powers activated by the surge of sexuality in Carrie’s body prove more forceful than anything her community, her school or her family can do to her—and this might be why I treasure Carrie so and why I follow Carrie White across media (novel, multiple films, TV miniseries, even a Broadway musical). When Carrie discovers her sexuality, she also discovers her power to make a different world. For me, that’s about as queer as it gets.
Hausu (1977, Nobuhiko Obayashi)
It took me a couple viewings (and a couple years’ worth of self-analysis) to see the queerness in this gonzo Japanese horror classic. The film, about seven teenage girls being picked off in increasingly bizarre ways in a possessed house, is queer in the way you latch onto when you’re questioning. It’s queer in its atmosphere, and its narrative margins. The house is haunted not just by supernatural beings but by the avenging spirit of an older generation denied a blissful, heterosexual closure. The bond between the seven girls is more than just subtextually queer—it’s representative of the way the queerness of youth is strangled and stomped on by cishet parents. The house “eats unmarried women,” the film’s horror borne of a subtly homophobic viciousness. Obayashi’s aesthetic fixations, too, have a queer sensibility. He rejects cinematic dogma and revels in the possibilities of the medium, using every trick and technique he can think of to hilarious and horrifying effect. It’s easy to categorize as simply campy, but few films have ever displayed such a profound (and profoundly queer) love of cinema art.
@colettearrand; The Wanderer, them.
Cruising (1980, William Friedkin)
Sometimes I feel like straight, Catholic men are uniquely situated to make films about gay men. I used to be a straight, Catholic man, at least in public, and when the shame my religious beliefs bestowed upon me wasn’t suffocating, it was erotic. William Friedkin’s gay duology, The Boys In the Band and Cruising, are very straight, very Catholic movies—one smothering, the other titillating—both making the argument that, whether they care to admit it or not, gay men need rescuing from their desires. I prefer Cruising, as the matter-of-fact way in which Friedkin drops Al Pacino in a leather bar and makes him part of its culture is an admission that those desires and their outcome—the anonymous, leather-clad sex around which Pacino’s Steve Burns is half-repulsed, half-desirous—are, in fact, incredibly hot. Discovering it in college after a guest lecture by one of the men who took part in protests against the film, Cruising opened a door to a part of my identity that I otherwise had no means of discovering, a moment of clarity not unlike confirmation. Unlike confirmation, what I learned from Cruising stuck. I’m glad it did.
Liquid Sky (1982, Slava Tsukerman)
Without relegating to the margins of traditional coming-out stories, Liquid Sky no doubt has self-discovery on its mind, and offers up an appropriately bewildering narrative in turn. By way of an alien abduction picture set inside the early ’80s East Village club scene, Liquid Sky navigates the labyrinth of awakening gender identity, and the collisions inevitable in the drive to see yourself and to be seen by others. Just as present is the magic that comes from being born anew and embedded in the world of young queerdom. The film’s centerpiece, star Anne Carlisle, plays both an underworld celebrity named Margaret and Margaret’s professional, creative and romantic rival Jimmy. Her electricity in both roles, likewise the mystifying form of the extraterrestrial visitors, underlines foremost that this may be a confusing adventure, but it’s also an incredible one.
@eric_shorey; Nylon, Oxygen, One37PM
Liquid Sky (1982, Slava Tsukerman)
Invisible aliens land on an artist’s rooftop and invade Manhattan’s gay punk clubs in the early 1980s, feeding off of orgasms and heroin highs. A neon drenched portrait of the no-wave scene, Liquid Sky has protagonists waxing poetic about the emptiness of the human condition while applying thick blacklight-reactive pancake makeup before endless nights of dancing and heavy drug usage. Are the extraterrestrials eating up queers an early, ominous metaphor for AIDS? Probably! Either way, the action pauses at several points in the film for the most heart-wrenchingly garish fashion shows ever depicted in cinema history, set to the abrasive sounds of glitching analog synthesizers. Liquid Sky went on to inspire the short-lived electroclash movement of the early ’00s and has since become an underappreciated portrait of a queer New York City that no longer exists.
Marya E. Gates
@oldfilmsflicker; Cinema Fanatic
Desert Hearts (1985, Donna Deitch)
If I hadn’t already realized I was pansexual, Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts, and specifically Patricia Charbonneau’s iconic entrance, would have sealed the deal. In fact, I’m sure this film has been a turning point in many a queer woman’s life in the 30 years since its release (check out the great reference to it in Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post). Based on the 1964 novel Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule, the film follows a buttoned-up Columbia University professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) who comes to Reno to obtain a divorce from her husband and falls hard for a free-spirited younger woman named Cay (Charbonneau). Between Robert Elswit’s neon-lit cinematography and the sizzling chemistry between the lead actresses, Deitch’s lush romance continues to reach in and put a string of lights around viewers’ hearts.
@foxe_steve; Paste Magazine
Film: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985, Jack Sholder)
If much of the ’80s slasher boom wrestled with sexual anxiety, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is one of the only mainstream horror movies that added queerness to the equation. A rushed sequel without original creator Wes Craven’s input, Freddy’s Revenge breaks the logic of the Nightmare films by having Freddy appear in the real world—killing in dreams is pretty much his whole hook!—but has become a cult classic apart from its franchise legacy based purely on screenwriter David Chaskin’s embrace of the infamous maxim “subtext is for cowards.” Featuring young actor Mark Patton (who had just played a gay character in another film, and was desperate not to be typecast) as Jesse, one of the genre’s few male “Final Girls,” Freddy’s Revenge turns the scarred dream predator into a physical manifestation of Jesse’s conflicted sexuality, and even features a scene where Freddy kills Jesse’s gym teacher in a BDSM-inspired shower scene, not long after Jesse accidentally runs into him at a gay bar. Patton, who is gay in real life, struggled with the film’s legacy, largely leaving acting as a result of the experience, but has embraced Freddy’s Revenge as a queer camp classic in recent years. Rarely has the idea of monstrous desires been made more literal than at the blade-fingered hands of Freddy Krueger’s second outing.
Moonstruck (1987, Norman Jewison); Fiddler on the Roof (1971, Norman Jewison)
I’m interpreting “queer” somewhat loosely here, but I think [Moonstruckoonstruck manages to skewer concepts of romantic love, family obligation, marital morality and social convention without coming across as cynical or tongue-in-cheek. It perfectly captures the absurdity and futility of heterosexual love, while celebrating the redemptive power of good sex and frank communication. Watch on a fourth date after a heavy Italian dinner.
And though ostensibly about heterosexuality, Fiddler is obviously gay. It is a lavish musical dramedy with high highs and low lows, an adaptation of Sholom Aleichem’s Yiddish classics (as adapted onto Broadway), telling the story of a rural Jewish community in the violent waning days of the Russian Empire. Interestingly, Fiddler is told through a man’s POV, but the female characters—a mix of stereotype, comic parody, genuine warmth and nuance—are the drivers of the plot. As a queer film, Fiddler allows its audiences to seriously interrogate and make space for such big concepts as tradition, marriage, family and belonging. It makes space for complexity in dealing with the problems posed by changing times, offering parallels through which we might view better the changing sexual and political mores of our moment. Plus, I think Fiddler is honestly essential reading in understanding the subtextual Jewishness of so much of 20th century queer comedy. In that respect, it’s a classic that bears continual rewatching.
@bstolemyremote; Bloody Disgusting, Anatomy of a Scream
Hellraiser (1987, Clive Barker)
Hellraiser is Clive Barker’s feature directorial debut, its queerness courtesy of S&M imagery that imbues it with a dangerous, sexual tone. On the surface, it’s a horror film about a box that summons Cenobites, creatures from another dimension who inflict pain and pleasure on unsuspecting mortals. Everyone naturally focuses on Pinhead et. al, but the really queer stuff is the rich melodrama occurring within the façade of the Cotton family’s unassuming domesticity—namely infidelity, forbidden love and familial mistrust.
The instigator of all of the trouble is Frank (Sean Chapman), whose whole aesthetic is basically “sweaty shirtless sex appeal.” He’s the black sheep of the Cotton family, the kind of character who fucks so well that the MPAA ordered the number of thrusts in his sex scene reduced to avoid a harsher rating.
Frank’s victim/partner in crime is Julia Cotton, his sister-in-law. The ruby-haired matriarch is so enamoured with Frank’s good dicking that she lures anonymous johns into a murder room so that her skeletal lover can suck up their juices and reconstitute himself. It’s the kind of “love conquers all” storyline that only works because actress Claire Higgins is so committed to her evil stepmother role. Julia is fierce, she’s unapologetically sexual and she gets the job done (with a hammer no less!). For these reasons, Julia is a legit diva icon and Hellraiser is a queer masterpiece.
Law of Desire (La ley del deseo) (1987, Pedro Almodóvar)
Almodóvar’s steamiest movie opens with a man, in just his tight white briefs, touching himself and kissing his own reflection (“Think that it’s me you’re kissing and you like it,” a man’s off-camera voice instructs him). We’re watching a film within a film; it’s the first of the many meta-textual moments that anchor this 1987 comic thriller about a gay director’s ill-fated love affair—well, more like summer fling—with a crazed young man (played by a smoldering Antonio Banderas, oft-seen also in just his y-fronts). It wasn’t my first Almodóvar but so many of its salacious images seared themselves into my brain that it may as well have been. Gleefully tackling a Highsmithian protagonist who mines and embodies the alleged dangers of queer desire, La ley del deseo is an arch noir painted with bold bright colors, the kind that can make you blush and cringe in equal measure, usually within the same scene.
Law of Desire (La ley del deseo) (1987, Pedro Almodóvar)
You never forget your first love. For gay cinephiles, the same holds true for the first bent piece of celluloid. Now, it’s easy to queer your childhood favourites in retrospect, but I’m talking about the first piece of adult LGBTQ cinema that you recognize as such. One of my first such encounters was with Pedro Almodovar’s Law of Desire. The Spanish auteur often makes visually ecstatic movies about movies, but he scripts them with the depth and intricacy of a novel, so I’d like to imagine he’d love the fact that I fell for him text first, reading (and re-reading and re-reading) the local paper’s review of a boldly gay movie I was convinced I would never be allowed to see. The review fascinated and horrified the young me with its description of a scene in which the filmmaker directs a young man to masturbate against a mirror, and with the details of the three main characters: a promiscuous gay director, his psychotic fan/lover and the filmmaker’s trans sister acting out her own incestuous melodramas on the side.
A year later I did see the movie and it was more than I’d hoped for: the saturated colors, the even more intense emotions, the dangerous romanticism! Carmen Maura crying while the soundtrack promised “you will have a thousand affairs.” Antonio Banderas with his legs up in the air. These sights permanently altered me.
@jaymichaelson; The Daily Beast
Dead Poets Society (1989, Peter Weir)
Dead Poets Society is queer the way I was queer when I saw it in 1989: closeted, sublimated, boiling over. On the surface, it’s the story of a Whitman/Thoreau/Romanticism-soaked poetry teacher (played by Robin Williams) inspiring his students to seize the day. It’s also a tragic, Separate Piece-style bromance between two roommates: a shy, awkward Ethan Hawke and a skinny-gorgeous, budding thespian played by Robert Sean Leonard.
Yet beneath this surface, it’s all queerness, repression and eros. While the “friendship” is never sexualized, Leonard’s character’s sexuality (and Hawke’s intense love for him) is dog-whistled in a way that would’ve made Vito Russo proud: The way he freezes up when a hyper-masculine buddy brings call girls to a Dead Poets Society meeting, his repressed-then-sublimated yearning for poetic self-expression and (spoiler-trigger-etc.) his suicide, which seems under-determined by the overt plot but inevitable by the logic of queerness in the 1950s.
I, too, thought that I was inspired by carpe diem; I went to college the next year, determined to be a poet and live an extraordinary life. I did end up doing that. But then, why did I also see every play Robert Sean Leonard was in? Why did I, pre-internet, follow the twists of his life in magazines and newspapers? Why was I so focused on living an eros-filled life of poetry, shouting my barbaric yawp, as it were, while my friends were getting laid? For years, Dead Poets was a queer riddle I didn’t yet understand.