From Victim to Philadelphia and Brokeback Mountain: Evolution of Pride in Hollywood cinema

Some of the films that have defined LGBTQ+ cinema in Hollywood (Picture: Rex)

There have been some monumentally trailblazing and groundbreaking LGBTQ+ moments in film that have shone a light on the community in a way not yet endeavoured in cinema.

Over the past century, representation of the LGBTQ+ community has come a long way from its early days of stilted storytelling, with characters often included as sidelined, background characters, or the comedic accoutrement, due to things like conservative censorship and prejudices towards the community.

This was not helped by Will Hays’ strict Hollywood Production Code of 1930, which, from 1934 to 1968, forbade explicit and positive (!) depictions of homosexuality in film for three decades including attraction to the same gender or characters who differed in their gender presentation or identity.

However, in recent decades, Hollywood has made more progressive strides toward the meaningful depiction of LGBTQ+ love, struggles and triumphs.

And, yes, while there are still leaps and strides and struts still to be made, as Metro.co.uk celebrates 50 years of Pride, we want to highlight some of the most poignant cinematic moments in the evolution of LGBTQ+ visibility on screen – in Hollywood in particular.

We could go on for years in regards to the evolution of LGBTQ+ representation on screen around the world, as well as musing on gorgeous films about LGBTQ+ characters, but today we’re doing to focus on the Hollywood lens and the strides several filmmakers have made to help tear down the walls of inequality for the community through their art.

Wings, 1927

Charles Rogers holds and comforts Richard Arlen on his deathbed in a scene from the movie Wings (Picture: John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

We’re going to take it way, way back to this 1927 film, which was directed by William A. Wellman, and featured what many consider to be the first gay kiss in an American film.

It came as Jack (played by Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers) and Dave (Richard Arlen), two Air Force pilots in World War I, discover their love for one another and share a kiss before Dave dies from injuries sustained in battle.

After Jack utters to Dave: ‘You know there is nothing in the world that means so much to me as your friendship,’ Dave replies: ‘I knew it – all the time.’ 

While the film was a success and well-received by audiences, Dave and Jack’s relationship could have passed as one of friendship – which it was, in fact, referred to as in the film – to audiences not concentrating too hard.

Rebel Without A Cause, 1955

James Dean and Sal Mineo in a scene from the film Rebel Without A Cause (Picture: Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

It may be one of the most iconic films of the 50s, if not of all time, but did you spot the pretty heavily coded gay subtext between troublemaking James Dean’s Jim Stark and Plato (played by Sal Mineo)?

Mineo was one of the first Hollywood actors to publicly come out, and went on to suggest Plato as the first queer teenager on film.

Managing to skirt the Hays Code through some subtle hints, it’s believed Plato’s longing glances at Jim and the fact he has a picture of Alan Ladd inside his locker were signs Plato was queer.

Victim, 1961

Victim was the first English-language film to use the word homosexual (Picture: ITV/REX/Shutterstock)

While the censorship and pearl-clutching was strong with this one at the time of its release in 1961, British director Basil Dearden’s noir thriller is regarded as one of the most important films focusing on the LGBTQ+ community, and held a mirror up to British homophobia.

Dirk Bogarde portrayed closeted, gay lawyer Melville Farr, who’s blackmailed by threats of exposure, in what has been branded now as a vital queer text.

While it’s not shocking to hear the word homosexual in a Hollywood film now, Victim was the first English-language film to use the word and has been credited with helping trigger the decriminalisation of sex between men in the Sexual Offenses Act in 1967.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975

Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Picture: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

This 1975 classic is widely considered to be part of the queer cultural canon for its depiction of sexual fluidity and gender – with a whole load of camp. 

The Tim Curry-fronted romp, with Curry playing scientist Dr Frank-N-Furter, was a critical failure when it was first released, but was soon wholeheartedly taken in by a cult following amid late-night, costumed screenings.

While LGBTQ+ audiences embraced its messages of sexual freedom (and, remember, Rocky was literally created behind a rainbow), it is to be noted through a modern lens a lot of its content, especially in regards Curry’s character, takes on a more problematic nature. 

Making Love, 1982

Harry Hamlin, Michael Ontkean and Kate Jackson in Making Love (Picture: 20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

This 1982 romance is heralded as being one of the first US films distributed by a major studio to portray homosexuality in a positive way, with Barry Sandler’s script showing a married man (played by Michael Ontkean) fall in love with another man after realising he’s gay.

While the film was dismissed by critics upon its release, it’s seen as helping bring visibility to gay romances on screen.

Parting Glances, 1983

Parting Glances was thought to be the first mainstream film to tackle the Aids crisis (Picture: Rondo/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

Before 1993’s Philadelphia – also worthy of mention on this list as one of the first Hollywood films to deal with the Aids epidemic – there was 1986’s Parting Glances, which is thought to be the first mainstream drama to tackle the Aids crisis.

Bill Sherwood’s film was also our Hollywood introduction to Steve Buscemi. Sadly Sherwood died from the disease in 1990, but Parting Glances went on to become a landmark of LGBTQ+ cinema.

Desert Hearts, 1985

Patricia Charbonneau and Helen Shaver in Desert Hearts (Picture: Desert Heart Prods/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

On that note of groundbreaking firsts in cinema, 1985’s Desert Hearts was seen as the first mainstream film to show a lesbian romance in a positive light and with a happy ending. 

Ugh, we love to see it.

Boys Don’t Cry, 1999

Hilary Swank in Boys Don’T Cry (Picture: Getty Images)

A virtually-unknown Hilary Swank led Boys Don’t Cry, which has been credited as the first mainstream film to focus on the experience of a transgender man, and helped kickstart conversation and visibility around gender and trans experiences in film.

While there was controversy and protest around the casting of cisgender actress Swank as Brandon Teena, a young, transgender Nebraskan who was brutally raped and murdered in 1993, the actress went on to win the best actress Oscar in 2000 for the role.

The Adventures of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, 1994

Priscilla will always be an iconic instalment (Picture: Elise Lockwood/Polygram/Australian Film Finance/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

Shining a light on the discrimination faced by the LGBTQ+ community, and, in particular, the drag community, this Australian classic focuses on two drag queens (played by Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce) and a trans woman (Terence Stamp) as they travel across the sweeping plans of the Australian Outback in a giant pink bus named Priscilla.

While the film includes racist portrayals of non-white characters, showing the outdated material of the script at points, Priscilla has been praised as an important step towards the mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ+ art.

One of the first major films to highlight drag culture, it’s cited alongside 1995’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar for taking drag mainstream.

The Watermelon Woman, 1996

Guinevere Turner and Cheryl Dunye in The Watermelon Woman (Picture: Dancing Girl/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 play was the first film by an out Black lesbian in which Dunye played a fictional version of herself searching for the identity of a Black actress from a 1930s film.

It’s seen as a landmark film in LGBTQ+ representation and since its release Dunye has gone on to release more films and become a prolific TV director of series including Dear White People and Queen Sugar.

Beautiful Thing, 1996

Scott Neal and Glen Berry in Beautiful Thing (Picture: Paul Chedlow/World Prods/Channel Four/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

Beautiful Thing, based on Jonathan Harvey’s play of the same name, revolves around two teenagers on a London council estate, and resonated with audiences and struggling teens in the LGBTQ+ community.

It was released in the aftermath of the Thatcher years, which saw a focus on ‘traditional values’ and attacks on gay rights, and is considered one of the best LGBTQ+ films of all time.

Harvey later told the Guardian: ‘I felt that with Beautiful Thing I found my voice. But it wasn’t intended to be a gay play, just a play that happened to have gay characters.’

But I’m A Cheerleader, 2000

Clea Du Vall and Natasha Lyonne in But I’m A Cheerleader (Picture: Mark Lipson/Kushner-Locke/Ignite/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

This 2000 film has earned a cult following in the years since its release with its satirical take on the gay community and heteronormate values, as well as the stereotypical gender roles and religion people have constructed over time.

It sees titular cheerleader Megan Bloomfield played by Natasha Lyonne, with Megan sent to conversion therapy camp after her parents suspect she is gay – due her vegetarianism and love of Melissa Etheridge, of course. While a funny caper, the film is praised for its, shocker, happy ending for a queer romance.

Brokeback Mountain, 2005

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain (Picture: Focus/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as two cowboys in love cemented this 2005 Hollywood film a box office triumph, alongside Anna Hathaway and Michelle Williams.

Ang Lee’s indie film focused on the love story between two cowboys and remains one of the biggest LGBTQ+ box office successes of all time, based on Annie Proulx’s short story published in The New Yorker in 1997.

While its subject matter wasn’t new to the screen, the late Ledger and Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of two men in love, in an intolerant society in 1960s America, catapulted the struggles of LGBTQ+ people into the commercial sphere in a way never before experienced.

Milk, 2008

Sean Penn’s portrayal earned him the Oscar (Picture: Focus/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

Sean Penn starred as Harvey Milk in this film, which told the story of the activist and politician who was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California.

The film honours Milk’s legacy after, during his tenure, he managed to progress the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans. Penn’s portrayal earned him the best actor Oscar. 

Pride, 2014

Pride on a Pride list? Groundbreaking (Picture: Pathe/Bbc/Proud/Bfi/Canal+/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

A piece exploring some of the most groundbreaking films around Pride wouldn’t be complete without, well, Pride, right?

Stephen Beresford’s Golden Globe-nominated 2014 film follows a group of LGBTQ+ activists in London who form a coalition with striking Welsh miners in Thatcher’s UK (there’s a theme here, evidently) and shows the power that comes when oppressed groups join forces.

Blue Is The Warmest Color, 2013

We’re breaking our own rules to include this one (Picture: Alcatraz/Canal+/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Ok, not exactly Hollywood, sure, but we’re loosely adhering to our own rules here, with this 2013 Palme d’Or-winning, French film, which portrays Adèle’s relationship with a blue-haired Emma (played by Léa Seydoux), with the two embarking on a passionate romance while exploring Adèle’s questioning of her sexuality.

While many have criticised Abdellatif Kechiche’s film as catering to the ‘male gaze’, it portrayed the sexual relationship between these two characters in a way that hetero relationships were usually given the space to explore on screen, and which was previously muted for the screen in LGBTQ+ stories.

Tangerine, 2015

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, James Ransone and Mya Taylor in Tangerine (Picture:: Augustas Quirk/Magnolia/Duplass Brothers Prods/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

A film shot all on an iPhone is a groundbreaking achievement in itself, but that’s not even close to the strides Tangerine made.

The film follows trans sex worker Sin-Dee Rella (played by Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) who discovers her boyfriend, and pimp, Chester has been cheating.

Tangerine received critical acclaim not only for its screenplay, direction, and performances but its portrayal of trans individuals. It was also the first time Academy Award campaigns for openly transgender actresses, in Rodriguez and her co-star Mya Taylor, supported by a film producer were launched.

Moonlight, 2016

Alex R. Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in Moonlight (Picture: David Bornfriend/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock)

Barry Jenkins’ film was the first LGBTQ+ movie to win the Academy Award for best picture in 2017 and earned the plaudit for a reason (even if it did take an incorrectly-read card to get them on the stage).

Here we follow the same character, protagonist Chiron, through three different periods of his life, but what is so groundbreaking is the barriers this film broke down in the depiction of LGBTQ+ identity alongside black masculinity, as well as homophobia, and fractured family.

Love Simon, 2018

Love, Simon is what was needed (Picture: 20th Century Fox/Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock)

This 2018 delight, based on Becky Albertalli’s book Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,  is seen as the first major studio film to focus on a gay teen romance.

Centred around gay teen, Simon Spier, and his coming out journey, what makes this film even more poignant is that it was directed by a gay man, but what makes it hold such a seminal place in people’s hearts is the feel-good factor.

Metro.co.uk celebrates 50 years of Pride

This year marks 50 years of Pride, so it seems only fitting that Metro.co.uk goes above and beyond in our ongoing LGBTQ+ support, through a wealth of content that not only celebrates all things Pride, but also share stories, take time to reflect and raises awareness for the community this Pride Month.

MORE: Find all of Metro.co.uk’s Pride coverage right here

And we’ve got some great names on board to help us, too. From a list of famous guest editors taking over the site for a week that includes Rob Rinder, Nicola Adams, Peter Tatchell, Kimberly Hart-Simpson, John Whaite, Anna Richardson and Dr Ranj, we’ll also have the likes Sir Ian McKellen and Drag Race stars The Vivienne, Lawrence Chaney and Tia Kofi offering their insights. 

During Pride Month, which runs from 1 – 30 June, Metro.co.uk will also be supporting Kyiv Pride, a Ukrainian charity forced to work harder than ever to protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community during times of conflict, and youth homelessness charity AKT. To find out more about their work, and what you can do to support them, click here.

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