Movies are truly the great escape; a way to turn off reality and be absorbed in any world you choose. However, as reality changes so do movies, and many times for the better. May it be a family drama that challenges our way of perceiving interracial relationships like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner or something that shocks audiences with its groundbreaking depiction of violence like Psycho, there is no denying the power of film when it comes to echoing the climate of current events.
Although largely ignored during the formative years of Hollywood, the representation of LGBTQ characters in film has seen a huge surge in the past 45 years. The importance of many of these characters cannot be overstated. Whether they were an autobiographical interpretation or simply a way for a screenwriter to make their voice heard, we have been graced with some wonderful LGBTQ characters in the movies. Now, as we are in the heart of LGBTQ Pride Month 2020, I am happy to be able to share with you my choices for the top 10 LGBTQ characters in film.
Quick disclaimer; although I will try to be as representative as possible, the choices in this list reflect my personal opinions and are only from films that I have seen. Also, the list will not be any particular order, they are just ten performances I found to be exceptional. If you feel I have missed a great character please make sure to comment and help inform the Kernel community on more great LGBTQ performances! Let’s get to it!
Taron Egerton as Elton John in ‘Rocketman’ (2019)
Although Rami Malek won an Oscar for portraying Freddie Mercury in 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody I think Taron Egerton deserves the real gold here. Rocketman is constructed as a musical-fantasy which gives Egerton the boundless freedom to embody Elton John as not only a man struggling with his sexuality but also struggling with substance abuse and the consequences of success. He is so utterly mesmerizing you often forget that he is NOT Elton John. He even took on the challenge of singing Sir Elton’s songs, not lip-syncing, which deserves accolades in and of itself. It is a powerful, unflinching, and downright amazing performance.
Daniel Franzese as Damian in ‘Mean Girls’ (2004)
It has been a long time Hollywood cliché to create the high school boy struggling with sexual identity through failed relationships, humiliation, etc. However, Damian is a character that knows who he is when we first meet him. He pays a genuine compliment to our main character’s hair color, and then is introduced to us as “too gay to function.” The best part about this line is that it is not delivered with animosity, nor is Damian’s sexuality ever exploited or outright attacked throughout the film. What we get is a hilarious portrayal of a gay teenager who loves himself, which is something we don’t see very often in the movies. Not to mention he has the BEST lines in the entire film (“I WANT MY PINK SHIRT BACK!”).
Robin Williams (Armand), Nathan Lane (Albert) and Hank Azaria (Agador) in ‘The Birdcage’ (1996)
Yeah, I cheated a bit on this one, but it was impossible to decide amongst these three performances! The Birdcage may be a bit broader with its comic portrayal of gay characters versus a conservative politician, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive on the part of the actors involved. Robin Williams is uncharacteristically subdued as Armand, the owner of the titular drag bar, and it works wonderfully. He has a son from a previous relationship, and there is acceptance of his new husband from not only his son but his ex-wife as well. It is a mature way to approach a subject that has been exploited many times before. Speaking of his new husband, Nathan Lane is nothing short of amazing as Albert. He is joyously flamboyant which plays as the polar opposite to Armand. Even when he is dressed in drag to deceive his stepson’s new family he is endlessly charming and downright uproarious. I can’t forget about Hank Azaria as the housekeeper Agador who constantly tries to weasel his way into Armand’s show with little success. However, he truly shows his chops when he is tasked with playing butler as the deception goes down at the end of the movie. Renamed Spartacus for the ruse, both Armand and Albert forget to call him this, giving him the inexplicably riotous moniker “Agador Spartacus” for the rest of the evening. Oh, and all three of them get to sing at some point and they are wonderful!
Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975)
Some may argue that Dr. Frank-N-Furter is dressed in drag for no particular reason in this film. I offer a counter-argument; many things in this film exist for no particular reason. I had only seen this film once before I went to one of the fabled interactive midnight screenings. It plays SO much better with a crowd, and one of the reasons for this is the legions of fans who dress up as the characters, one of the most popular being Frank. Tim Curry (in his film debut) owns this character, creating an undeniably weird but electric presence that is easily the most recognizable image from a movie filled with memorable images. The doc inspired millions of fans to express their inner joy and weirdness, which has led to hosts of men and women dressing up with pride as Hollywood’s most famous transvestite (from Transylvania, of course).
Kevin Kline as Howard Brackett in ‘In and Out’ (1997)
This late 90s comedy follows Howard Brackett, a small-town high school teacher, as he simultaneously defends and questions his sexuality after a former student outs him while accepting an Oscar. The film is very funny and also very insightful in many ways. Kevin Kline never mocks the idea of being gay even while resisting it, and when he finally accepts his true sexuality the film doesn’t stoop to clichés or tropes. Kline plays Brackett with such sincerity and joy it is impossible not to love him, despite what he puts his family (and his fiancée) through.
Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes as Chiron in ‘Moonlight’ (2016)
This unbelievably rich character study blindsided me when I first saw it, defying all expectations I had. What starts as a young boy’s search for family and identity slowly morphs into his struggle to accept his sexuality throughout his teens and twenties. The film does such an amazing job of balancing Chiron’s struggles without resorting to the typical story tropes we are used to. We get equal time spent on the conflict with his mother, the conflict with his sexuality, and the conflict with how to appropriately balance these without succumbing to a crime-laden lifestyle that will destroy him. Once he reconnects with his high school paramour the film comfortably morphs into a love story that provides us with a somewhat unexpected but fully warranted happy ending. Such a wonderful film that feels even more timely now than it did when it released in 2016.
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist in ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)
Unrequited love is a Shakespearean idea that has been explored in all entertainment mediums for hundreds of years. However, I am hard-pressed to find a more tragic example of this than in the complex relationship explored in Ang Lee’s 2005 Brokeback Mountain. Our main characters are both in relationships and are also involved in jobs that we would stereotypically identify as “macho.” When they take jobs as sheepherders they become secret lovers, and as years pass they realize they cannot be without each other, no matter the cost to their lives and families. I applaud not only the superb performances from the two mains but the courage with which the story upends all ideas we may have about love. It was groundbreaking in 2005 and it still stands as one of the most important examples of LGBTQ representation in film.
Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in ‘Milk’ (2008)
Sean Penn won his second Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California’s history. The film explores Milk’s fight for gay rights in the 70s, encompassing his innovative means of building political alliances to his fight to keep the gay community in public school careers. Milk was one of the most important figures in gay rights and the film does an admirable job of not only depicting his struggles (of which there were many) but his victories as well. Penn fills the role with more joy than you would expect and the result is something that is not only extremely informative but an enlightening insight into a political figure that may not be known to the general public, but absolutely should be.
Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ (2018)
McCarthy garnered a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her portrayal of real-life biographer Israel who resorts to forgery and plagiarism to keep herself relevant. The film is bleak and colorless, but necessarily so to portray the pain that Israel is experiencing. Except for her cats and a toxic conspirator (played by the wonderful Richard E. Grant) she is alone. Her failing career could be attributed not only to her non-relevant writing subjects but also as a lesbian writer who is being rejected by her literary peers (even her agent remains staunchly apathetic toward her work). It is a tragic and informative film that explores some complex themes with artistic subtlety, and McCarthy’s performance is the magnificent centerpiece.
Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett in ‘Philadelphia’ (1993)
Tom Hanks won his first Oscar as Andrew Beckett, an influential Philadelphia lawyer who is fired from his firm for hiding his homosexuality and positive HIV status. The film chronicles his legal battle with his former employers and his struggle with AIDS. The story tackles homophobia from several different angles, including the personal feelings of the lawyer that Beckett hires to defend him (Denzel Washington). Hanks is at his absolute best here, fighting not only to save his career but the careers of millions of gay people discriminated against by their employers. A message even more significant now then it was in 1993.
Obviously there are many characters that didn’t make the list being limited to only ten. What are your favorite LGBTQ characters and performances that I missed? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter and Instagram and be sure to download the Kernel App to keep up with the latest releases!