The depiction of gay relationships on-screen is in constant flux. As society grows, so does TV and cinema, and with it the number of extremely interesting, complex issues and engaging characters we’re treated to – gay or straight.
The most recent example is Love is Strange, which boasts extraordinary performances from John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as two lovers, and the film does a grand job at portraying their relationship. But it’s a movie that couldn’t have existed without the bravery and invention of what has come before; since the start of the millennium, the modern perspective on sexual orientation has offered a huge number of subjects, circumstances and personalities to delve into – although they may still be considered a niche by some.
What are the must-see films since the year 2000 that defy such categorisation?
During Six Feet Under’s run (it ended, to the chagrin of all, in 2005), a movie was released that also featured a believable homosexual relationship at its centre; in 2003, Monster gave us one of the most memorable actor transformations as Charlize Theron morphed into Aileen, an extremely conflicted woman who turned to a life of crime. But it was her and Christina Ricci’s Selby, and their twisted, tortured relationship, which made the heart of the film, and made us care about them so much that we wanted to forgive them for their heinous sins.
The year after, Mysterious Skin – about two boys who grow up in the wake of a shared incident – explored how sexuality feeds into memory, and vice versa, all while proving Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a bonafide film star.
Opening the second half of the ‘00s wide open for homosexuality – and the prejudices that (still) face it – was Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. It’s probably best known nowadays for being the movie that was snubbed Best Picture by Crash, while clearly being the better film, but there was much more to it than award politics. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal have been better only once in their careers since (The Dark Knight and Nightcrawler respectively), and Lee’s delicate, bracingly honest direction brought not just the voters to tears, but still does to anyone who watches it today.
Brokeback Mountain is as romantic a film as they come, and remains triumphant in showing us, for perhaps the first time in big-bucks mainstream filmmaking, that love truly is universal.
Heading that up in 2008 was Milk, a film about Harvey Milk – the U.S.’s first openly gay politician – which, while feeling more like a message movie dressed up with half-drawn characters, features a career-best turn from Sean Penn as the long-suffering figure.
Much better at getting into the nitty-gritty of relationships was the following year’s A Single Man; Colin Firth stars as George, a star-crossed, extraordinarily well-dressed gay man who has recently lost his lover to a car accident. It’s a fine study in grief, as we follow the man’s day-to-day life in the wake of this emotional disaster.
As the past keeps surfacing, haunting his waking hours, he journeys toward some sort of reconciliation with his boyfriend’s death (helped in no turn from a fabulously ebullient Julianne Moore as George’s friend, Charley).
But it’s the past five years that may have been the best time for cinema and sexual orientation yet; 2010’s The Kids Are All Right, directed by Lisa Cholodenko, gave us a beautifully naturalistic setting where two kids (Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska) grow up under the loving care of their two moms, Jules (Julianne Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening). Their domestic bliss is sundered when their curiosity leads them to their biological sperm bank dad, Paul (Mark Ruffalo).
When Jules’ bi-curiosity gets the better of her when she begins sleeping with Paul, Cholodenko treats us to a deeply complex portrayal of family life in the 21st century – the key point being that no matter who makes up your family, you’ll still be dysfunctional.
Sex – of the on-screen, full-frontal kind – has also been explored to great length recently. Both Blue is the Warmest Colour and Stranger by the Lake feature no-nonsense sex scenes of explicit nature, and do great service in their refusal to play lightly around perhaps the most basic component of romantic love (although the former has received some criticisms for its apparently histrionic portrayal of lesbian sex, but then again, what Palme d’Or winner hasn’t received some kind of criticism?)
The role of sex is also explored deftly by Concussion, a little-seen gem from a couple of years back in which Abby (Robin Weigert), completely fed up with family life, becomes an escort by the name of Eleanor. But it’s not the sexual side of proceedings that are necessarily the most interesting aspect of Concussion: the nature of Abby and Kate’s (Julie Fain Lawrence) relationship is portrayed in just the same way a straight relationship would be – with no pomp, no circumstance, and with zero pattering around the subject, which in a lesser film would serve the express purpose of merely letting the audience know that this isn’t a ‘regular’ relationship.
This is exactly what we need to see more of in both cinema and TV, being revolutionary by merely accepting the complete normality of being gay. If this century so far is anything to go by, the moving image will continue to involve homosexual characters, storylines and themes in more brilliant, moving, and simply human ways.
Love is Strange is out in cinemas now.