With the success of shows like “Heartstopper” and “Our Flag Means Death” and movies like “Moonlight” and “Call Me by Your Name”, it’s safe to say that LGBTQ representation in media has never been better. There is still a long way to go toward total inclusivity; for example, stories that don’t revolve around white cis-gendered men are often overlooked. Still, progress has been made.
With this influx of new queer media, it’s easy to overlook the LGBTQ films that predate this century. While few and far between, these films are incredibly important. They help us contextualize what life was like for queer people in the twentieth century and serve as a necessary reminder that this community has always existed. These five films are essential entries in the LGBTQ cinema canon.
1. “Rope” (1948) dir. Alfred Hitchcock
In this experimental Hitchcock thriller, two roommates attempt to prove they committed the perfect crime by throwing a dinner party after strangling their former classmate to death. Made during the Hays Code era, any display of homosexuality in the film was strictly forbidden. Hitchcock worked around this by hiring a gay screenwriter and two gay men, John Dall and Farley Granger, as the lead actors. Dall and Granger are mesmerizing as the co-dependent pair of “roommates” loosely based on the real-life murderers Leopold and Loeb. Overall, this film is a masterclass in the usage of subtext and innuendo.
2. “The Children’s Hour” (1961) dir. William Wyler
In this drama, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine star as two teachers, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, who open a private boarding school for girls. After being punished for a lie she told, a young student decides to spread a rumor about the two teachers, saying that they’re in a secret relationship. Hepburn and MacLaine deliver powerfully touching performances as the two leads. While this film ends in tragedy, it was still one of the first films to portray a lesbian character on screen in a sympathetic way.
3. “Dog Day Afternoon’ (1975) dir. Sidney Lumet
Al Pacino stars in this crime drama based on the real-life bank robbery and hostage situation committed by John Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturile. This film is unpredictable in the best ways possible. With every twist and turn the plot takes, you become more invested in discovering the characters’ real motives and intentions. When it is eventually revealed that Sonny (Pacino) is robbing the bank so that his wife can afford gender reassignment surgery, media outlets exploit this for their broadcasts. Overall, “Dog Day Afternoon” is a true product of its time.
4. “Maurice” (1987) dir. James Ivory
“Maurice” is one of the clear standouts of James Ivory’s long career. Set in Edwardian England, the film follows Maurice Hall (James Wilby), a young student at Cambridge who befriends another student, the charming Clive Durham (Hugh Grant). The two bond until Clive reveals his true feelings for Maurice. Maurice is taken back but comes to realize that he feels the same way. What follows is a touching story about heartbreak, class relations, authenticity and self-acceptance.
5. “Velvet Goldmine” (1998) dir. Todd Haynes
This film is a fantastical examination of the life of fictitious pop-idol Brian Slade. Played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, we follow Brian from his youth to the height of his fame. Along the way, we meet the enigmatic Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). Brian and Curt form a relationship that blurs the lines between professional and personal. Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale), a British journalist who was once immersed in the glam rock scene himself, interviews people from Brian’s life throughout the film. Arthur goes on his own journey of self-discovery, eventually coming to accept his bisexuality. Written and directed by openly gay auteur Todd Haynes, “Velvet Goldmine” is a love letter to the glam rock era of the seventies.