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Tuesday, December 10, 2013
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Race, Gender, and Sexuality at the Oscars, Part III

By Mark Pinkert

* * *

This is the third article in a three-part series.

Though many Academy Award Best Picture nominees contain—or are predominantly about—sex and relationships, very few have been about sex issues in law and politics. In recent years there has been Milk (2008), the biopic of Harvey Milk, a California politician and gay rights activist, and otherwise not much else. Even in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the AIDS epidemic was a hot button issue, few films of this genre made it to the Best Picture ticket (remember, Philadelphia was snubbed from the category in 1993). Sexual issues topics, though, have been more popular within the documentary medium: there was Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), which won for Best Documentary, and which was the first AIDS-related film to win an Oscar, the The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), which also won Best Documentary, and How to Survive a Plague (2012), which was nominated for Best Documentary at the 85th Academy Awards earlier this year.

The Oscar race this year, though, does feature an important film about sex issues, Dallas Buyers Club (2013), which will likely make the Best Picture ticket and has a shot to win. Though the sociopolitical scope of this film is generally contained within the Dallas locale of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) and his HIV-positive buyers club, the film is quite relevant today. Through the growth of Woodroof—a once outspoken homophobe turned sympathetic activist—we see the real dangers of sex-related stigmata in society.

Indeed, stigma is harmful in all facets of society: it is the material of prejudice, irrational fear, and hate. But the stigma of AIDS—that it was a disease only for gay men—was dangerously pervasive in American, even amongst the political elite, in the 1980s. Many have criticized the Reagan administration for perpetuating this misconception: Reagan’s communications director, Pat Buchanan, was notorious for having said that AIDS was “nature’s revenge on gay men.”

In Dallas Buyers Club, Woodroof, too, holds the misguided belief that AIDS is only a gay disease. However, through heterosexual exploits, Woodroof contracts the HIV virus and, as unbelievable and angering as the news is to him, the pain compounds as friends begin to abandon him and as the F.D.A., this film’s representative symbol of “government,” fails to move quickly against the disease. One of dangers in mislabeling AIDS, we see, is that many Americans underestimated its potency and potential to spread through any type of unprotected sex. Dallas Buyer’s Club reminds us, too, that had the government properly treated AIDS as an immediate and mainstream issue, it could have done better to contain the spread through education and medicine.

Though science and reason have since prevailed in our understanding of HIV transmission, the idea of sexual stigma is still important today. For one thing, much of our society is still in the dark in terms of social equality and understanding and, thus, much of our country’s sexual polemics are still based on misconceptions. Same-sex marriage, for instance, is an oddly stigmatized topic. Many politicians have molded the debate into a states rights issue, while many talking heads have phrased it as a biblical issue, but these arguments are no more than rhetorical distractions. The core of the problem is pervasive stigma: that homosexuality somehow destroys the notion of “family,” that it is contagious, and that it can be cured.

When will science and reason prevail in eradicating these gross misconceptions? Unfortunately, science and reason often have a tough time in the face of brute ignorance. But that’s where film comes into play. Films are accessible and emotional and thus reach more Americans than do scientific studies or research papers. Dallas Buyer’s Club—through great performances by McConaughey, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Garner—shows us the hazards of firmly holding onto beliefs too tightly, especially when those beliefs are not founded in science. In that way, the film conveys a brief, clairvoyant sense that we will feel the same way when we watch a similar film in 2033.

But not all films pushing for social progress and sex equality have to be biopics about activists or documentaries about epidemics. Films more often raise these issues, allegorically, through fictional narrative. By creating intimate and memorable stories, filmmakers bring viewers—who may have had a narrow, outside perspective—into the hearts and minds of those most affected. Nevertheless, outside of Dallas Buyers Club , sexual politics and LGBT issues are not a huge part of the Oscar race this year, especially considering the deluge of other social issues like racism, slavery, piracy, apartheid, Wall Street, etc. The only other notable sex-issues film this year is Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), which has stirred a bit of controversy (and a ban from the only arthouse theater in Idaho) for its extended and explicit lesbian sex scenes.


Milestones of Sex in Cinema:

1916 – A Daughter of the Gods (1916) is the first film to feature a mainstream star, Annette Kellerman, completely nude

1927 – Wings (1927) is the only fully silent film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture (the category was originally called “Unique and Artistic Production”) and it included a kiss between two men

1930 – Morocco (1930) features a famous girl-girl kiss with Marlene Dietrich and another woman

1930 – Will H. Hays drafts the Motion Production Code

1934 – Hollywood movie studios begin self-enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code

1963 – Jane Mansfield, in Promise, Promises! (1963) becomes the first mainstream actress in the sound era to appear nude in a film

1965 – The U.S. Supreme Court rules, in Freedman v. Maryland, that government rating boards can only approve films, but do not have the jurisdiction to ban films

1968 – Hollywood abandons the production code altogether, and enacts its own rating systems

1969 – Midnight Cowboy (1969) becomes the first and is, to this date, only ‘X’ or ‘NC-17’-rated movie to win Best Picture

1971 – Peter Finch, for his supporting role as Dr. Daniel Hirsh in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), becomes the first person to be nominated for an Oscar for portraying gay character

1972 – Deep Throat (1972) sparks the “porno chic” movement of the ’70s and elicits nationwide controversy

1982 – Porky’s (1982) starts the teen sex comedy genre

1984 – Rob Epstein and Richard Schmiechen, for their documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), become the first openly gay filmmakers to win an Oscar and acknowledge their sexual orientation at the award ceremony

1986 – William Hurt, for his role as Luis Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), becomes the first person to win an Oscar for portraying character

1989 – The documentary, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), becomes the first film on AIDS to win an Academy Award

1992 – Jaye Davidson is nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his transgender part in The Crying Game (1992)

1993 – And the Band Played On (1993), an HBO television film, and Philadelphia (1993) are the first two, non-documentary movies to cover the AIDS epidemic. Tom Hanks wins Best Actor in a leading role as Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer diagnosed with AIDS, in Philadelphia

2000 – Hilary Swank, for her leading role as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), becomes the first person to win an Oscar for portraying a transgender character

2006 — Brokeback Mountain (2005) is nominated for best picture; from the film, Heath Ledger is nominated for Best Actor in a leading role and Jake Gyllenhaal is nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Felicity Huffman is nominated for her transgender role in Transamerica (2005)

2009 – Sean Penn, for his role as Harvey Milk in Milk (2008), wins the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role



Early Hollywood films, especially during the libertine 1920s, often featured sex and explored both hetero and homosexuality. Notable films from this period that that featured sex included, but were not limited to, Flesh and the Devil (1926), about a love triangle with homosexual subtexts; Morocco (1930), most remembered for a scene in which Amy Jolly (Marlene Dietrich) performs a cabaret song in a men’s jacket and kisses another woman; and The Blue Angel (1930), which also starred Marlene Dietrich and featured several sexually suggestive scenes, including one in which her lover returns her panties the day after a lustful tryst.

In 1934 Hollywood studios began self-enforcing a “Motion Picture Production Code” (also known as the “Hays code,” as it was drafted by Will H. Hays, a conservative Republican politician and Presbyterian deacon) to avoid controversy caused by these sexually explicit films and to prevent external censorship by theaters and moviegoers. (It should be noted, too, that the Production Code restricted political and religious speech—code VIII-2, for instance, “Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains.”)

By the standards of our current cinema and considering how important sex is in art, the code was puritanical and excessive. Filmmakers could not, for instance, portray “lustful kissing” or “suggestive postures.” Some may remember hearing about a “one foot on the floor” rule, which was not an actual clause in the Production Code, but a common way to avoid “suggestive postures” when an actor and actress were in a bedroom together.

Many would believe that the Production code explicitly banned homosexual undertones or interactions, but it in fact did not. The omission of any such rule is even more telling of the time, though, as it shows how marginalized and condemned homosexuality was in America. The Code prohibited “sexual perversion and any inference to it”—homosexuality would have been unquestionably lumped into this category if and when it came up.

By the 1950s and 1960s, sexual undertones began to resurface in film, though in subtle increments. As Roger Ebert notes of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), “It is clear now but may have been less visible in 1955 that Plato (Sal Mineo) is gay and has a crush on Jim (James Dean).” By the 1960s, films such as The Children’s Hour (1961), Advise and Consent (1962), and Walk on the Wild Side (1962) took on homosexuality head on and challenged the boundaries of the MPAA Production Code. By the tail end of 1960s, the production code was discarded entirely as it became impossible to enforce. Instead, the Motion Picture Association of America began working on the current rating system we have today, which has also continued to be a controversial topic. Still, the rating system did not stop filmmakers from exploring and including sex and sexual issues in their films.

The 1970s was certainly an interesting decade for sex in film, especially with films like Deep Throat (1972) and the establishment of “adult cinemas,” which brought pornography to the forefront of national polemics. Sex in general became more prevalent and advertised in mainstream culture, as Americans reached the height of a sexual revolution with roots in the 1960s. Meanwhile, Hollywood saw an emergence new auteur filmmakers, who wished to push the boundaries not just of cinematic sex, but also of drugs, violence, and social issues. Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and Animal House (1978) were among the many films from the era that pushed the sexual envelope in one way or another.


Where We Are Today

Without the shackles of censorship, filmmakers in the past twenty years have been able to explore sexuality quite freely. Films about AIDS, homosexual and heterosexual sex, transgender men and women, and a hoard of other sexual issues have been produced and many have made it to the platform of the Academy Awards. Milk (2008), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Capote (2005), Monster (2003), and The Hours (2002) are of a few of the most recognizable and critically acclaimed films from the past ten years that have dealt with sexual issues or had LGBT characters. Oddly, though, the award-winning actors from these films were all openly straight. It’s very rare for openly gay actors to win competitive acting awards for roles as gay characters. Sir Ian McKellen, for his role in Gods and Monsters (1998), is one of the few, if only gay actors, to have done this.

photo courtesy of Focus Features

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