Going for “Gay Gold” at the Oscars

Going for “Gay Gold” at the Oscars February 26, 2011

At this year’s Oscars, the film The Kids Are All Right is up (amongst an unprecedented ten nominees) for Best Picture, and Annette Benning is also a nominee for Best Actress in her role as Nic in this film. It will be interesting to see whether or not the film and Benning end up the winners; Benning already won a Best Actress award at the Golden Globes, being nominated alongside her co-star Julianne Moore (as the character Jules) for that award. (Mark Ruffalo is up for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in his role as Paul from this film as well.) This does make me wonder, though: is “gay gold” going to end up working out with this film in the way it often has with other films and Best Actor and Best Actress nominations, particularly in the past twenty years?

Tom Hanks won both a Best Actor Oscar and a Best Actor Golden Globe for his role in the film Philadelphia in 1993; this film was a watershed moment for Hanks as his first (of several) Oscars. Hanks used to be known for his comedic roles prior to that film, where he played a man suing his former employer for firing him due to his having AIDS. Hilary Swank won both a Best Actress Oscar and Golden Globe for the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, playing the female-to-male transgender Brandon Teena in a role based on the real-life story of a high profile transphobic slaying; it was also Swank’s first Oscar amongst further wins and nominations subsequently. Charlize Theron netted both awards for her portrayal of a prostitute who became both a lesbian and a serial killer in Monster in 2003. Philip Seymour Hoffman did likewise in his 2005 portrayal in the biopic Capote. In the same year, Felicity Huffman won a Best Actress Golden Globe for her role as a male-to-female transsexual in Transamerica. And in 2008, Sean Penn won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk in Milk, though he had won others previously. While this list is not exhaustive, it is interesting to see not only how many gay, lesbian, or transgender roles have ended up winning the (straight) actors these high cinematic honors–often the first ones to get them major recognition for their acting abilities–but also how many have ended up winning both the Oscar and the Golden Globe, as could be the case with Benning in the coming weeks.

But, how is the film itself? Warning: if you have not seen the film yet and don’t want to know more about it, stop reading now! On the one hand, it is a sign of the times in terms of how it attempts to portray the “normality” (relatively speaking, of course!) of two lesbian life partners with children and some of the struggles they might encounter. Portraying this in as conventional a light as possible bodes well for the general acceptance and understanding of society at present in relation to alternative types of family rather than the usual patriarchal heteronormative expectation often still enforced, and which is a major and ongoing political issue in the U.S. at present, not only in terms of adoption laws but also in terms of the ability of gay and lesbian partners to have their relationships legally recognized, whether as marriage, domestic partnerships, or anything at all which has legal standing at local, state, or national levels. In fact, the fundamental conflict in the film is an attempt by the sperm donor, who made possible the two children Nic and Jules have, attempting not only to become important and influential in “his children’s” lives, but also his attempt to re-define Nic and Jules’ family according to more heteronormative models by having an affair with Jules, and then suggesting that they run away together with the kids.

And yet, for this very same reason, the film is supremely predictable and thus rather disappointing. Jules, an aspiring landscape architect, is the more feminine partner of the couple, with longer hair in contrast to her wife, the OB/GYN breadwinner Nic, with her typical butch short hair and rather dominant personality. Paul, the sperm donor, is an organic farmer and locavore restaurant owner, who engages Jules’ services after he meets “his children” on the initiative of Laser, Jules’ son, through his older sister Joni, who is eighteen and therefore able to make inquiries into the identity of the sperm donor. Of course, with their mutual interests in working the earth through landscaping and farming, an attraction begins to grow between them. In contrast to the women who work on Paul’s farm (some of with whom he’s having sex), Jules dresses very androgynously while working, apart from the red lacy thong that Paul notes she is wearing while she is bent over working in the dirt. She mistakenly kisses Paul at the end of a workday, and then apologizes profusely; but the next time they meet, they cannot resist getting more physical. In the lead-up to this, Jules and Nic’s relationship seems to be suffering from a bit of what is known as “lesbian bed death.” Nic is working harder than usual with her patients, often interrupting potentially romantic moments with taking phonecalls from expectant mothers. They try to spice up their sex life by watching some gay porn (!?!–refreshingly unconventional…and yet, not unrealistic either!), but then in a crude moment of fumbling turn up the volume too loud, worry that the neighbors might have heard them, and then stop…with no more sexual moments between them in the film after that. However, while watching the film, Nic comments that the men in it are in some sense “not manly enough” because they are all nearly hairless. Enter Paul, who not only has facial hair, but is also entirely “un-manscaped” in terms of his body hair. It almost seems strange that Jules, rather than Nic, ends up falling for him–though before Nic discovers that they have been having an affair, she does begin to warm up to him, and they bond over their mutual love of Joni Mitchell.

The straight male fantasy of becoming involved with two lesbians certainly seems to come to the fore, in certain respects, and the idea that “the right man” can “convert” a lesbian is an old trope that is not only a persistent one in the popular (fantasy) consciousness, but even something that has been stated as a spiritual truth in books like The Tao of Love and Sex. It is a problematic concept, certainly, not to mention an offensive and unwelcome one in the lives of many who are perfectly happy, spiritual, and “normal” in a variety of respects. When Paul’s ambitions of simply going from being a free-wheeling, somewhat-alternative single man to having a full-fledged family with (formerly lesbian) wife and two teenage children with no effort on his part only than having donated sperm twice in the early 90s for $60 each, are utterly shut down by Jules the last time she speaks with him on the phone (and hangs up on him!), this perhaps says a great deal about some of the problems in the patriarchal family structure generally.

The only overt homophobia in the film is that of Laser’s friend Clay, who is not only involved in drugs, but is also a Jackass or Tosh.0 wannabe/failed skateboard stunt artist who is wantonly destructive and abusive. He gives Laser a hard time about his “fag” sperm donor father…when of course Paul is anything but gay. When the scene where Clay says these things occurs, he is never seen again in the film afterwards, as Laser seems to have come to his senses about his character and suitability as a friend. Earlier in the film, however, Jules is concerned that perhaps Laser and Clay are sexually experimenting with one another, particularly once Clay goes through Laser’s mothers’ belongings, finds the gay porn, and insists that they watch it together. Late in the film, when Laser (like most fifteen-year-old boys) thinks his mothers are being too sentimental, Jules remarks that she wishes he was gay, because then he’d be more sensitive. (That’s another stereotype, of course, and not always a very accurate one…!)

It is not exactly clear where the film takes place, but one might assume somewhere like California, for a variety of reasons. And while the film seems to end happily, with no apparently impending divorce on the horizon for Jules and Nic, the way that Laser refers to the possibility of a divorce as “breaking up” seems to suggest that either he, or the writers, don’t see the relationship his two mothers have as in some sense a “real marriage.” His further comments, that both of them are “too old” to really be dating, seemed to me to suggest this interpretation even further. While it is fair to assume that many people who get divorced may eventually start dating again afterwards, the way it sounded to me in the film was that Laser thought of his mothers as “just dating” rather than being married, having a life together of at least eighteen years, and having a home and many other things which tend to be signs of a serious and ongoing relationship. Of all the long-term gay and lesbian couples I know personally, whether they are registered as domestic partners or have any legal recognition or “validity” to their relationships or not, all of them refer to each other as married and as husbands/wives. While marriages “break up” certainly, whether or not they end in a legal divorce, the terminology in that instance seemed to me rather noteworthy, and perhaps more out-of-character than it should have if the writers really understood the gravity of the types of lives they were trying to portray.

Apart from all of the social barometric aspects of the film, and the ways in which it poses some useful and possibly interesting questions about the nature of families and certain alternative lifestyles (including organic and localist ones–Nic is a major and vocal skeptic on the matter!), there are other questions I would have found it interesting for it to have pursued. Is this family religious, for example, and if they were, what religion would they follow? Would they be Unitarians, or perhaps Metropolitan Community Church members, or Buddhists, or something else? Given that Wicca and other forms of modern Paganism (and Dianic Wicca in particular) are quite lesbian-friendly, and since this particular family can be both queer in their sexuality and yet are also able to reproduce and fulfill the desire of some types of Wicca to be “fertility religions,” and since Nic is involved in childbirth and Jules is involved with landscaping, both seem to be rather ideal candidates for consideration as fulfilling important goddess archetypes. (Let us leave aside for the moment the issue of whether “goddess archetypes” and any ideas about archetypal feminine roles is a useful set of concepts at all–though it is an important discussion!) Artemis, for example, was famously independent of male influence, but is also a mother in her Ephesian cultus, and is a kourotrophos (“nurse” or “patroness of children”) elsewhere, and is certainly involved with childbirth as well. Could Nic be her stand-in, to a certain extent, in this film? Of the various films under consideration for Oscars this year, this film might get a nod from modern Pagans as the film with characters “Most Likely To Be Pagan,” perhaps!

Something else to consider in relation to this film is the fact that, without the advances of the previous few decades (both socially and medically), this film would not have been possible in an earlier era outside of science fiction or mythology. In a Middle Irish text from the Book of Leinster (which was written in the 12th century), two women have a sexual encounter together and one ends up giving birth to a child as a result, with no censure from the king who investigates the matter, despite being in an ostensible Christian context. Now, through medical technology and the social gains which have been won over the past fifty years, it is perfectly possible to imagine two women having children together without the direct involvement of a male, in the realm of realism rather than of fiction or myth. Perhaps even more than Inception, therefore, this film is dealing with archetypal and mythological themes, despite the ostensible realities behind it.

And yet, I am also drawn to consider the role of queerness in the arts and in acting in particular because of this and other films of the past two decades. Dionysos was the patron god of the theatrical arts in Greece, and he was himself quite queer, not only in terms of having some homoerotic relationships with various figures, but also in terms of his atypical gender identity and fluidity–now superlatively masculine with a beard, now extremely effeminate and nearly woman-like, now youthful and somewhat androgynous. The acting profession, at various times (including in ancient Greece and in Elizabethan England) was exclusively available to males, and thus men played female roles quite regularly, particularly when they were just starting out in the profession in late youth and were not excessively hairy or with deep voices. Because queer people have not been able to be completely open about their own lives quite frequently over the last two millennia, “being in the closet” and “acting” certainly have a number of similarities in terms of their basic operational modes. Dramatic arts remain one area of student activities in high schools today in which young queer people have often found acceptance, and have even excelled. Some have even suggested that because of Dionysos’ queerness and his connection to acting, that the Dionysian priesthoods, spirituality, and acting in particular have always been the province of queer people. Whether or not this is true, or whether or not one agrees with it, is not at issue here, so much as the suggestion of it and the widespread belief or assumption that “the drama crowd” always contains a number of queer people. (Genetic researchers who have investigated the possibility of a gay gene have nicknamed it the “musical theatre gene”!)

Thus, it seems very interesting that so many straight actors have ended up getting Oscar nominations, and wins, for their portrayals of gay, lesbian, or transgender characters. Less and less stigma is being attached to doing so, and the actors themselves are less self-conscious about playing these roles and having assumptions made about them as a result. All of these trends, certainly, are positive and should be lauded.

But personally, I don’t have high hopes for the film winning Best Picture. It’s not that it is a bad film, but I don’t think it is quite in the same category as some of the others, and it will likely have a tough time against The Social Network and The King’s Speech (even though I have not seen either of those, I know what the trends in Oscar nominations tend towards). As for Benning as Best Actress, she may have a very difficult time against Natalie Portman; and yet, she may end up being the next in a long line of “gay gold” double winners in her category.

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