Plenty of Hollywood A-Listers shatter the notion that it's dangerous to take roles playing LGBT characters. In fact, some of our most iconic actors have played LGBT roles, and it doesn't seem to have slowed them down a bit. Here are a few whose names you just might happen to recognize.
Al Pacino — Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
John Wojtowicz was larger than life and would do anything for love. That's exactly what Al Pacino's portrayal as Sonny Wortzik, based on Wojtowicz, conveys in this gritty account of a botched bank robbery, all with the purpose of raising cash to pay for his trans partner's operation.
Meryl Streep — Manhattan (1979)
In one of her earliest roles, Meryl Streep was the seductive and tough-talking Jill in Manhattan, Woody Allen's follow-up to Annie Hall. Streep has, of course, gone on to make incredible films and win tons of awards for her performances, but early on she nailed this role as Isaac's (Allen's) ex-wife and a voice of reason.
Cher — Silkwood (1983)
By 1983, Cher was already a star, but in this biographical account of the unsolved death of Karen Silkwood, Cher's performance as Dolly Pelliker is authentic and heartbreaking. She won a Golden Globe for her performance and was nominated for an Oscar as well, for good reason.
William Hurt — Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1985)
William Hurt won the Academy Award for his sensitive portrayal of Molina, a window dresser imprisoned in Brazil for homosexual activity with a minor during the country’s military dictatorship. The outstanding Raul Julia costars as Molina’s cellmate Arregui, a political dissident to whom Molina obsessively retells the plot to his favorite melodramatic movie, about a dangerously glamorous spider woman (Sonia Braga). Molina falls for Arregui even as their jailers offer Molina a lighter sentence to spy on the revolutionary. Eventually the men form a bond that can only end in tragedy.
Daniel Day-Lewis — My Beautiful Launderette (1985)
Combining racism, class issues, and gay love in one sudsy mix sounds like a recipe for heavy-handed treacle, but Stephen Frears's My Beautiful Laundrette is as entertaining as it is culturally resonant. The story of a Pakistani man and a street punk falling in love, challenging the conventions of Thatcher-era London, and classing up a laundromat in the way only gay men can, My Beautiful Laundrette was immediately met with praise as was Daniel Day-Lewis, whose brilliant performance only led to more great roles.
Tom Hanks — Philadelphia (1993)
Philadelphia was a landmark film for introducing mainstream moviegoers to the discrimination gay men faced as well as the discrimination encountered by people living with HIV and AIDS, especially in the 1980s and early '90s. Hanks played this role with such compassion that this actor known for funny roles up until that point in films like Turner & Hooch and Big, and the TV show Bosom Buddies, earned his first Academy Award.
Will Smith — Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
We know that Will Smith has had a stronghold on summer blockbusters starting with 1996's Independence Day, but a few years earlier, as his sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was taking off, Smith appeared in this comedic drama as Paul, a con artist who preyed on the parents of wealthy college students. Though Smith refused to kiss Anthony Michael Hall for the role because he was advised it would ruin his career, his performance proved that the guy had acting chops beyond his sitcom role.
Leonardo DiCaprio — Total Eclipse (1995)
A then 20-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio played the original bady boy of poetry, Arthur Rimbaud, who seduced and had a bonfire of an affair with older poet Paul Verlaine. This was a small film, early in DiCaprio's career, and took risks with langorous and sensual seduction and sex scenes.
Gina Gershon — Bound (1996)
This neo-noir thriller marked the directorial debut of the Wachowski siblings, and though it was long before Lana Wachowski was an out trans woman, we can’t help but think it helped influence this superb bisexual/lesbian classic in which Violet (femme and alluring Jennifer Tilly), a moll owned by her Mafia boyfriend (Joe Pantoliano) but looking for escape, has an affair with butch neighbor Corky (Gina Gershon in the hottest lesbian film role ever). The two women hatch a scheme to steal millions from the mob, and the usual noir tropes work to great success, albeit with a hefty dose of violence.
Robin Williams — The Birdcage (1996)
At first glance, both Nathan Lane and Robin Williams seem to play flamboyant, wacky characters in The Birdcage, but the actors show empathy and authenticity as Albert and Armand. While the roles are mid-career for both of these actors, this film ended up being one of the most iconic in each of their careers.
Ewan McGregor — Velvet Goldmine (1998)
There are glam bisexuals and gays, a sometimes confusing style, and a top-notch cast in director Todd Haynes's '70s-era drama, said to be based loosely on David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust period. A reporter played by Christian Bale goes in search of a former glam-rock star, Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) by interviewing his former lover Curt (Ewan McGregor) and ex-wife Mandy (Toni Collette), and the film recounts their stories in a haphazard series of vignettes.
Paul Rudd — The Object of My Affection (1998)
Nina (Jennifer Aniston) falls in love with the perfect man — her gay roommate, played by Paul Rudd. Up until then, Rudd's big role was Josh, Cher's adorkable stepbrother in Clueless, but The Object of My Affection was a pivotal role for Rudd, who has starred in top cult films and iconic comedies in the last two decades, including Wet Hot American Summer, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Role Models, and Anchorman.
Hilary Swank — Boys Don't Cry (1999)
Hilary Swank played the role of real-life trans man Brandon Teena, who was raped and murdered, in Boys Don't Cry. The film introduced mainstream audiences to the struggles trans people face, while also becoming a career-defining film for Swank as a dramatic actress.