Op-ed: The Not-So-Gay Super Bowl

By Matt Kane of GLAAD

Originally published on Advocate.com February 21 2013 1:04 PM ET

How many times have you heard a talk show host, comedian, or friend who thought they were being funny refer to the Academy Awards as "the gay Superbowl?" Old stereotypes aside, the annual televised event certainly has the reputation of being a much-beloved communal viewing tradition within the LGBT community, but the Oscars' own history with LGBT subject matter is a little more complicated. While the Oscars have helped champion some truly memorable LGBT-themed films, there are still a few benchmarks of LGBT inclusion the Academy has yet to reach. 

This year's crop of nominees is notably lighter on LGBT-inclusive fare than in some years past, but not altogether absent and even include an Oscar first. In the Best Documentary Feature category, How to Survive a Plague is among the nominees, with many predicting it could go on to win. More than a great film, How to Survive a Plague is a vital historical record of the LGBT movement and the HIV/AIDS epidemic that should be a part of every U.S. history curriculum in the country. On the other end of the film spectrum, Focus Features' family film ParaNorman —which reveals at the end that one of its main characters (school jock Mitch Downe) is gay—is the first gay-inclusive film nominated for Best Animated Feature. Both of these films are also nominated for GLAAD Media Awards this year.

This year's ceremony will be produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, two openly gay producers who brought audiences shows like Smash and Drop Dead Diva, as well as films including Chicago and Hairspray. The two were honored last year with the Vito Russo Award at the GLAAD Media Awards for their LGBT-inclusive work.

So what films didn't make the cut with the Academy this year? Many had predicted that the widened Best Picture field meant that the gay-inclusive film The Perks of Being a Wallflower had a good shot at a nomination, but that unfortunately wasn't to be.  The real slap might have been that it also didn't receive a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, which many had considered a lock, as director Stephen Chbosky, who adapted it from his own much-beloved novel, expertly scripted it. Your Sister's Sister also featured a terrific performance from Rosemarie DeWitt as a lesbian nursing a broken heart that garnered much critical praise, and the gay-inclusive Best Exotic Marigold Hotel contained all the film hallmarks that have regularly appealed to Oscar voters in the past. Coincidentally, all three of these films were recognized as nominees for a GLAAD Media Award.

None of this should be taken to mean that LGBT content hurts a film's chance at a nomination, however. Likely it was simply a year with many great films to choose from, and there weren't any crossover mega-hits like Brokeback Mountain or The Kids Are All Right in the race. However, that does point to a few areas in which the Academy has room to grow when it comes to its recognition of LGBT-themed film.

1) It's time to recognize more LGBT indies
One of the great things the Oscars do is point audiences towards some amazing independent films they may have missed the first time around. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a low-budget film lacking any marquee names that will surely attract some new viewers thanks to the four Oscar nominations it picked up this year, including Best Picture. Other recent films that have similarly benefitted include The Artist and Winter's Bone, but a cursory glance over the last 10 years of nominees indicate that LGBT-themed films of the same ilk don't often get the same recognition in the major categories. Though they made plenty of critics' top ten lists and featured worthy performances, great recent films like Andrew Haigh's Weekend, Dee Rees' Pariah, and Ira Sach's Keep the Lights On were all passed over. Would things have been different if they starred A-list actors instead of lesser known ones? It often appears that for LGBT-themed films, the difference between getting a nomination or not comes down to how recognizable the names are. Which leads to another second issue….

2) Don't call actors "brave" for playing LGBT roles
This is more for the media covering the Oscars, (and Oscar telecast writers), and thankfully seems to be on the decline now that playing LGBT roles isn't considered the "risk" to someone's career that it might once have been. But the sentiment still lingers in the minds of some journalists and Oscar voters alike that playing a LGBT character is an act of courage, and has since the days when Tom Hanks took home the 1993 Best Actor trophy for his role in Philadelphia. Of course, Hanks did a great job, and to cite some more recent examples, we're ecstatic to see masterful actors like Sean Penn and Annette Bening get recognized for playing complicated, well-rounded, and in some cases iconic, LGBT people. But Penn did not play Harvey Milk while diving in a shark cage and Bening didn't play a tightly-wound lesbian housewife while base-jumping. They were two actors who scored the type of meaty roles that many of their peers surely coveted, and used their considerable talents to deliver nuanced and moving performances worthy of nominations (and wins). And by the way, neither should simply playing an LGBT role be considered "Oscar bait." Unfortunately for many voters, recognizing the performance seems to be preferable to recognizing the film itself, which leads to issue number three…

3) An LGBT-themed film still needs to win best picture
It may seem somewhat arbitrary, but an LGBT-themed film has yet to make it all the way to the Oscar finish line. There have been a few gay-inclusive winners along the way like Chicago and American Beauty, but nothing in which LGBT people were the focus rather than the b-story. For those who remember, the biggest sting in this race was Brokeback Mountain losing to Crash in 2005. Brokeback Mountain was a watershed moment in LGBT representation in film, buoyed by heaps of critical praise, terrific performances all around, and an enviable box office take, but even a Best Director win for Ang Lee wasn't enough to seal the deal. Many commentators couldn't help but wonder if a bit of generational divide or fear may have influenced the older skewing Academy voters, but thankfully Brokeback Mountain's spot in the American film canon was secured before the ceremony even took place. 

This isn't to say a film should win or be nominated just because it's an LGBT-themed film, and in truth it's only a matter of time before the stars align (so to speak) and an LGBT movie is recognized by the Academy as the best film of the year. It would also help if the big studios widened the playing field a bit by producing more LGBT-inclusive films to begin with. In fact, GLAAD is working on a new report that measures the low quality and quantity of LGBT characters among the six biggest Hollywood studios. 

The Oscars are an enduring institution with a respected place in America's collective cultural heart, and LGBT viewers may be surprised at how moved they might be when a film telling one of our stories finally wins Best Picture.  It will be seen as one more sign that the LGBT community is becoming more fully integrated into American society, and likely evoke that same warm rush of acceptance that many felt after our recent legislative and political victories.

In the meantime, we should recognize the cinematic achievement being made both inside and outside the Oscar nominations and support LGBT films with ticket and DVD sales as much as awards. Why not check to see if How to Survive a Plague is playing in a theater near you right now? And because it's worth repeating, this is the year that a PG-rated animated children's film with a gay character was nominated for an Academy Award. How great is that? Let's hope voters take notice of these two worthy films and they take home the Oscar gold.

MATT KANE is the Associate Director of Entertainment Media at GLAAD.