Film history is littered with queer villains. Dangerous dandies, larcenous lesbians, pansy princes, and terrifying transvestites wreaked havoc on the silver screen long before sympathetic LGBT characters began to appear on film in the 1960s.
Throughout the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, the public perception of gays and lesbians was that they were sick and disturbed — and therefore dangerous. While overt references to homosexuality were long prohibited in film, skilled filmmakers created characters that displayed subtle yet clearly queer qualities.
No one handled this more deftly than director Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense and psychosexual anxiety — who often cast closeted gay actors in gay-ish roles. Four of his films are saluted here, which include complex characters that transcend sexual stereotypes.
Yet many of these films created dangerous stereotypes that have taken years of activism (from groups like GLAAD) to overcome. As more varied images of gay characters have appeared on film, some queer villains have become more complex. Yet glaringly offensive portrayals of LGBT villainy persist to this day.
So here we take a chronological look at queer baddies on film, rating each of them as: Thoroughly Reprehensible, Damaging Stereotype, Hitch(cock) Knows Best, or Evil But Awesome.
Prince John — The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
The brilliant Claude Rains (of Casablanca fame) plays the evil pansy prince who bedevils Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marian and Errol Flynn’s dashing Robin Hood. This stereotype of an effeminate villain (seen four more times on this list) taps into the viewer's homophobia — making it especially gratifying to see them defeated by the more macho hero. Damaging Stereotype
Mrs. Danvers — Rebecca (1940)
Judith Anderson plays the archetypal evil housekeeper, who is obsessed with the late Mrs. De Winter — to the dismay of Joan Fontaine as the new Mrs. De Winter. In this scene, she all but sniffs the late woman’s lingerie. Hitch Knows Best
Joel Cairo — The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Peter Lorre made a career out of playing sleazy reprobates. Here he’s at his most overtly effeminate, causing both Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart to slap a bitch. Damaging Stereotype
Waldo Lydecker — Laura (1944)
Gay actor Clifton Webb is at his most bitchy and controlling as the evil queen who attempts to transform Gene Tierney’s mysterious and titular Laura. Damaging Stereotype
Philip and Brandon — Rope (1948)
Farley Granger and John Dall star in this fictional variation on the real-life Leopold and Loeb case — a story of two upper-class gay guys who commit a murder just for kicks. Hitch Knows Best
Addison DeWitt — All About Eve (1950)
George Sanders earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as the manipulative queen bitch theater critic, inspiring a generation of witty, evil, proto-gay villains. Evil But Awesome
Bruno Anthony — Strangers on a Train (1951)
Robert Walker is a psychotic gay socialite who convinces Farley Granger’s tennis pro to swap murders. Hitch Knows Best
Norman Bates — Psycho (1960)
Gay actor Anthony Perkins gives his most famous performance as the ultimate mama’s boy in Hitchcock’s grisly masterpiece. His penchant for cross-dressing comes from the true (and much more grisly) story of serial killer Ed Gein, on which the film is partly based. Hitch Knows Best
Dr. Robert Elliot — Dressed to Kill (1980)
Michael Caine plays the (spoiler alert!) transvestite killer in director Brian De Palma’s horror flick — one of the first films to cause a public outcry from the gay community. Damaging Stereotype
Miriam Blaylock — The Hunger (1983)
The stunning Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie as vampires? What’s not to like? And she sets her sights on the young and tremulous Susan Sarandon. Evil But Awesome
Buffalo Bill — Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Ted Levine plays the sadistic transvestite killer in Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-sweeping but profoundly distasteful film. Thoroughly Reprehensible
Catherine Tramell — Basic Instinct (1992)
Sharon Stone had her most iconic role — and triggered howls of protest from the gay community — as the bisexual serial killer in this stylish piece of misogynist trash. Damaging Stereotype
Scar — The Lion King (1994)
Jeremy Irons channels George Sanders, voicing the bitchy, evil (and less hetero) feline version of Hamlet’s King Claudius in this Disney classic. Evil But Awesome
Prince Edward — Braveheart (1995)
Peter Hanly plays a pathetic, simpering — and historically inaccurate — gay prince in the famously homophobic Mel Gibson film that swept the Oscars. (It was a slow year.) Thoroughly Reprehensible
Governor Ratcliffe — Pocahontas (1995)
Gay actor David Ogden Stiers voices the vain, foppish villain (a time-honored gay stereotype) in this less than historically accurate Disney film. Damaging Stereotype
Tom Ripley — The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Matt Damon gives his most complex and overlooked performance as a gay chameleon who reinvents himself to join the high society world of Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow — which leads to murder. Haven’t seen it? Get offline and watch it now (we’ll wait). Evil But Awesome
Aileen Wuornos — Monster (2003)
Charlize Theron won a Best Actress Oscar as the real-life lesbian prostitute and serial killer. The film took some heat for inventing backstory to create motivation, but Theron’s performance is still a stunner. Evil But Awesome
Barbara Covett — Notes on a Scandal (2006)
Judi Dench kicks ass (and earned an Oscar nod) as a lesbian high school teacher who preys on a flighty new teacher (Cate Blanchett) and ruins everyone's life in the process. Evil But Awesome