Good news arrives this week with the premiere of The Imitation Game. The film features Benedict Cumberbatch as a real-life gay hero: Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who famously broke the Enigma code and, in the process, helped bring about the end of World War II. Winston Churchill later said Turing made the single greatest contribution of anyone when it came to defeating the Nazis. That’s pretty major, though this isn’t totally a feel-good story. The man who knew secrets had his own, since this wasn’t exactly a time for Pride parades and Drag Race reunions. In fact, Turing (who was socially awkward to an extreme) was prosecuted for homosexuality, suffered chemical castration as a punishment, and was found dead in 1954 in an apparent suicide. It wasn’t until last December that Queen Elizabeth II pardoned him for his transgressions. (Mighty white of her.) But still: He was gay! And a hero! And they made a movie about him!
Cumberbatch is superb as the heroic criminal (illegal hero?), who comes out to a colleague and also to his fiancée (Keira Knightley) as he searches for viable choices in a repressive time. The film is framed by flashbacks told from his arrest, and as personal tensions mount, so do his triumphs. The result is an absorbing drama that gays need to see.
That might not sound startling, except for the fact that cinema’s track record in handling gay issues has been splotchier than a twink on a high-gluten diet. English-language movies generally deal with sympathetic gays, as long as they’re either cartoony (Priscilla) or doomed (Philadelphia) or both (Kiss of the Spider Woman). Many times, the likable screen gays have no love lives, since they’re on hand to emit snappy one-liners, then flit away (like all those effeminate sidekicks in 1930s Fred and Ginger musicals). Or gays have been portrayed as victims, psychos, and human punch lines, present to add either horrifying anguish or cheap laughs. Even today, the idea of a gay hero movie seems like a revolution.
The 1950s and ’60s were a particularly toxic time for gay-themed films, thanks to a batch of adapted plays that didn’t exactly elevate the discourse. In Tea and Sympathy (1956), a boy who’s called a sissy gets the gay fucked out of him by the concerned wife of his coach. In The Children’s Hour (1961), a bratty little girl’s rumor mongering about her teachers’ lesbianism has very real results, like devastation and suicide. Staircase (1969) has two old gays bickering, and The Killing of Sister George (1968) shows that dykes can be sadistic too. Meanwhile, The Boys in the Band (based on the 1968 play) revels in the fun camaraderie of a group of gay NYC friends, though after a few drinks (and the entrance of a self-loathing character), wildly destructive recriminations ensue and you want to kill yourself.
In some ways, these films are merely reflecting the stigma of being gay during their eras, as well as the angst and pitfalls of being closeted. But some of them tend to add to the pain with broad strokes of ugliness and stereotyping.
Fortunately, the ’60s were a time of transition when people were experiencing varied sexual phenomena, and by the time the decade was over, everyone was ready for a breakthrough. It came with the 1971 British film Sunday Bloody Sunday, in which a hot young stud simultaneously beds a couple of friends played by Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch, leading to all sorts of complications. The result was sophisticated and very refreshing.
The ’80s brought a mixed bag of more breakthroughs (Silkwood, My Beautiful Laundrette) together with some ill-received throwbacks (Cruising) and downright whitewashes (The Color Purple). But in general, gays were becoming more integrated into the palette of available characters, and they didn’t always have to be pathetic to gain a place at the big-screen table.
Alas, the more we moved ahead, the more baby steps we took back. In the 1990s, gay guys were often bitchy best friends to pretty women, but Greg Kinnear’s gay artist in the 1997 seriocomedy As Good As It Gets had the potential to exhibit more soul than that. Unfortunately, the guy is victimized and lonely and has to rely on a big creep (Jack Nicholson) for a lifeline. It didn’t sound like any gay guy I’ve ever met, or would hope to meet.
More problematic was the rash of (mostly fine) films that equated LGBTs with murder and death. No one seemed to be conflating “gay” and “happy” in this uneasy period. In 1999, Boys Don’t Cry was the beautifully filmed true story of trans man Brandon Teena, who met a grisly fate. In 2003, the powerful Monster showed how an abused lesbian became a real-life serial killer. In 2005, Capote focused on renowned (and real) author Truman Capote’s fixation with a murderer he was writing about. And the same year, Brokeback Mountain showcased a couple of gay cowboys who, though fictional, are shrouded by inevitable tragedy. (And they hardly end a World War in the process.) Sure, these films have value in that they reveal some of the horrors that come out of oppression. But enough! Let’s show some gays who’ve done good and have actually lived to enjoy the rewards!
Of course Milk (2008) is a classic about a real-life trailblazer — who was killed. But I did like 2010’s The Kids Are All Right, the well-observed film about a lesbian couple’s domestic dramatics. As played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, the couple seemed feeling, funny, and fierce — until one of them had to go and sleep with a man. Oh, Hollywood.
And Jared Leto won an Oscar for playing a saucy trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club in 2014. But then she had to die, of course.
Fortunately, 2014 has already had one queer-positive triumph: Pride, about the gays who supported striking miners in Thatcher’s U.K. And even going beyond The Imitation Game, Steve Carell is set to play an unpunished gay hero. In Freeheld, Carell will be Steven Goldstein, the Garden State Equality founder who helped move domestic partnership rights forward. I’ll buy the gay popcorn.
MICHAEL MUSTO is the author of Manhattan on the Rocks, Downtown, and Fork on the Left, Knife in the Back, and a weekly columnist for Out magazine.