In a decade that began with a Bush in office and closed not long after Matthew Shepard's death, it's still shocking how many high-quality queer films the 1990s produced. From big-budget fare like The Birdcage, In & Out, and The Crying Game to small films that shook the establishment like Boys Don't Cry, Go Fish, and The Doom Generation, the stories of LGBT life were relatively easy to find in big-city art houses and small-town video stores (just make sure no one saw you with that copy of To Wong Foo or Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss). Filmmakers like Pedro Almodóvar, Todd Haynes, Rose Troche, Gus Van Sant, Gregg Araki, and Cheryl Dunye made work that endures, and many launched successful mainstream careers. Metrograph, the New York independent film house, is honoring the New Queer Cinema movement of the '90s with a month of screenings that includes Gia, Trick, Nowhere, Ma Vie en Rose, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Here are the films — all part of the Metrograph series — that left a mark on us.
The Crying Game (directed by Neil Jordan, 1992)
This story of a rogue IRA operative trying to put his past behind him had enough action to stand on its own as a standard political thriller like Patriot Games or The Russia House. But writer-director Neil Jordan wasn't content with the usual fare — he crafted a potboiler firmly centered by a very human relationship and, in effect, made the stakes that much higher. Spoiler alert: That the central love story was between a cisgender straight man and a transgender woman only added to the complexities of the film. While some complained that Dil's trans identity was a "gotcha" twist, she remained the heroine of the movie up until the final scene. Portrayed with subtlety and grace by now-retired gay actor Jaye Davidson, Dil was a tragic figure but not a comical one, a revolutionary idea in 1992. The idea that men would risk their lives for a trans woman — and not abuse or mock her — was a twist in and of itself, and her happy ending was even more surprising. Jordan and Davidson planted Dil in reality as well; the daily traumas of living as a trans woman in early-'90s London could be measured in the lounge singer's muted voice, tired eyes, and, at times, resigned attitude. In the end, Jordan refused to let Dil be passive — as the film drew to a close, she became a force to be reckoned with, and her actions propelled the film to its shocking climax. Nearly 25 years after its release, The Crying Game is no longer remembered for its "secret" but is instead known for its rich portrait of queer survival and determination.
As a closeted teenager in Connecticut, I wanted to see anything I wasn't supposed to see — my brother snuck me into The Silence of the Lambs, I watched Thelma & Louise after my parents went to bed, and I begged my father (!) to take me to The Crying Game. When we walked into the art-house theater — one of those odd ones where you sat at tables and waiters brought you food — I knew Dil's "secret," but my father didn't. I had never seen a trans character in my life and didn't even understand what the IRA was fighting for. But the love story between Fergus and Dil resonated; I wondered what it felt like to have a man risk his life for you. I identified with Dil, not necessarily as a trans woman, but as someone with a secret. Dil was at the mercy of a male-dominated world — maybe they'll love you, maybe they'll kill you — and I felt a similar vulnerability, which I still carry. As my head was swimming outside the theater, my father, God love him, had little to say: "I liked it enough, but that part was unnecessary." —Neal Broverman
The Wedding Banquet (directed by Ang Lee, 1993)
The Wedding Banquet is both funny and touching, a story of deception that gives way to acceptance. Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) and Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein) are a happy couple in Manhattan, and the only major annoyance in their lives is that Wai-Tung’s parents, who live in Taiwan, would love to see him marry a woman and give them grandchildren. No, they don’t have a clue that he’s gay. To placate them and do a friend a favor, Wai-Tung decides to enter into a marriage of convenience with Wei-Wei (May Chin), an impoverished immigrant artist who rents an apartment from him. Wai-Tung’s parents will be off his back, Wei-Wei can get a green card, and everyone will be satisfied — or so the principals think. When Wai-Tung’s parents arrive from Taiwan, they insist on throwing the titular banquet, matters get complicated, and secrets are revealed. The film is a delight that evokes laughter and the occasional tear. For many moviegoers, it was an introduction to director Ang Lee, who also cowrote the screenplay; it was only his second feature-length film. The fact that Lee is straight doesn’t interfere with his handling of the subject matter, and he would go on to show his directorial expertise in films as varied as Sense and Sensibility, Life of Pi, The Ice Storm, and of course, one of the best gay-themed movies ever, Brokeback Mountain.
I saw The Wedding Banquet in the fall of 1993 at the beautiful Michigan Theater, a vintage movie palace in the college town of Ann Arbor, one of my favorite cities. I was visiting my best friend, Kevin, who was in graduate school at the University of Michigan. We had many, many great times in A Squared, as it’s known, and we keep meaning to get back there. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m pretty sure that after the movie we went for drinks at the Flame, a fun and friendly dive that was then Ann Arbor’s only gay bar. Sorry to say the Flame went out permanently a few years later. But it made many happy memories for me and my dearest friend, and so did The Wedding Banquet. —Trudy Ring