Gus Kenworthy
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Reflecting on Queer Cinema's Golden Age: The Gay '90s

90s Movies X750

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

The Celluloid Closet (directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, 1995)

Based on Vito Russo’s exhaustive study of the same name of LGBT images on screen that date as far back as the early Edison experimental films in the late 1800s through the dawn of New Queer Cinema in the early 1990s, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s 1995 documentary should be required viewing for, well, everyone. Lily Tomlin narrates the film, which juxtaposes scenes from dozens of movies with talking head interviews featuring queer luminaries and Hollywood trailblazers. Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Hanks, Quentin Crisp, Susan Sarandon, Tony Curtis, and lesbian sexpert Susie Bright weigh in on their experiences with LGBT images back when viewers had to mostly read between the lines. But the film is worth the price of admission alone for Gore Vidal’s delicious spilling of the tea on the making of Ben-Hur and how he and actor Stephen Boyd pulled the wool over ultraconservative Charlton Heston’s eyes.

As a lesbian who came out and of age in the ’80s, I wasn’t accustomed to seeing overt representation in movies or on television. By the time the ’80s ended I was an expert on naming films with queer characters — at least in that decade. Maurice, Another Country, The Hunger, Entre Nous, Personal Best … I knew them all. Surely, the early ’90s was a watershed era for LGBT images on screen, and The Celluloid Closet became an endlessly fascinating, entertaining guide to a secret world I hadn’t realized existed. I was living in New Jersey, waitressing at a seafood restaurant just 40 minutes from New York City when The Celluloid Closet was released. I had just started dating another waitress there. One mid-week day after our lunch shift she drove us in her beat-up sports car (a Z-28 or something terrific like that) into the city to a classic old theater in Greenwich Village. The date was wildly romantic in its way, and while that relationship didn’t last for long, I would remain forever transfixed by the world that The Celluloid Closet opened up to me. It was the first I’d learned of Hollywood’s restrictive Hays Code, censorship that made it nearly impossible to depict overt homosexuality on screen. In the decades since that wild ride into the Village to watch — gasp — a queer film, The Celluloid Closet would become a touchstone for me as a film theory student and as a writer for LGBT publications. —Tracy E. Gilchrist

The Birdcage (directed by Mike Nichols, 1996)

The Birdcage is one of the most beloved family comedies of the ’90s. The film is about a gay cabaret owner and his drag queen companion — and it’s not a tragedy, which is unusual when put up against many of its queer cinema predecessors. The film by Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Working Girl, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf) proved to be a turning point for society's evolving views on homosexuality. Sandwiched between the zenith of the AIDS crisis and Ellen and Will & Grace, the film set the stage for big changes. The film was an acclaimed box-office hit and made a star of out actor Nathan Lane. But it did so much more for the perceptions of gay men and the idea of LGBT people raising children. The Birdcage could have easily been a niche film, but what it had to say was so universal; it demonstrated that a straight family and a queer one could have the same family values and love for their children.

I grew up in a family that was really big on micro-aggressions. As I approached my late teenage years, I was coming to terms with my sexuality. My gay was seeping out. So out of fear I found myself watching a lot of queer films and reading queer literature in secret. I remember watching this film, my family coming into the living room, and debating whether I should keep it on or not. I was going to change the channel, but then my dad began talking about how he loves Nathan Lane. Then my mom chimed in, and not only had she seen The Birdcage, it's one of her favorite films. My whole family stayed to watch the film, and not one negative thing was said about the LGBT characters. It's true what they say — film can bring all types of people together. —Angela Jude

Set It Off (directed by F. Gary Gray, 1996)

The character of Cleo in Set It Off was so unapologetically black, so unapologetically queer, and truly progressive for the time. To this it day it is one of film's most fleshed-out representations of a butch lesbian. Queen Latifah’s character is strong, loyal. and a bank robber, but what is great is she isn’t the hypermasculine-to-a-fault archetype that is often associated with black queer women. Takashi Bufford’s screenplay created breathing room for Cleo to exist authentically in a group of friends who were all straight except for her, instead of a male-dominated space where black lesbians are constantly placed, so that they may sit comfortably among the stereotypes of black men and masculinity. This Los Angeles-set heist flick came out just four years after racially motivated riots tore through swaths of the city. The character of Cleo was a symbol of those poor neighborhoods affected; she was going to live out and proud and do things her way or die trying.

Queen-Fuckin-Latifah in Set It Off — what more needs to be said! I saw her on my TV screen and I was like, I want to be like that, heck, I was already pretty much that: Taller, stronger with a slight attitude and always rocking cornrows. Sure, I was only 7 or 8, but I knew the moment I saw Queen Latifah smoking with that beautiful girl dancing over her, that she was going to be my idol. I didn’t see the full film until many years later, but seeing the character of Cleo being gay before I even knew what that word meant was all it took. Whoopi Goldberg from Sister Act had been dethroned as my idol, and I finally knew there was an alternative to being a girly-girl. —Angela Jude

The Watermelon Woman (directed by Cheryl Dunye, 1996)

The Watermelon Woman is a cult classic feature film from 1996 about a black lesbian who works in a video store (remember those?) and in her free time becomes obsessed with researching and making a film about a queer black actress who played a “mammy” in multiple 1940s films. The actress is only referred to as “The Watermelon Woman” in the credits, and thus Cheryl Dunye, the writer, director, and lead actor in The Watermelon Woman, goes on an adventure to find out everything she can about this woman. Clearly a lover of film, Dunye is disappointed that the medium she adores doesn’t include characters that resemble her — black, queer — so she goes on to make her own stamp on the film world.

What I love about The Watermelon Woman is that it has the same qualities as novels and writers who I love and can’t stop reading or gushing about. There are only certain works of art — novels, movies, music — that make me feel like I’m experiencing something truly revolutionary, truly ahead of its time. It’s something I felt the first time I read Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands and the same thought I had the first time I read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts: "I didn’t know you were allowed to do that?"

Storytellers say there are no new stories, only different ways of telling them, and Dunye does that. She shakes up storytelling in a way that I’d never seen done before. It’s funny to think this, but sometimes as viewers and as creative people, we need permission, or examples to look to, to imagine the height that art can lead us to. I was just an unsuspecting film viewer, sitting in my seat at Outfest, when I was fooled, at first, into thinking I was watching a documentary, before realizing I was watching a fictionalized narrative that introduces itself to the viewer as a documentary, before taking on an adventure of its own.

I think back often to the last scenes of The Watermelon Woman, when Cheryl Dunye’s character breaks the fourth wall and address the viewer to say, “Sometimes you have to create your own history.” As a queer woman, I related to Dunye’s urgency in creating her own history, to see herself reflected back through the eyes of the film industry that she obviously loves, but one that because of prejudices of the time, lacks any positive representation of black characters during the era that is known as “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” I’m not going to spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it, but I will say that if you have an opportunity to watch The Watermelon Woman, you must. —Yezmin Villarreal

High Art (directed by Lisa Cholodenko, 1998)

Brat-Packer Ally Sheedy playing a lesbian? That was likely 85 percent (this number has not been confirmed) of the draw of High Art for queer women of a certain age. But The Kids Are All Right director Lisa Cholodenko’s first feature dug so much deeper than girl-crush nostalgia. The film, at times, all too romantically explored the intersection of the New York City art world and heroin addiction. Sheedy gives the performance of her life as Lucy, a reclusive drug-addicted photographer poised for a professional rebirth thanks to her beautiful, idealistic neighbor Syd (a sumptuous Radha Mitchell), an ambitious newcomer at a leading art magazine, who pitches Lucy for the cover. Syd and Lucy fall hard and fast over a working weekend during which Syd becomes the object of Lucy’s camera and gaze. Complicating matters is Lucy’s deeply drug-addled German actress girlfriend Greta, played with unforgettable ennui by Patricia Clarkson. Moody and loaded with pathos, High Art is not a feel-good film, but history-making in that it was one of the first lesbian-themed films that circumvented the familiar coming-out narrative.

At the literal dead end of Airport Road in Hartford, Conn., past the cavernous Lobster Pot seafood restaurant, burned-out industrial lots, and a sex toy/video store the size of a warehouse, was Cinema City, a four-screen art-house cinema where I spent the better part of my days off in my 20s and 30s. My girlfriend at the time and I saw High Art there, and despite its downer of an ending, I convinced another lesbian couple to join us when we screened it a second time. Our friends railed at me for taking them to such a “depressing” movie, but my over-identification with the love scene during which Syd cries from being overwhelmed with emotion was so palpable that I couldn’t fathom their tepid response to the film. Sure, the story was maudlin, but the feeling that some aspect of my life had been accurately represented was entirely the bigger picture. —Tracy E. Gilchrist

All About My Mother (directed by Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)

Decades before Laverne and Caitlyn, there was Agrado and Lola. These are the two transgender women at the heart of Almodóvar’s 1999 classic All About My Mother. The film broke ground with these stellar representations of transgender lives filled with heart, humor, and, sadly, HIV. Both Agrado and Lola are HIV-positive, but in the ever-affectionate hands of Almodóvar their status does not define them or minimize their humanity. In an unforgettable scene, Agrado (which means “agreeable”) monologues to a bitter audience and wins them over telling by telling her “life story,” which includes a detailed itemization of her transitional plastic surgeries, concluding, “It costs a lot to be authentic, ma’am, and one can’t be stingy with these things because the more authentic you are, the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.” Two of the other women at the center of the story are lesbians. The actress Huma describes her connection to her costar and lover by saying, “She’s hooked on heroin and I’m hooked on her.” It’s challenging to imagine a female-driven film full of lesbians, trans folks, AIDS, and prostitution winning an Oscar in 2016. That is exactly what puts All About My Mother so far ahead of its time.

I remember red. Especially the red lips on the red billboard Manuela is dwarfed by moments before her son dies and the red blood on Agrado’s face after she’s beaten. As a budding filmmaker, I found the bold use of color and stylized storytelling irrevocably imprinted my cinematic psyche. As a burgeoning adult, it was the first time that I saw a transgender person on film. It introduced me to I a visual vernacular and queer extended family when I needed it. I saw All About My Mother on my study-abroad semester in London when I was thinking all about my mother, who had compared my burgeoning lesbian identity to “criminal behavior.” Seeing a film centered around the complex and fascinating lives of women including lesbians and trans women gave me permission that I could do the same in my films and in my life. Gracias, Almodóvar. —Allison Tate

Boys Don't Cry (directed by Kimberly Peirce, 1999)

I remember distinctly when my sister started pulling back from me in high school. We never hung out anymore, she didn’t tease me for overeating, and she stayed in her room like the old man from Up. My mother and I chalked it up teenage moodiness; after all, Twilight was pretty popular and "quiet loner" was in. But one day out of the blue my sister asked me if I had seen Boys Don’t Cry, in such a chippy and random manner that it took me a minute to respond. There was a lot I wanted to say, like “Hello, where have you been the last few months?” but I didn’t. Instead I just stared at my sister and for a cool 30 minutes as she asked questions and answered them herself and rambled on about how amazing Boys Don’t Cry was. My sister doesn’t like dramatic films or art-house indies, so everything about the situation was odd. Being a stubborn teenager at the time, I was hurt by her disconnecting, so I said very few words in response. Later that year my sister would come out of the closet. She wasn’t disconnecting; thanks to Boys Don’t Cry, something finally clicked.

Boys Don’t Cry is “a romantic tragedy — a Romeo and Juliet set in a Nebraska trailer park,” according to Roger Ebert. The film is based on the true story of Brandon Teena, a transgender man. Despite the sensationalized media coverage about Teena, Hilary Swank’s unparalleled performance succeeded in familiarizing Brandon rather than mythologizing. Perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment of many is how it succeeded in keeping Brandon human. The film played a crucial role in shedding light on the life-and-death challenges that transgender, genderqueer, nonbinary and nonconforming LGBTQ+ people face when they live authentically. It also shed glaring light on hotbeds of hatred, ignorance, and inherited inclinations of violence inflicted on boys who cry, and anyone like them. The fact that the film won a truckload of awards, including a Golden Globe and Best Actress Oscar for then-unknown Hilary Swank, makes me wish that’s how genderqueer people were valued in real life. —Allison Tate

Thelma & Louise (directed by Ridley Scott, 1991)

Thelma & Louise obviously loved each other. Whether they were in love with each other, at least by the end of the film, is up to the viewer. But as much as we crave representations of same-sex romance, strong female friendship is not to be dismissed — and it’s not depicted on-screen often enough. Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) were both involved with men; Thelma with a creepy husband played by Christopher McDonald and Louise with a longterm lover portrayed by Michael Madsen. The women go on a road trip that is interrupted by an encounter with a rapist in a honky-tonk; after (spoiler alert) Louise shoots him dead, they go on the run. Some commentators called the film “man-hating,” as many of the male characters are sexist jerks — even one played by the young and hunky Brad Pitt is not to be trusted. But really, not all the men were evil; there was Harvey Keitel as a sympathetic (if paternalistic) cop, and while Louise was disappointed in Madsen’s Jimmy, he wasn’t a bad guy overall. Maybe these critics just couldn’t stand seeing strong women who fight back — and who have an unbreakable bond. Callie Khouri won a well-deserved Oscar for her original screenplay, Ridley Scott handled the direction well, and the performances were superb all around — Davis and Sarandon both got Oscar nominations. Another joy of the film is the soundtrack, filled with classic rock, R&B, folk, and alternative country, from Glenn Frey’s original and most appropriate “Part of Me, Part of You,” to Marianne Faithfull’s beautiful rendition of “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” And to those who thought the ending was a downer: “The ending was symbolic, not literal,” Khouri once said.

I first saw Thelma & Louise in the summer of 1991 with a group of friends from the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women, where I was a board member. A perfect group to see it with! It was at a shabby but cozy second-run theater — something far more common in those days. Then when it came on pay cable, I recorded it using the archaic technology of VHS tape and watched it many more times. And a friend made me a cassette (!) of the soundtrack, and I played it over and over too. The movie and the music inspire me with the power of the women’s bond and make me grateful for all the friends who have become part of me. —Trudy Ring

Tags: film, Media

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