Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender is gold! At least if you're talking about those statues handed out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences every spring. Of course, this rule also does not apply to openly queer actors, who, as Ian McKellen noted in 2016, have never taken home acting's top prize. With queer actors Kristen Stewart and Ariana DeBose nominated in acting categories, they could change that and take home gold, however not for queer roles this time around.
Here's a list of straight actors who received Oscar nominations for playing LGBTQ+ characters.
In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock directed Rebecca, a story of a self conscious bride who is tormented by the memory of her new husband’s first wife. Judith Anderson earned an Oscar nod for playing Mrs. Danvers, the chilling and obsessive caretaker who may or may not have been in love with the deceased wife.
George Sanders won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his turn as dandy theater critic Addison Dewitt in the classic All About Eve. Though never outright gay in the script, to many film scholars it’s the otherness of being gay that he recognizes in Eve Harrington that causes the two to team up.
Star! (1968) tells the real life story of the rise of broadway/movie star Gertrude Lawrence who at the beginning of the film, gets cast in London’s Calling, a new play penned by Noel Coward, who was brought to life for the film by Daniel Massey. Massey's portrayal of Coward, a gay actor/writer/composer/etc. known for his wit and flamboyance, garnered him his first and only Oscar nomination.
Lenny Bruce is brought to life in the Bob Fosse directed Lenny (1974). The story centers on Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of the groundbreaking comic. But Valerie Perrine — who plays Bruce's bisexual wife Honey — turned in a riveting performance that earned her an Oscar nod.
The Color Purple (1985) introduced the world to Whoopi Goldberg, who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Celie Johnson, a woman who struggles to find her identity after suffering years of abuse at the hands of men in her life. Celie enters a relationship with his husband’s estranged mistress, a slinky blues singer named Shug.
In 1997, Greg Kinnear was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role of Simon Bishop in As Good As It Gets. After being beaten up in an attempted burglary, Simon is left unable to take care of himself and calls upon his incredibly selfish, OCD neighbor — played by a cranky Jack Nicholson — for help.
Brokeback Mountain (2004) is the beautiful story of two cowboys, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), who find love one summer while working together as sheep herders and then try and navigate this new relationship over the years. Both actors were nominated for Academy Awards.
A young dancer gets the lead role in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake but soon struggles to maintain her sanity in Black Swan (2010). Natalie Portman won a best lead actress Oscar for playing the dancer, Nina Sayers, who while maybe not gay definitely shows some bisexual tendencies in one particularly steamy scene.
In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011), Rooney Mara plays Lisbeth Salander, a bisexual, pierced, and tattooed computer hacker helping a disgraced journalist find a wealthy man’s niece who disappeared 40 years earlier. Mara was nominated for best supporting actress for the performance.
Alan Turing and his team of brilliant code breakers must race against time to turn the tide of of World War II in The Imitation Game (2014). Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who was nominated for a best actor Oscar, was gay and treated reprehensibly by the British government.
Richard Jenkins was nominated in 2018 for his role of Giles in The Shape of Water. The closeted character, living in Cold War-era America, feels trapped in time between the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals he worships and the era of gay liberation that is just over the horizon.
As narrator of the film, Giles tells the modern-day viewer of the fairy tale he witnessed, involving a mute young woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), and the amphibious being she falls in love with. Giles, who faces job discrimination as well as rejection by a man he loves due to societal stigma, knows what it's like to be an outsider. It is this understanding that allows him to empathize with Elisa's romance and help her overcome its obstacles.
At the tender age of 22, Timothée Chalamet was nominated for Best Actor in the 2018 Academy Awards. His character, Elio, is the heart of Call Me by Your Name, the acclaimed gay film by Luca Guadagnino centering on a 17-year-old's summer romance with a 24-year-old graduate student, Oliver (Armie Hammer). Through Elio's eyes, audiences have been brought to tears in reliving first love and heartbreak, in the stunning backdrop of "somewhere in Northern Italy." And thanks to Chalamet, many will never be able to see a peach the same way again.
Melissa McCarthy was nominated in 2019 for Actress in a Leading Role for portraying the late lesbian writer Lee Israel in the (excellent) biopic Can You Ever Forgive Me? The film, based on Israel's memoir, shows how the out-of-work biographer coordinated an operation forging the letters of luminaries like Tennessee Williams and Katharine Hepburn, with the famed gay bar Julius' as her home base.
Richard E. Grant was nominated in the category of Actor in a Supporting Role in 2019 for his portrayal of Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Based on a real-life person from the memoir of Lee Israel, Jack is a former hustler who is homeless and HIV-positive. His friendship with Israel, which veers into criminal territory, is a rare movie depiction of a friendship between a gay man and a lesbian.
Rami Malek was nominated in the Actor in a Leading Role category in 2019 for his performance as the bisexual Queen front man Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. The film was popular at the box office, but it received criticism from some LGBTQ activists for its inaccurate portrayal of Mercury's sexuality and his battle with AIDS, as well as its problematic credited director, Bryan Singer.
Olivia Colman was nominated in the Actress in a Leading Role category for her portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite. The period film shows the English monarch at the center of a love triangle with two female members of her court, portrayed by Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone.
Rachel Weisz is another secret lover of Queen Anne in The Favourite, a role that garnered her a 2019 nomination for Actress in a Supporting Role, a category in which she must vie against Stone for the trophy. Weisz also played a queer character in Disobedience, a film about forbidden love in the Hasidic community.
Mahershala Ali was nominated in the Actor in a Supporting Role category in 2019 for his performance as jazz pianist Don Shirley in Green Book. Shirley never came out in his lifetime. But the film depicts a real-life incident in which the musician just barely escaped being arrested for a same-sex encounter at a YMCA.
Antonio Banderas stars as a gay Spanish filmmaker, Salvador Mallo, reflecting on his life and career in 2019's Pain and Glory. The film is loosely based on the life of its gay director, Pedro Almodóvar, 70, himself a living auteur whose productions — many of them starring Banderas — have moved the needle internationally for LGBTQ visibility. In addition to being a reflection of a lifetime's worth of love, heartbreak, and the power of cinema to address personal and political crises, the film is a complicated and necessary relationship between a gay director and his straight muse.
Bombshell investigates the sexual harassment scandal at Fox News that brought down Roger Ailes through the eyes of Charlize Theron’s Megyn Kelly and Nicole Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson. But it’s Margot Robbie’s composite character Kayla, who has a fling and a friendship with Kate McKinnon’s Jess, and who struggles with her sexual identity amid the toxic environment at Fox News who truly teases out the myriad complications of working there.
Robbie, who is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the role, spoke with The Advocate ahead of the film's premiere.
“Story-wise, it adds to the idea that they can’t come forward and be open and honest, and their jobs are on the line,” Robbie said.
The life of bisexual blues icon Billie Holiday had been covered in pop culture before, but singer Andra Day wowed audiences and critics by channeling the legend in her first acting role for Lee Daniels’s The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2020). The film goes deep into examining a government-led attempt to silence her for singing “Strange Fruit” in public. They claimed that the song, which depicts the lynching of Black people, incited violence. And one FBI agent, in particular, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), made it his mission to take Holiday down. Lesbian fave Natasha Lyonne plays Holiday’s on-again/off-again lover Tallulah Bankhead.
Oscar and Emmy winner Viola Davis earned a Best Actress nomination for her immersive turn as queer blues legend Ma Rainey in renowned theater director George C. Wolfe’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020). The film is set on a single day in a sweltering recording studio where the singer of early queer anthems like “Prove It on Me Blues” does battle with white male record executives during the era of the Great Migration when Black Americans fled the South for the North. Zola’s Taylor Paige plays Ma’s girlfriend Dussie Mae. Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Michael Pott’s and an Advocate cover star, Colman Domingo, also star.
Without giving away too many spoilers for those yet to see Parallel Mothers, Penelope Cruz earned another Oscar nomination for a queer role in her latest collaboration with Pedro Almodovar. Cruz, who won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, plays Janis, a single mother who meets Milena Smit’s young single mom Ana in the hospital while they're both in labor. The women form an unbreakable bond that straddles various types of relationships between women in an elegiac film that also investigates shared cultural trauma and chosen family.
For his second nomination in a queer role (The Imitation Game was his first), Benedict Cumberbatch plays a queer cowboy suffocating under the weight of his toxic masculinity in Jane Campion’s multi-Oscar nominated The Power of the Dog (2021). A macho man in chaps for much of the film, Cumberbatch’s Phil alternately torments his brother George’s (Jesse Plemons) new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her sensitive teen son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and heartachingly reveres and longs for the long-dead cowboy Bronco Henry, who appears to have once broadened Phil’s horizons.
A veteran child actor in Australia, Kodi Smit-McPhee earned his first Oscar nomination for his at once sensitive and dark turn as Peter, the teen son of Kirsten Dunst’s put-upon Rose in Jane Campion’s 2021 film The Power of the Dog. Book smart and gentle (until he’s not), Peter is an antidote to the brutal cowboys on the ranch his mother’s new husband George (Jesse Plemons) runs with his aggressively masculine and queer-leaning brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Recognizing something unnamed in Peter, Phil takes the boy under his wing. The extent of Peter’s queerness is never elucidated, but the cowboys peg him as such and roundly mock him.