Thomas Edison may very well be considered the first straight male director to commit a gay image to celluloid when he showed two men waltzing in an experimental test film circa 1895. But by the 1920s, when feature films had gained widespread popularity, such innocent depictions of gay men were rare. Instead, filmgoers saw mostly negative, misleading and hurtful stereotypes ranging from the "swishy queen" to the "killer queer."
While things are much improved today — films with gay themes are box office hits and Oscar contenders — anti-gay clichés and attitudes still make it to the screen all too frequently. AfterElton.com offers a look at 10 past and present straight directors who have seen beyond their own points of view to become champions of the celluloid cause for gay visibility — as well as a few who have remained stuck in the unenlightened past.
(Please note, this article and this site only cover gay and bisexual male visibility. For commentary on lesbian issues please visit AfterEllen.com.)
James L. Brooks
James L. Brooks has proven himself as a gay ally as both a respected film director and a television producer. In 1997's As Good as It Gets, he cast Greg Kinnear as gay artist Simon Bishop, whose cantankerous neighbor (played by Jack Nicholson) steps in as a caretaker for his dog after Bishop is savagely beaten.
Kinnear's character's sexuality is treated as a nonissue, and he is shown to have the same human frailties as the straight characters in the film. It's also interesting to note that the character of Bishop was based in part on Brooks' long-time associate, Robert Moore, who succumbed to AIDS.
Brooks' gay-friendly work extends to television where he produced gay-friendly series including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi and The Simpsons.
Stephen Frears' gay-inclusiveness began with 1985's My Beautiful Laundrette, the tale of Londoners Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis), school chums who start a love affair and attempt to give a run-down laundrette a makeover in the process.
Frears continued his gay-themed streak with 1987's Prick Up Your Ears, starring Gary Oldman as real-life playwright Joe Orton and Alfred Molina as his lover, Kenneth Halliwell. Frears also directed the gay-friendly movie Mrs. Henderson Presents (which featured a gay supporting character), as well as gay favorites Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen.
Irish-born filmmaker Neil Jordan's The Crying Game was the most talked-about film of 1992 thanks to the surprise revelation of Jaye Davidson's well-concealed "secret." But throughout his career, Jordan has gone to great lengths to incorporate a wide variety of gay subject matter into his films.
In 1994 he brought Anne Rice's novel Interview With the Vampire to the screen after it languished in Hollywood purgatory for many years, in part due to its homoerotic nature. At one point, in order to skirt the homosexual leanings of its two main characters, there was talk of casting Cher in the role of Louis. Instead, Brad Pitt was cast in the part, and Jordan presented the vampire Lestat's (Tom Cruise) seduction of Louis into the world of the undead with an artful direction that did not shy away from the fact that the two male characters were the epitome of an old married couple. And although Louis' relationship with Armand (Antonio Banderas) was abbreviated for the film, it was clear that the two men were drawn to one another.
In 2005's Breakfast on Pluto, Jordan chronicled the adventures of Patrick "Kitten" Braden (Cillian Murphy), a small-town boy who leaves his stifling existence in Ireland for the bright lights, big city allure of London to reinvent himself as a renowned transvestite cabaret singer and IRA terrorist .
Ang Lee often infuses his films with a gay sense and sensibility (much like the 1995 costume drama of the same name he directed). And then of course there are the two groundbreaking films in his canon that actually address gay characters and story lines head-on.
The Wedding Banquet (1993) is about a Taiwanese man who marries a woman in order to obtain his green card. But, there's a catch — well, two really: He's gay and is happily partnered. Add in two wedding-hungry parents, and the stage is set for what ultimately becomes a touching dramedy about love and familial acceptance that marked one of the first mainstream gay films not filled with angst and tragedy. In fact, at the movie's first showing in New York before a gay audience, Lee was said to be petrified that the crowd would be angry because the movie was so lighthearted.
Twelve years, later Lee struck Best Director Oscar gold for Brokeback Mountain, a powerful love story between two outwardly straight ranch hands. Lee's achievement was doubly notable as he (along with writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) successfully translated E. Annie Proulx's short story into a moving epic that became a cultural sensation.