The Year in Queer 2006: Movies

on

Red DoorsA bisexual murder

victim, a sociopathic lesbian mom and an obsessive, closeted school teacher

— not exactly the plethora of iconic queer roles any of us might have

been hoping for. The representation of lesbian and bisexual women in mainstream

film this year was dodgy at best.

But while some

of the most stubborn stereotypes were trotted out yet again (promiscuous bisexuals,

straight-stalking lesbians), a handful of films broke new ground by taking cinematic

and cultural risks (the teacher-student love affair in Loving

Annabelle
, the overtly political and highly stylized heroics of

V for Vendetta) or by embracing conventional genres and casually

imprinting them with a queer sensibility (romantic comedy in the case of Imagine

Me & You
, family drama in

Red Doors).

Everything

Old is New Again

Brian de Palma’s

The Black

Dahlia
was a big-budget production that was highly anticipated by

critics and audiences alike. The allure of a glamorous, modern noir based on

a high-profile, unsolved murder that starred Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett

and was directed by a Hollywood legend was undeniable. For queer audiences,

there was the added incentive of seeing Hilary Swank (Boys

Don’t Cry
) and Mia Kirshner (The

L Word
) playing bisexual women on the big screen.

But the film was

a beautiful mess. Sure, the 1940s-style sets and cinematography (and sweater-girl

Johansson, for that matter) were lushly gorgeous, but the sloppy, over-the-top

story ultimately proved to be the film’s undoing. Mainstream critics didn’t

seem to notice — or perhaps they simply didn’t object — but the

creepy representation of bisexual women as promiscuous victims, psychopaths

and murderers felt like a giant step backward right into the era the film portrayed.

In the end, not even stellar performances by Swank and Kirshner, or k.d. lang’s

brief appearance as a tuxedo-clad torch singer surrounded by burlesque dancers

at a lesbian bar, could redeem The Black Dahlia.

Another throwback

to a (mercifully) bygone era was the December release Notes

on a Scandal
. Cate Blanchett and Dame Judi Dench starred in this sinister

thriller about a troubled spinster schoolmarm (Dench) who becomes obsessed with

a vibrant young art teacher (Blanchett). While Dench’s Barbara never identifies

herself as a “lesbian,” she is clearly coded as gay; even her colleagues ask

after her former “companion,” demonstrating that Barbara’s lesbianism is obvious

to them.

Notes on a

Scandal
relied heavily on both sexist and homophobic stereotypes and perpetuated

the myth of lesbianism as both sinister and perverse. In AfterEllen.com’s review

of the film, Malinda Lo compared Barbara to the doomed spinster Mrs. Danvers

in Hitchcock’s Rebecca and the premise of Notes to that of

gay-panic melodrama The Children’s Hour, concluding that Notes

on a Scandal
was one of the most sexist and homophobic films she had ever

seen.

In yet another

throwback to old-school lesbianism, Christopher Guest’s comedy For

Your Consideration
was a film within a film about the making of the

melodrama Home for Purim and Purim‘s subsequent campaign

for an Oscar. Parker Posey played Purim star Callie Webb, who in turn

played ’40s-era lesbian Rachel Pischer as she brought her lover Mary Pat (Rachel

Harris) home to meet her family.

Fortunately, Posey

and Harris’ broad-strokes performances were intentionally ridiculous,

lampooning the humorless, sexless and style-challenged stereotypes that actors

in films like The Black Dahlia and Notes on a Scandal were

still playing — for lack of a better word — straight.

Fast-forwarding

to a slightly more modern view of lesbianism, the film based on Augusten Burroughs’

bestselling novel Running

With Scissors
offered a flawed lesbian character played by Annette

Bening. Bening’s Deirdre was a complex and passionate woman whose narcissism

leads to the neglect — and some would say abuse — of her young gay

son at the hands of her analyst and his family.

In the context

of the film, however, Deirdre was no more dysfunctional than the other characters

floating in and out of Augusten’s life. In fact, Running‘s portrayal

of Deirdre and her dubious affairs with other women was set squarely in the

context of the swinging ’70s, and hers were no more or less tawdry than the

casual heterosexual relationships experienced by her peers.

Finally, no discussion

of queer film’s regression to the days of yore would be complete without at

least a cursory mention of

Basic Instinct 2 and the return of Sharon Stone to the

role of Catherine Trammel, 14 years after she made her debut as the ice pick-wielding

bisexual killer. After all, teasing a queer story line without ever actually

delivering it truly is the oldest trick in the book.

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