The Year in Queer 2006: Movies

 
 

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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