Linda Hunt: The most under-recognized Oscar-winning lesbian actress alive

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At 70, Linda Hunt is one of the hardest working women in show business. The Oscar-winning actress also stars in one of television’s most-watched television shows, NCIS: Los Angeles, in a role that has won her two Teen Choice Awards. She also happens to be an out lesbian.

The Paley Center For Media's PaleyFest 2015 Fall TV Preview - "NCIS: Los Angeles"

In 1982, Linda made history as the first person to win the Academy Award for playing a role of the opposite gender for her performance as male Chinese-Australian photographer Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously. (She notably beat Cher, who was up for her portrayal of Meryl Streep‘s lesbian best friend, Dolly, in Silkwood.)

The Year of Living Dangerously

Since then, the four-foot-nine actress (she has hypopituitary dwarfism) has starred in more than 20 movies, including a part as Gertrude Stein‘s other half, Alice B. Toklas, in Waiting for the Moon, a 1987 film about the women’s relationship. At the time, it was still seen as a risky move to play a gay role.

“There is an issue out there for actors playing gay and lesbian roles-you can’t pretend there isn’t,” Linda told The Advocate in 1994. “It may have gotten easier lately for men, perhaps, since Philadelphia and Angels in America. I sense that, at the moment, there’s a real chicness about playing a male homosexual and it would be to anyone’s benefit to play a great gay male role. But I think there’s still a problem for women, because I don’t think gay women have broken through yet in the world of theater or film. There hasn’t been a female Tony Kushner yet; there hasn’t been the great lesbian play. Or a popular success, like Philadelphia, with lesbian subject matter.”

More than 2o years later and we’re still waiting to see a major lesbian-themed film find the kind of success that Philadelphia and Brokeback Mountain haveand it seems that 2015 could prove fruitful with Freeheld and Carol. But playing gay didn’t concern Linda, though, and Waiting for the Moon‘s writer/director Jill Godmilow said she initially went to her to play Gertrude, but she refused. 

“I was so interested in being antihistorical that when we stared casting, I tried to countercast, refusing to use an actress who looked like Stein,” Jill said in A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers, Volume 4. “So I sent Linda Hunt the script and asked if she would play Stein, and I’ll never forget this moment. She comes to the casting session, and she marches across my loft to where we’re sitting, says she adores the script and wants to do the film, but there’s a problem: ‘I’m here. I can play Gertude Stein with my hands tied behind my back, but I will not. I will play Alice. … Because I’m always cast as the other, and what I’m interested in learning how to play is the normal, the wife.”

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The same year Waiting for the Moon came out, Linda moved in with her partner, psychotherapist Karen Klein.

“Karen’s six years younger, but I forgive her daily,” Linda joked in an interview with CBS Sunday Morning

The two have since married (in 2008) and bought a home in a historic Hollywood neighborhood, featured last year in the LA Times.

LOS ANGELES, CA, SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 2014 - Actress Linda Hunt, right, with her partner Karen Kl

Linda’s television career has been heady, too, with memorable roles in The Practice and Carnivàle before landing the gig as Henrietta “Hetty” Lange on NCIS: Los Angeles, which just celebrated its 150th episode. So it’s interesting that she’s been an out actress throughout most of her successful career, and yet she’s not one of the first to be brought up in a conversation about proud LGBT stars. Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t like to do a lot of press, most interviews with her noting she is interested in spending her time off-set with her wife and their dogs.

Nonetheless, Linda Hunt is worthy of more praise and celebration. Although she says she has plans to retire in the not-so-far-off future, it would be fantastic to see her in another queer role before she quits completely. She’s truly one of a kind.

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