Film and TV

13 iconic gay films starring straight actors we want to see remade with loud, proud queer talent

Josh Milton January 14, 2021
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Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain

Jake Gyllenhaal starred in Brokeback Mountain with the late Heath Ledger. (Focus Features)

In 1992, a young Will Smith picked up his mobile phone to ring a friend, Denzel Washington, and asked for career advice.

Smith was set to star in his first major film role, playing a gay con man in Six Degrees of Separation. But there was a snag, he said – it would involve him kissing a man.

While what Washington advised the then-budding star remains disputed, the message was the same: Don’t do it, it will harm your career, Washington instructed.

As such as camera trickery meant Smith never had to kiss Anthony Michael Hall, he nevertheless joined the cultural cachet of straight actors applauded as “brave” enough to “play gay”.

Decades on and that cachet has gotten pretty crowded. There’s certainly no shortage of straight celebrities that have delivered poignant, joyous, arresting and award-winning performances for playing queer roles.

But Hollywood has, overall, remained hobbled by how it year after year casts straight people in LGBT+ roles, with the sluggishness of the film industry to change that fuelling disappointment among queer moviegoers and film critics.

So-called straight-washing, they say, has watered down LGBT+ representation on the big screen, leading to some rather notorious instances of “gayface”.

And as the question of reserving gay roles for gay actors for what feels like the 72nd time this week again dominates headlines, here are 13 iconic queer films starring straight actors that need to be remade and recast with LGBT+ talent.

1. Bohemian Rhapsody

A scene from Bohemian Rhapsody. Director Bryan Singer has been suspended from a BAFTA nomination amid sexual abuse claims
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. (Twentieth Century Fox)

It was a film that so tepidly delved into Queen singer Freddie Mercury’s life as a bisexual man in the throes of the AIDS epidemic that even Rami Malek, the straight actor who played the flamboyant frontman, lit into Bohemian Rhapsody.

Malek said in interviews after its 2018 release that he had “kept pushing” for the film to portray more of Mercury’s personal life, including his relationship with Jim Hutton, later adding: “I don’t know if we ever felt fulfilled by it.”

2. Blue is the Warmest Colour

Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour
Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos star in Blue is the Warmest Colour. (YouTube)

Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux both starred in the 2013 French lesbian film Blue Is the Warmest Colour, an almost feverish story of two women trading their takes on Jean-Paul Sartre while falling in love.

Seydoux told the Evening Standard newspaper that starring in the film, in which she plays Emma, a blue-haired and fox-eyed art student, prompted her to question her sexuality: “But, I did not have any revelations,” she said.

3. Weekend

Openly gay actor Chris New starred alongside Tom Cullen in the still, unassuming 2011 movie that follows the weekend romance of two gay men.

Director Andrew Haigh, the gay filmmaker who also made HBO’s Looking, has defended casting Cullen, who is straight.

“The sexuality of a character is not their defining characteristic,” he mused.

“Identities are complex. Tom Cullen in Weekend or Raul Castillo in Looking may not have been gay in real life but they completely understood and related to the psychology of their roles.”

4. God’s Own Country

LGBT movies. Shot from God's Own Country photo.
Alec Secareanu and Josh O’Connor in God’s Own Country (2017). (IMDb)

While filming God’s Own Country, a bracing, taciturn 2017 movie that explores the raw relationship between two farm workers in rural Yorkshire, England, one of the leading men was nowhere to be found.

A sheep on the farm had gone into labour – and Josh O’Connor was assisting in the delivery. He and Alec Secăreanu fully immersed themselves for the roles, even clocking 12-hour shifts on local farms for three months, while working with gay director Francie Lee to imbue their roles with authenticity.

5. Milk

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk
Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. (IMDb)

Sean Penn played Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, US, in the 2008 biopic Milk. That’s “Milk”, by the way, not “Moon”, as some conservative commentators in Britain may want you to believe.

James Franco, who can list playing as a queer man to this hobbies and interests section of his résumé, also starred in the beloved movie as Milk’s lover Scott Smith.

6. Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain was many things even before it even showed in theatres in 2005. It was embalmed in importance as a seismic leap in queer cinematic representation, while also being a lightning rod for stinging jeers and hackneyed homophobia.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger played Jack and Ennis, two men both the epitome of the Marlboro Man who explore a hushed relationship in eastern Wyoming.

Gyllenhaal said that Ledger even sought to stop the Oscars from making homophobic jokes about the film at the time because he, simply put, didn’t find them remotely funny.

7. Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name
Call Me By Your Name was a huge success (Twitter/Sony)

Peaches, a digitally edited-out bulge and the Psychedelic Furs. There are a lot of reasons why Call Me by Your Name, a 2017 coming-of-age tale of two men falling in love during an idyllic, sun-splayed Italian summer, is remembered by viewers.

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer earned plaudits from critics for their performances of the whipsmart 17-year-old Elio and unruffled academic Oliver, 24. They, as well as director Luca Guadagnino, also drew sneers for once again casting straight men in gay roles.

“Yes, Armie is a straight man with a wife and children and the same can be said of Timothée,” Guadagnino said. “But do I ask them to swear on their sexuality, on their identities, on their desires, before I cast them? I don’t!”

8. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is set in 18th century France. (YouTube/NEON)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire saw Noémie Merlant star alongside lesbian actor Adèle Haenel as professional portraitist Marianne and her noble subject Héloïse respectively.

An austere film set against equally bleak landscapes – choppy waters, isolated chateaus, motionless woodlands – that only highlighted the, you guessed it, fiery passions felt by its protagonists.

Céline Sciamma, the gay director behind the slow-burning film set in the 18th century, told the Independent: “I decided to look at this love, and all its possibility, rather than doing the impossible love story narrative.”

9. A Single Man

Colin Firth in A Single Man. (IMDb)

The ornate cinematic adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s The Single Man, directed by Tom Ford, saw Colin Firth play the hoary, middle-aged university professor George. Across a single, emotionally charged day, he lusts, he loves and he grieves over his late longtime lover, Jim.

More than a decade on since the 2010 film, Firth reflected that he doesn’t have a “final position” on whether straight actors should take on LGBT+ roles.

“What do I know about this person’s life? How can I presume to set foot in this person’s lived experience, let alone try to represent it?”

10. Carol

Sarah Paulson and Cate Blanchett in Carol.
Sarah Paulson and Cate Blanchett in Carol. (StudioCanal)

Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, starred professional lesbian icon Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as two women who develop an intimate, magnetic and tangled relationship in the 1950s.

The movie is considered by many to be a sensitive portrayal of queer love, with hundreds of filmmakers, experts, writers and programmers even calling Carol the best LGBT+ film “of all time” in 2016.

11. Rocketman  

GLAAD media report
Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman. (Paramount Pictures)

After Bohemian Rhapsody was so straight-washed, similar fears simmered among LGBT+ folk ahead of the Elton John biopic Rocketman, which starred straight Welsh actor Taron Egerton.

And what came to define the film before its release, a much-touted sex scene. One of the reasons, Elton John revealed, that production companies turned the film down.

Richard Madden, who played John’s love and manager John Reid, waded into the agitation of Egerton being cast as John, saying: “We have to focus more on diversity and having everyone represented, but I’m also a firm believer in the best actor for the part.”

12. Ammonite

Ammonite: First image of Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan as lesbian lovers
Kate Winslet as Mary Anning and Saoirse Ronan as her lesbian lover in upcoming romantic drama Ammonite.

Ammonite was Francis Lee’s second feature after God’s Own Country and one that once again ventured into the grit and grime of queer love.

Starring Kate Winslet as the real-life pugnacious palaeontologist Mary Anning as she falls for Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte, a waify, grief-engulfed wife of a baronet. Both stars went to their gay friends for advice on how best to represent the queer experience on-screen.

13. Philadelphia

Gasps dotted the 1994 Academy Awards when Tom Hanks, accepting the best actor award for Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, began eulogising the names of people who died of AIDS-related complications.

“The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels,” he said.

Hanks played Andrew Beckett, a lawyer who sues his firm for firing him after he is diagnosed with AIDS, in a history-making film – and Oscar speech – that was one of the first in Hollywood to acknowledge the AIDS crisis.

 

Related topics: A Single Man, ammonite, blue is the warmest colour, bohemian rhapsody, Brokeback Mountain, carol, god's own country, milk, Philadelphia, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, rocketman, weekend

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