Film

All the ways this year’s Oscars could make queer history and turn the Hollywood tide for the better

Patrick Kelleher March 27, 2022
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The Oscars haven’t always treated LGBT+ films and actors with the respect they deserve – but the tide could finally be starting to turn.

In the acting categories, openly LGBT+ actors have been repeatedly overlooked while their straight, cis colleagues take home award after award for taking on queer roles.

It’s hard not to grow weary of the Oscars if you’re a queer film fan – the Academy has historically only been interested in awarding certain types of films and certain types of actors. To this day, Ian McKellen remains the only openly gay man to have been nominated in one of the acting categories at the Oscars, while Angelina Jolie and Lady Gaga were the only openly bi actors to have been nominated.

Over the last 20 years, the Academy has gotten better and better at recognising LGBT+ films. Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar in 2017, while films like Carol and A Single Man have won praise from queer audiences for their tender, open-hearted exploration of their characters. But queer actors are still struggling to get their foot in the door, even when playing straight characters.

That’s why the 2022 Oscars could be about to make history.

Ariana DeBose and Kristen Stewart could make history at the 2022 Oscars

Two queer women are nominated in acting categories at this year’s awards – Kristen Stewart for her acclaimed performance as Princess Diana in Spencer and Ariana Debose for her universally adored take on Anita in Steven Spielberg’s revival of West Side Story.

If either woman wins, they would make history. The only openly queer woman to have ever won an acting Oscar is Jodie Foster, who won for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs. Notably, however, she wasn’t out when she won those awards.

Stewart and DeBose, meanwhile, are vocal and open about their queerness, and they have been for some time.

In 2018, DeBose told them that she’s “always felt different”, adding: “When I did get to an age when I could say ‘I’m attracted to a lot of the dancers in this room, not just the men,’ it wasn’t scary for me.”

She went on to explain how working on Broadway allowed her to explore who she is. “I could dress any way that wasn’t restricted by constraints. People say ‘you’re dressing like a male, or dressing femme, or dressing like a butch lesbian…’ No, boo – I’m dressing like me. I don’t subscribe to societal norms, and I’m more than a label someone else gives me.”

Ariana DeBose at the premiere of West Side Story.
Ariana DeBose at the premiere of West Side Story. (Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

Stewart had the added challenge of growing up in the spotlight when she was cast as Bella Swan in the Twilight films. After years of gossip columnists fervently speculating about her sexuality, she came out as bisexual in 2017. She’s spoken on numerous occasions since about what her queerness means to her, and how’s it’s influenced and shaped who she is.

Both women’s odds of winning in their respective categories are very different. Stewart is considered unlikely to walk away with the Best Actress Oscar after she missed out on most other major awards this season. Ariana DeBose, however, is considered the most likely Best Supporting Actress contender to scoop the prize. If she wins, she will become the first openly queer woman of colour to win an Oscar.

What’s notable about both races is that both DeBose and Stewart are open about who they are – there’s no shame, no need to hide. Once upon a time, actors who were nominated for Academy Awards were hounded to divulge details of their personal lives. Some were pushed out of the closet by a frantic media desperate for the next scandal.

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Spencer
Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Spencer. (Twitter/ Netflix)

The response to DeBose and Stewart’s nominations shows just how much things have changed in Hollywood. Today, a queer woman can be nominated for an Oscar and it’s almost universally seen as something to celebrate.

The Power of the Dog is a masterpiece – but not everyone is happy to see straight actors playing gay

Their nominations aren’t the only reasons this year’s Oscars could make queer history – The Power of the Dog has picked up 12 nominations, and it’s looking increasingly likely that Jane Campion’s western is going to dominate the Oscars.

What’s interesting is that The Power of the Dog isn’t your average western – it’s a film about repressed homosexuality and the ways oppressive ideas about masculinity are harming men. It’s a fascinating, beautifully-made film laced with erotic tension, and the whole thing is anchored by a quietly menacing performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.

If The Power of the Dog ends up winning big at the Oscars, it’ll be a seismic moment for queer cinema. LGBT+ themed films have won big before, but if Campion’s film sweeps the board in the way Oscars-watchers are anticipating, it would send a strong message to Hollywood that audiences are interested in queer stories.

KODI SMIT-McPHEE as PETER, BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG.
KODI SMIT-McPHEE as PETER, BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG. (KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX)

Of course, the film’s success does raise some questions about some of the tropes Hollywood keeps falling back on. Once again, Cumberbatch and his co-star Kodi Smit-McPhee are nominated for playing gay characters when neither is knowingly or openly queer themselves.

The Oscars have a long, disarming history of rewarding straight actors for taking on gay roles. It’s been going on since the 1980s – to make matters worse, straight actors are often commended for their courage for taking on queer roles and asked invasive questions about what it was like to film erotic scenes by an obsessive media.

That’s led to a debate about who should be playing queer characters – countless actors, writers and directors have weighed in, and so far, there’s been little consensus. Some believe that queer actors bring a special quality to queer roles that straight people just can’t, while others see it in much simpler terms – acting is acting, and any straight actor should be allowed to play a gay role.

It’s not quite as simple as that, of course. There’s clearly a problem when it comes to access for queer actors – whether people like it or not, they’re just not getting to play queer characters in Hollywood’s LGBT+ films.

If DeBose wins in the Best Supporting Actress category, perhaps things will finally start to change. If anything, her expected victory should send a clear signal to Hollywood studios that being queer is in no way a hindrance for a major motion picture today. If anything, it’s something to be celebrated.

More: Kristen Stewart, Oscars, The Power of the Dog

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