Thirty-five years ago, American films did not present many — or many positive — images of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people. In 1976, there were only two mainstream American releases — “The Ritz,” directed by Philadelphia native Richard Lester, based on Terrance McNally’s popular play about a mob flunky hiding out in a gay bathhouse, and “Norman, Is That You,” a smarmy situation comedy about an African-American man bringing home his gay white lover (Dennis Dugan), a flamboyant, swishy stereotype.
And while few actors were out in those days, openly gay Truman Capote turned in a funny, lisping appearance in the comedy “Murder By Death,” alongside Philly native Nancy Walker.
These films arrived (and some quickly went) the year after Al Pacino starred in “Dog Day Afternoon,” about a man who robs a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change.
According to Ray Murray, president of the TLA (aka Theatre of the Living Arts), which operated as a repertory cinema in 1976, “All the queer films [of that period] had asterisks next to them because each character was flawed in an obvious way: deranged (“Dog Day Afternoon”) or cartoons (“The Ritz”), who never really come to life.”
Then there was the campy musical “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Made in 1975, it didn’t develop into a cult phenomenon until 1976, when it started appearing as a midnight movie at places like the TLA.
“It took a while to catch on,” remembered exhibitor Murray about the early screenings of “Rocky Horror.” “There was no stage show at first. It was an interesting crowd — very gay — and it was nothing like it turned out to be. People just liked it. Eventually, it turned over to a straight crowd, a younger crowd, then it became interactive.
“That film had the greatest impact,” Murray added, indicating that other than a few art-house releases, most queer films never played mainstream movie theaters. “There was not an established gay filmmaking culture at that time.”
One native Philadelphian who worked at telling queer stories was Andrew Brown. In 1976, Brown was filming subjects for “Word Is Out,” a documentary released the following year. Featuring interviews with a cross-section of members of the queer community — who only had sexual orientation in common — the film offers poignant, emotionally charged portraits of 26 gay men and women.
Over the phone from his current home in San Francisco, Brown explained that the film was made to “break stereotypes and make ‘gay’ universal. Gay is not just a white male thing. There are gradations.”
Brown said he and his fellow filmmakers, Nancy Adair and Rob Epstein among them, made the film “To help change laws. There was talk about a movement that tried to suppress the gay movement. And campaigns to stop gay teachers from teaching.” He recalled this was right after the American Psychiatric Association dropped homosexuality as a mental illness, and around the time Anita Bryant was waging her antigay campaign.
Two of the subjects featured in “Word is Out” were filmed in Philadelphia. Michael Mintz, from Princeton, was an outspoken college student who had been attacked on campus, and Donald Hackett, a married man who lived in West Philly, did not identify with gay culture. “He represented the average black man who came out after marriage,” Brown said. “Today we’d call that being on the down-low. Michael was the opposite of that.”
While these images were certainly useful to Brown and his film, the filmmaker himself found little or no queer content on screen, save for one film that’s etched in his memory. He recalled, “John Waters’ ‘Pink Flamingos,’ which I saw at TLA, that stood out in my mind — a transsexual showed up for the opening!”
For “Flamingos” filmmaker Waters, 1976 was the year he was making “Desperate Living,” his outrageous comedy about criminal women. Over the phone from his home in Baltimore, Waters put this project in the context of films from the era.
“‘The Boys in the Band’  was a great period piece, but that was the gay scene I ran from. I might be gay, but I’m not this!” he insisted. Instead, Waters found his positive images elsewhere — in the underground films of Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey and Jack Smith.
“That was the most positive thing for me … [Their films] were so confusing to people. Gerard [Malanga, who appeared] was straight. A fat girl got naked. Everyone looked sexy and was on drugs. They got me through. They were the most positive — because they weren’t clichés, sad or [whining], ‘Help us!’”
Waters doesn’t think of “gay cinema” as a genre, insisting, “I’ve always been against gays using their sexuality for an excuse for quality. If a [good film] happens to be about gay people, great!”
As the underground made strides — like Warhol and Morrissey, Waters produced an exciting new film every few years — Hollywood’s efforts to represent LGBT voices were more sporadic. In 1982, there were a surprising number of queer-tinged titles. In addition to the soapy gay coming-out drama “Making Love,” and the insulting mismatched gay-cop comedy “Partners,” there was the sporty lesbian romance “Personal Best” and two multiple-Oscar-nominated cross-dressing films, “Victor/Victoria” and “Tootsie.”
That same year, John Lithgow was also nominated for an Oscar for his portrait of a transsexual in “The World According to Garp.” The following year, Linda Hunt won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for playing a man in “The Year of Living Dangerously.” Her competition was Cher, who was nominated for an Oscar for her role as a lesbian in “Silkwood.” In 1985, William Hurt won the Best Actor Oscar for his turn as a gay prisoner in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” While these performances provided some exposure for LGBT characters — and provided actors with juicy parts — the real strides were being made in American independent cinema.
For us, by us
Films such as the lesbian romance “Desert Hearts” in 1985 and gay dramas about AIDS — “Parting Glances” in 1986 and “Longtime Companion” in 1989 — started a trend of queer films made by queer filmmakers catering to queer audiences who hungered for accurate reflections of their lives. All three titles are now considered classics.
“Desert Hearts” writer/director Donna Deitch, on the phone from Los Angeles, reflected back on her development as a filmmaker.
“What inspired me to become a filmmaker was the Vietnam War. I began as an anti-war documentary filmmaker,” she explained, indicating that she was not interested in or looking at queer films until she was preparing “Desert Hearts.”
“[Researching] ‘The Killing of Sister George’ or ‘The Children’s Hour,’ there never had been a film made about a same-sex female relationship that didn’t end in a bisexual triangle or a suicide,” she said.
Deitch’s lesbian romance was very successful for its time and is significant for featuring positive images and characters. She acknowledges that if she wanted to make “Desert Hearts” now, she could get anybody she wanted in terms of an actor. “Those parts are a bit of a calling card now,” she observed. However, at the time, the situation was quite different. Despite the Academy Award nominations the aforementioned performers received, most actors in the 1980s were reluctant to take gay roles.
“People would not come to a casting session [because it was a lesbian film] — and they weren’t even playing the leads. They did not want to be in a film like this,” Deitch recalled. She wanted Patricia Charbonneau to play the seductive Cay Rivvers after seeing her 8-by-10 photo on the casting director’s coffee table. The roles Charbonneau and her co-star Helen Shaver played were quite controversial, Deitch observed.
The lack of a queer wave in the mid-’80s was not based on the lack of success of “Desert Hearts,” which received positive reviews and made money. The reason queer films were not more prominent was because such indie films did not measure up to other releases in the box office.
Ironically, after “Desert Hearts,” Deitch started directing for the small screen, helming the Oprah Winfrey project, “The Women of Brewster Place.” She explained that there are more opportunities and jobs for female filmmakers on TV. “You don’t see women directing feature films by hire,” Deitch insisted. “Women filmmakers generally direct projects they have written or co-written. The power in Hollywood reflects greater society. There are fewer opportunities for women.”
New Queer Cinema
Queer cinema didn’t find its next toehold in American culture until the critic B. Ruby Rich identified “The New Queer Cinema” movement in the early 1990s. At the time — halfway between 1976 and today — there was an explosion of American queer filmmaking: Both Jennie Livingston’s drag documentary “Paris is Burning” in 1990 and Todd Haynes’ queer triptych “Poison” in 1991 were followed in quick succession by Tom Kalin’s “Swoon,” a reimagining of Leopold and Loeb, and Gregg Araki’s HIV-positive lovers-on-the-lam film “The Living End” in 1992. Other queer voices soon appeared. Rose Troche’s lesbian romantic comedy “Go Fish” created a stir in 1994. Todd Verow released his risky adaptation of Dennis Cooper’s “Frisk,” and Maria Maggenti’s interracial romance, “The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love,” came out in 1995. By the time Cheryl Dunye’s Philadelphia-set “The Watermelon Woman” unspooled in 1996, LGBT filmmakers were seemingly everywhere.
These filmmakers were marching to the beat of their own drums. They worked independently, often on micro-budgets and with attitude and/or style that frequently challenged conventions and stereotypes.
In a recent phone interview, New Queer Cinema pioneer Gregg Araki admitted that it was music, rather than film, that prompted his development as a creative artist.
“I was so heavily influenced by punk, post-punk and alternative music. That whole scene was about doing your own thing, and being against the mainstream. So when I started making my movies, they were personal to me. I wasn’t trying to represent gay people. I was expressing myself in a way that was not concerned about what others would think. Being gay and wanting to tell a gay ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ love story was natural, and there would be dudes making out in it. ‘The Living End’ was very much my headspace and my frustration and anger and angst and confusion — specifically about the AIDS crisis and the Republican government being unresponsive.”
Araki looks back at the 1970s, which featured male sex symbols/movie stars [e.g., Burt Reynolds], but the representation of attractive guys wasn’t out there. Nowadays, he sees more queer images. “Things are much more open today — so sexualized. It’s more difficult to be a repressed closeted gay guy now with a wife and kids, living a lie, tamping [sexuality] down. We live in a culture where queer imagery and male fetishizing images are so prevalent.”
Still, when Araki thinks back to the queer-tinged films he saw in 1976, he mentioned the TV movie “Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway,” which starred Eve Plumb — Jan from “The Brady Bunch.” He fondly and gleefully recalled details of this TV movie: “Her boyfriend [Leigh J. McCloskey] was a male hustler, and there was a sequel [“Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn” in 1977] about him being a male prostitute in Hollywood. I remember it had quite an impact on me.”
The New Queer Cinema filmmakers burst on the scene in a very “in-your-face” style — but they were hardly gone in a flash. Haynes, Araki, Verow, Troche and Dunye have sustained long, busy careers — and developed loyal followings — in features and television over the last two decades.
But while independent queer cinema has established a niche for talent, are these films and filmmakers moving more toward the mainstream — or have audiences changed, and become more receptive to queer stories and characters?
Murray offers his thoughts on the trends he has seen as a DVD distributor: “Most people will say the last few years have been rough on gay film because it’s not been able to become a viable submarket. With the increasing social acceptance of gays, the prominence of well-written gay/lesbian characters on TV and the rise of the Internet, independent gay/lesbian film has lost much of its relevancy to younger audiences. So today, it is an increasingly older audience that watches, rents and buys independent gay/lesbian films.”
Perhaps this is because older viewers fought for acceptance and for positive queer images, whereas younger viewers had less of a struggle to find queer lives on screens. Then again, maybe the shift happened in Hollywood.
Deitch thinks so, citing Hilary Swank winning an Oscar for playing a transgender teen in “Boys Don’t Cry” in 1999, followed by the breakout success of “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005. She observed, “‘Brokeback Mountain’ really stood out. It was the convergence of the stars, script and director. The film hit on every point.”
That film’s success, Deitch said, paved the way for more mainstream queer films, like the current Oscar nominee “The Kids Are All Right,” directed and co-written by out filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko.
Which begs the question: Has film shifted from near invisibility in 1976 to a saturated, almost post-gay era in just 35 years? That may be in the eye of the viewer. For some viewers, queer cinema has already lost its novelty.
Waters says he watches films from a gay perspective: “I can appreciate them from an angle the director didn’t intend.”
Maybe this is the most appropriate way to view films in 2011.
Gary Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews.”