It has been more than a century since two men were shown dancing together for the first time on-screen in 1895's The Dickson Experimental Sound Film, a 17-second film in which British inventor William Dickson plays the violin while two men merrily waltz, arms around one another, to the music. Perhaps that was the beginning of queer cinema.
Others point to the German film Different from the Others, a 1919 silent film that is widely considered the first feature film to feature a gay love story, or to 1930's Morocco, in which Marlene Dietrich became the first leading lady to kiss another woman in a movie. As far as milestones go, Moonlight became the first queer movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture in 2017. Which is all to say, on-screen representation for the LGBTQ+ community has a long, complicated and still-progressing history.
Thankfully, over the past 100 years — and especially in the last few decades — films that explore every facet of being queer and represent all of the identities under the LGBTQ+ umbrella have been made and released, telling stories of heartbreak and resilience, love and loss, and of coming out and living out loud.
To celebrate Pride Month, A.frame teamed up with the Academy's LGBTQ+ Coalition and created a guide to some of the must-see films of queer cinema.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)
A classic amongst classics, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert follows drag queens Mitzi Del Bra (Hugo Weaving) and Felicia Jollygoodfellow (Guy Pearce), along with their recently-widowed trans friend Bernadette Bassinger (Terence Stamp), as they take their show on the road in writer-director Stephan Elliott's hilarious, surprisingly sensitive road movie. The Aussie outback was never the same after Priscilla.
The film won Best Costume Design at the 67th Oscars, awarded to Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel.
All About My Mother (1999)
Filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar's poignant melodrama about what it means to be a family remains one of his most beloved movies. When her son dies in a freak accident, Manuela (Cecilia Roth) sets out to Barcelona to reconnect with the father he never knew — a trans woman named Lola. Along the way, Manuela finds new meaning to the ways she can mother.
Chosen as the official Oscar submission for Spain, Todo sobre mi madre won Best Foreign Language Film (now, Best International Feature Film) at the 72nd Oscars.
The Birdcage (1996)
A remake of the 1970s French farce La Cage aux Folles, director Mike Nichols and writer Elaine May's boundary-breaking comedy is a flamboyant celebration of the joy of being gay in a world that could think otherwise. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane star as a Miami club owner and his drag queen partner, who agree to play straight to meet their son's conservative in-laws (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest).
The Birdcage was Oscar-nominated for Bo Welch and Cheryl Carasik's production design.
But I'm a Cheerleader (1999)
There's a reason director Jamie Babbit's rom-com satire has been revisited and reevaluated in the decades since it was released, becoming a bona fide cult classic. Natasha Lyonne plays an all-American teenager who is sent away to a conversion therapy camp run by Cathy Moriarty and RuPaul Charles. Clea DuVall co-stars as Lyonne's rebellious love interest, with a cast that includes Melanie Lynskey, Eddie Cibrian, and Michelle Williams.
One of film history's most famous love triangles. Set in Berlin in the lead-up to World War II, director Bob Fosse's musical stars Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, a cabaret singer at the Kit Kat Klub who becomes romantically entangled in a '30s-era throuple with openly-gay professor Brian Roberts (Michael York) and their shared lover, playboy Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem).
Cabaret earned 10 nominations at the 45th Oscars, including Best Picture, and won eight awards: Best Actress (Minnelli), Best Supporting Actor (Joel Grey), and Best Director, as well as for cinematography, editing, production design, original score and sound.
This adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price of Salt, itself seminal to the LGBTQ+ community, was more than 60 years in the making. Until director Todd Haynes finally brought the story of a shy Manhattan shopgirl (Rooney Mara) and the forbidden affair she strikes up with an older housewife (Cate Blanchett) to the screen in the sumptuous, elegant Carol.
Carol earned six nominations at the 88th Oscars, including Best Actress (Blanchett), Best Supporting Actor (Mara) and Best Adapted Screenplay for writer Phyllis Nagy.
The Color Purple (1985)
Director Steven Spielberg's film adaptation may have restrained the romance between Celie (Whoopi Goldberg, in her breakthrough role) and headstrong blues singer Shug Avery (Margaret Avery), but Shug remains essential to Celie's discovery of self. Their relationship is made far more clear-cut in Alice Walker's 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name.
The Color Purple earned 11 nominations at the 58th Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress in for Goldberg. Avery and co-star Oprah Winfrey, meanwhile, were Best Supporting Actress nominees.
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
At the center of filmmakers Daniels' multiverse-hopping Everything Everywhere All at Once is a beautiful story about queer identity and acceptance and grief: Joy Wang (Stephanie Hsu) is queer and just wants her family to accept her girlfriend, and her mother, Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), can't. Which, somehow, eventually leads to Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis falling in love in a universe where humans have evolved to have hot dog fingers.
A Fantastic Woman (2017)
Actress Daniela Vega is a revelation in director Sebastián Lelio's stirring drama, in which she plays a waitress and aspiring singer, Marina, living in Santiago and very much in love with her older partner, Orlando. When Orlando dies suddenly, Marina becomes a target of suspicion and derision from his family and general discrimination for her being trans. Through it all, she must maintain her identity as a fantastic woman.
Chosen as the official Oscar submission for Chile, Una mujer fantástica won Best Foreign Language Film (now, Best International Feature Film) at the 90th Oscars.
Filmmaker Deepa Mehta's intimate drama is both ahead-of-its-time and timeless, marking the first time a mainstream Bollywood film centered a lesbian relationship. Radha (legendary Indian actress Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das) are both stuck in loveless marriages to two cruel and zealous brothers. In bonding over their shared pain, the women discover something more and embark on a passionate affair that neither could have predicted.
God's Own Country (2017)
Francis Lee is known for his quiet, moving queer love stories like this and Ammonite, films that are full of restrained, lingering grace until they finally erupt with passion. God's Own Country stars Josh O'Connor as Johnny, a repressed sheep farmer in Yorkshire, whose life is transformed with the arrival of Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). The film premiered during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, where Lee took home the Directing Award.
Happy Together (1997)
One of the most important films of New Queer Cinema, eminent Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together follows a couple on a trip to Argentina in search of a new beginning. Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung play the boyfriends at the center of the movie, who find themselves far from home and in a tumultuous cycle of breaking up and making up again and again. When the movie screened at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, Wong won Best Director.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
The trailblazing Off-Broadway punk musical about the life and loves of the titular gender-queer, internationally ignored rock diva made its way to the big screen by way of writer, director, and star John Cameron Mitchell (who also originated the role of Hedwig onstage). A earworm-filled deconstruction of the binary and the transcendent power of a good power ballad that has since returned to Broadway with stagings starring Neil Patrick Harris, Andrew Rannells, Darren Criss and Taye Diggs.
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Nic and Jules (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) have been together forever and have each given birth to a child using the same sperm donor. When their teenage kids secretly contact their biological father (Mark Ruffalo), the dynamics between the adults quickly get messy in director Lisa Cholodenko's awkwardly delightful look at modern family values.
The Kids Are All Right earned four nominations at the 83rd Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Actress (Bening), Best Supporting Actor (Ruffalo) and Best Original Screenplay (Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg).
Barry Jenkins' modern queer masterpiece unfolds as a triptych following a young Black boy's journey to manhood as he comes to terms with his sense of self and his sexuality. Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play the lead at different stages of his life, with an ensemble that also includes Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Janelle Monáe.
At the 89th Oscars, Moonlight won Best Picture, Ali won Best Supporting Actor and Jenkins and co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney won Best Adapted Screenplay, with five additional nominations.
The feature debut of future Oscar nominee Dee Rees, Pariah follows 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye) as she navigates conflicting identities, first loves and heartbreaks, and a disapproving family on her path to living as her true and authentic self. The queer canon is full of coming out stories, but Pariah stands out from the rest with its authenticity and specificity in depicting Alike's coming of age.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Filmmaker Céline Sciamma gives new meaning to "slow burn" in this profoundly striking period piece about a young aristocrat and the woman commissioned to paint her wedding portrait as they fall for one another in 18th century France. Forced together at an isolated seaside estate, yearnings simmer between Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) and Marianne (Noémie Merlant) until their passion is too much for either to resist. Portrait of a Lady on Fire won the Queer Palm when it premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
Rafiki tells a familiar story of teenage love as you've never seen it before. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are daughters of political rivals who fall for one another, despite the ever-watching eyes of their neighborhood and Kenya's utter lack of LGBTQ rights. Filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu puts her own original spin on Romeo and Juliet-esque story that is both heartbreaking and hopeful.
Before The Florida Project and Red Rocket, director Sean Baker applied his lo-fi, slice of life sensibilities to Tangerine. Shot entirely on an iPhone 5S, it (literally) follows a trans sex worker, Sin-Dee Rella, who learns her boyfriend/pimp has been cheating on her and sets out to teach him a lesson. Dee (the dynamic Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and her ride or die, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), provide the beating heart of the movie, an electrifying testament to camaraderie and to friendship that refuses to let anything — or anyone — stand in the way.
Shiva Baby (2020)
As if being dragged along to a shiva with her judgmental parents weren't bad enough, aimless college student Danielle (Rachel Sennott) immediately bumps into both her successful ex-girlfriend (Molly Gordon) and her sugar daddy, his wife and their newborn baby. Writer-director Emma Seligman's debut is part biting comedy, part reluctant coming of age story, and part horror movie, with a cast that features Fred Melamed, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari and Jackie Hoffman.
Before making HBO's much-debated yet enduringly lovely Looking, filmmaker Andrew Haigh captured the unfettered realness of being gay in this day and age in Weekend. An (almost) love story about two men, Russell (Tom Cullen) and Glen (Chris New), who meet at a gay club and go home together, with their one-night stand becoming a weekend-long encounter that proves you never know when or how someone will come into your life and change it completely.
By John Boone
The LBGTQ+ Coalition is an affinity group for LGBTQ+ Academy Members. The coalition exists to foster inclusion and encourage education at the Academy while advocating for increase representation, recognition, and celebration of the LGBTQ+ community in the film industry at large.
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