Four Gay Films That Changed Everything


The evolution of changing attitudes towards gays, lesbians, and bisexuals is both reflected in and affected by images and stories from popular media.  The current Oscar buzz and critical acclaim for the film “The Kids Are All Right” is richly deserved.

But even more significantly, the film is the latest in a quartet of mainstream Hollywood films that have contributed to breaking down the walls of homophobia.  Each of these films told a story that needed to be told, earned both critical and popular acclaim, and garnered varying degrees of Oscar love.


 1. Philadelphia (1993) was the first mainstream Hollywood film to address the AIDS epidemic.  Tom Hanks plays a gay lawyer who’s fired from a prestigious law firm when it’s discovered that he has AIDS.  Denzel Washington plays the homophobic attorney who defends him in a wrongful termination suit, and the experience leads him to newfound compassion and understanding.

Casting the beloved All-American Tom Hanks as an AIDS victim was a key element of the film’s impact and success.  His understated yet passionate performance earned him the Oscar, a Golden Globe, plus several other Best Actor Awards.  Bruce Springsteen’s haunting song, The Streets of Philadelphia, earned both a Best Song Oscar and a Grammy Award.

Memorable quote:
Judge Garrett: In this courtroom, Mr. Miller, justice is blind to matters of race, creed, color, religion, and sexual orientation.
Joe Miller: With all due respect, your honor, we don’t live in this courtroom, do we?

 2. Brokeback Mountain (2005) was the most high-profile and profoundly moving gay love story in film history.  The forbidden life-long love affair between two married ranchers (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) was a revelation to mainstream audiences, many of whom never imagined that men in that world might be gay.

Under Ang Lee’s direction, Ledger gave the finest performance of his tragically short career, and Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, and Anne Hathaway joined the ranks of serious A-list actors.  The film was nominated for eight Oscars and won for direction, screenplay and original score, but lost Best Picture to the less-worthy Crash (which many have attributed to Hollywood’s reluctance to fully embrace a gay-themed film).

Memorable quote:
Jack Twist: I wish I knew how to quit you.

3. Milk (2008) introduced the world to Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), the most prominent gay rights activist of the 1970s and California’s first openly gay elected official.  The story of Milk’s battle against 1978’s anti-gay Proposition 6 eerily echoed the battle against 2008’s anti-gay Proposition 8 (which was raging as the film premiered).

Director Gus Van Sant recreated a living and breathing San Francisco of the 1970s peopled with a fine ensemble cast including James Franco, Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, and thousands of local San Franciscans (including yours truly) portraying the gay community of 30 years ago.

The film earned eight Oscar nominations including Best Picture.  Penn’s wry, deeply human performance as Milk earned him a Best Actor Oscar and a slew of national critics awards.  Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay earned him the Oscar and Writers Guild of America Award.

Memorable quote:
Harvey Milk: A homosexual with power…that’s scary.

Having explored AIDS, forbidden love, and the struggle for gay rights, the latest groundbreaking film explores the hottest issue of gay life today: the gay family.

4. The Kids Are All Right (2010) is Lisa Cholodenko’s finely-tuned comedy of middle-aged lesbian moms (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) whose lives are turned upside down when their teenage kids locate their sperm donor father (a wonderfully shlumpy Mark Ruffalo).

The pitch-perfect script (by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg) beautifully captures the dynamics of a lived-in marriage, and restless teens seeking to discover their own identities.  The fact that both parents are women is simply a given.  It’s a story that any family can identify with.

Annette Bening gives the most natural and moving performance of her career.  Julianne Moore (unjustly snubbed for an Oscar nod) is wonderfully human as the slightly flaky spouse yearning for respect and recognition.

The film and Bening won Golden Globes for comedy, and the film earned four Oscar nominations (for Best Picture, Bening, Ruffalo, and original screenplay).  Regardless of what happens on Oscar night, The Kids Are All Right has succeeded in proving that gays are just as human–and flawed–as anybody else.

Memorable quote:
Jules: Marriage is hard… Just two people slogging through the shit, year after year, getting older, changing. It’s a fucking marathon, okay?  So, sometimes, you know, you’re together for so long, that you just… You stop seeing the other person.  You just see weird projections of your own junk.

About The Author

Adam Sandel is a playwright, screenwriter, lyricist, journalist and film critic living in San Francisco, California. He's the film writer for dot429 Magazine and is the host of the internet radio show "Happy Hour" on

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