While Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right are the two front-runners for Best Actress Oscars this year, a refreshing aspect of this race is how little has been made of the fact that they’re nominated for playing bisexual and lesbian characters, respectively.
As we enter the second decade of the 21st Century, actors playing gay-for-pay has become a non-issue– but that’s not always been the case. A review of actors who’ve been nominated and/or won Oscars for playing gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters reveals that the list has gone from a trickle in the 1980s to a veritable flood today.
Of the 200 actors nominated in the 1980s, William Hurt was the only one to win (Best Actor) for a gay role in 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Only three other actors playing LGBT characters were nominated in that decade: John Lithgow in The World According to Garp, Robert Preston in Victor Victoria (both in 1982), and Cher in Silkwood (1983).
The 1990s saw a near doubling of those numbers with Tom Hanks’ Best Actor Oscar for Philadelphia (1993) and Hilary Swank’s Best Actress win for Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Nominated in non-straight roles were Bruce Davison in Longtime Companion, Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game, Greg Kinnear in As Good as It Gets, Ian McKellan in Gods and Monsters, and Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley.
The new century ushered in a new era in which playing LGBT characters went from being controversial to downright chic. Oscar winners in such roles in the 2000s included Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002), Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote (2005), Sean Penn in Milk (2008), and Penelope Cruz in Vicky Christina Barcelona (2009).
2005 was a watershed year for nominated actors in LGBT roles. In addition to Hoffman’s Capote win, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were both nominated as the star-crossed lovers of Brokeback Mountain, as was Felicity Huffman as the transgender hero of Transamerica.
Rounding out that decade’s crowd were Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls (2000), Salma Hayek in Frida (2002), Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal (2006), and Colin Firth in A Single Man (2009). But no credit for Russell Crowe’s nomination for 2001’s A Beautiful Mind; he played math whiz John Nash who was bisexual in real life, but that little detail was omitted from Ron Howard’s film.
While straight actors continue to enhance their resumes, cache, and Oscar chances by playing LGBT characters, the irony is that only one of these 23 performances was by an openly gay actor: Sir Ian McKellan as gay film director James Whale in Gods and Monsters.