Deemed the “gay Super Bowl” by its many fans, the Academy Awards telecast has long been a bastion of over-the-top queer energy rolled up in the drama of the secret, gay inner-workings of the Hollywood system.
Many a gay icon has had their moment in the sun during the Oscar show, from Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to Rock Hudson dueting with Mae West to Barbra Streisand and Madonna each vamping on the Oscar stage to the delight of their queer fans. This year the festivities will be hosted by the second openly gay host, Neil Patrick Harris, who promises to bring the same sassy twinkle that he’s brought to the Tony and the Emmy Awards.
Whether you plan on watching from your living room on Sunday or hitting up a viewing party — like the Denver Film Society’s free fete at the Sie FilmCenter, where the awards will light up their big screens and you can complete a ballot for a donation and get a chance to win some big prizes — you might notice that this year’s show appears to be short on gay power. But while no out actors are nominated and only one nominated role is gay, there’s always a chance that the world’s most fabulous celebration will find a way to let our LGBTQ rainbow shine.
As proof, here are five moments from the long history of the Academy Awards where things got pretty gay:
5) Ellen DeGeneres hosts the telecast not just once but twice.
Comedian Ellen DeGeneres has had her share of gay moments in the public zeitgeist. She came out as a lesbian to the world via her sitcom in 1997, then took off as the new “queen of daytime” when her talk show hit the air in 2003, where she continues to reign supreme. But it was the Academy’s decision to cast her as the Oscar host in 2007, one year after Brokeback Mountain famously lost the Best Picture Oscar to Crash, that truly put DeGeneres in the spotlight. Ellen’s schtick has never been particularly edgy or political but that’s the gay rub in her joke. Bringing her glamorous tuxedos and pant suits to a global audience surely ruffled some feathers, but the Academy asked her back in 2014. And again she proved a winner, breaking Twitter with her spontaneous group selfie and ordering pizza for the poor starving actresses waiting patiently in their couture gowns.
Bonus rainbow: The 2007 show featured Jennifer Hudson, who won for her role as Effie in the film version of drama camp favorite Dreamgirls. Her character’s main song, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” is the Star Spangled Banner of drag queens and gay singing competition hopefuls everywhere.
4) William Hurt wins an Oscar for playing a gay man.
Actor William Hurt took home an Oscar in 1986 for his role in Kiss of the Spider Woman, in which he played an obviously gay character. This was a first in Oscar history, and opened up the Hollywood closet just a teency bit for future gay roles to emerge — yet in accepting the award, the heterosexual Hurt said only, “I’m very proud to be an actor.”
Bonus rainbow: At this telecast, Cher wore a wildly over-the-top Bob Mackie gown as a protest to a secret memo passed around Hollywood demanding that nominees and attendees adhere to a “demure” dress code. A few feathers and some sheer fabric later, red-carpet fashion culture was born.
3) Tom Hanks takes home an Oscar and knocks someone’s closet door off.
In 1994 Tom Hanks took home the Best Actor Oscar for his role as a gay lawyer dying of AIDS in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. The moment was another watershed moment for gay visibility in Hollywood; Hanks delivered a passionate and historic speech using the public platform to acknowledge those who had lost their lives to AIDS. Amazing as that was, Hanks’s speech was remembered for something very different: He acknowledged his high school drama teacher, Rawley Farnsworth, and a former classmate as “two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with.” It was a touching tribute, but there was a problem: The retired Farnsworth had never publicly acknowledged his homosexuality, and his home town of Oakland was rocked as one of the world’s biggest stars let loose his teacher's secret to billions of people. Farnsworth reluctantly came out and, buoyed by positive public opinion, found a community of gay teachers waiting for him and a second life bringing his teaching skills to children infected with HIV.
Bonus rainbow: “Hanksgate” fostered an idea that producer Scott Rudin worked on with director Frank Oz and writer Paul Rudnick to make the 1997 comedy In & Out, starring Kevin Kline as a Midwestern teacher forced out of the closet when his former student (Matt Dillon) mistakenly outs the married, hetero teacher on an awards show.
2) The year that gay Hollywood stole the show.
The 2003 telecast wasn’t particularly gay in essence, since it was hosted by straight comedian Steve Martin. But guuuuuuurrllll, Chicago was on everyone’s lips and took home the Best Picture trophy, plus many others, for being an amazing LGBT-friendly champion of musical badassery written by out scribe Bill Condon and directed by out Rob Marshall. Along with that win, openly gay talent was on open display as three of the Best Director nominees — Pedro Almodovar, Stephen Daldry and Marshall – were out and proud. Nicole Kidman took home a trophy for playing known queer personality Virginia Woolf, and three of the Best Screenplay nominee writers were gay: Almodovar, Condon and Todd Haynes. Nearly every winner was able to acknowledge their same-sex partners in speeches, and other gay talent came busting out in acknowledgement. By the end of the telecast, Hollywood’s celluloid closet was kicked open and a big ol’ purple carpet might as well have been rolled out of the auditorium and into the night.
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1) Wings becomes the very first Best Picture winner…with the very first same-sex kiss.
Can you imagine a world where the Oscars hullabaloo that we know today — the glitz, the glam, the overcooked production numbers, celebrity jokes and the overall fabulousness — was scraped away for a simple awards ceremony where the awards were just announced one after the other with no fanfare? Well, welcome to the very first Academy Awards in 1929, which honored films made in 1927 and 1928 in a fifteen-minute ceremony that took place after a hearty dinner in the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. That night the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the 1927 drama Wings, the first and only silent film to take that honor, about one woman who comes between two WWI fighter pilots who seem to have quite a thing for each other. The homoerotic subtext was perhaps not as obvious to viewers then as it is to viewers now (seriously, watch the clip above) but the passion between the two actors was undeniable.
Enjoy the Hollywood shuffle of the Academy Awards at the Denver Film Society’s Viewing Party, this Sunday, February 22, at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue. Red carpet arrivals begin at 5 p.m. and the show starts at 6:30 p.m. Find out more at denverfilm.org.