DeLoggio Achievement Program

Selection of and Preparation for College and Professional Programs

Culture by Cinema


The Children’s Hour

The first movie to openly depict lesbianism in popular film was “The Children’s Hour.” The film debuted in 1962, a full decade before even and allegedly objective view of lesbianism could be seen on the big screen, and probably only survived because it starred two actresses who were on the list of Hollywood’s biggest box office names: Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn.

The 1962 movie is based on a play written by Lillian Hellman in 1932. The play is based on a real trial about two women who ran a girls boarding school in Scotland around 1800. They were accused of being lovers, and lost both their school and their reputations; The Children's Hour (play) - Wikipedia

Hellman’s play and the 1962 movie are both updated to a contemporary setting. What’s that line I’m supposed to use? – oh yeah, “spoiler alert.” without going for the spoiler, I can tell you that the women’s lives are indeed ruined, even though they were never lovers; but the mere accusation of lesbianism was enough to ruin a woman’s life.

Being a Lesbian, I may be biased, and I can assure you that as my first exposure to the world’s view of lesbianism this was more than traumatic. But this movie is perhaps the most important piece of work that either Audrey Hepburn or Shirley MacLaine ever made, and we'll really know that LGBT rights have reached a semblance of equality when people can watch this movie the way they would watch a black minstrel show – an oddity of the past that should be acknowledged, but never taken seriously.

Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn in "The Children's Hour"

Desert Hearts

This movie may have been the first film to portray two women falling in love that had a happy ending."It is regarded as one of the first wide-release films to present a positive portrayal of lesbian sexuality."

VERY loosely based on a 1964 book by Jane Rule, it gives an overly-positive view of the world of Cay Rivvers. Given that it’s set in Reno Nevada, where many a woman went for a quick no-fault divorce, it may be true that the residents were more tolerant than they might otherwise have been, but the book was written by a lesbian for a lesbian audience.

Desert Hearts falling in love

The film also shows the more tolerant people and attitudes toward women.  Lesbianism was tolerated where male homosexuality wouldn’t have been because women, straight or gay, were still available to men. The depiction of male behavior in less urban and urbane areas was fairly typical, as was the importance of keeping up appearances in towns too small for invisibility.

The film is widely recognized as a turning point in the way lesbians are perceived in America. Over a dozen critics and reviewers have celebrated its intensity, vulnerability, and understated political message.


The Times of Harvey Milk

The Times of Harvey Milk” is based on the same person as the movie "Milk" starring Sean Penn. That film, debuting in 2008, is typical of more recent movies, focusing on celebrity rather than historic event. The 2008 movie portrays the man who became San Francisco's first openly gay elected City Council person (called “Supervisor”) (and coincidentally the first openly gay elected official in the United States). “The Times of Harvey Milk” shows not only Milk's struggle to get elected, but the many issues gay and otherwise that he struggled with during his very brief tenure in office. It documents his assassination, along with the assassination of San Francisco's Mayor, George Moscone, by Dan White, another City Councilman. The movie is not a docudrama; it is a straight documentary, compiled from newspaper stories, television news taken from studio archives, and interviews with a handful of people who supported Harvey Milk. Those interviews are taken from one lesbian and one gay man, two non-gay women and two non-gay men, coming from very different socioeconomic backgrounds and representing very different political issues.

The film won the Academy Award for the best documentary of 1983 (given during the Oscar telecast of 1984). This link to the film trailer does the film a disservice, making it seem less than it is; but the better clips have been removed from YouTube.

Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone

Having mentioned Harvey Fierstein, the only gay political activist to equal Harvey Milk's fame, is the narrator in this documentary.

Aside from the timeliness of the issue, Milk opened the door to legal equality for LGBT people. Not only his election, but his crucial role in defeating Proposition Six, a law that would have made it illegal for anyone who supported gay rights to teach in California's public schools, had a far greater impact on the rights of gay people than his role as a City Councilman. The travesty of the trial and the public outrage at the injustice of Dan White's being sentenced to about five years in jail for the premeditated killing of two men, and the creation of the famous "Twinkies defense," made the case itself a landmark in American jury selection and judicial discretion.

The postscript to the movie reveals that Dan White was released on parole after only five years in jail. San Francisco mayor Diane Feinstein publicly requested that he not return to San Francisco. After she announced his release, the mayor of Los Angeles requested that White find another place to live. Finding that he was not welcome anywhere, he committed suicide less than two years after his release from prison. Dan White [Wiki]

The Laramie Project and Brokeback Mountain

If rural America was learning how to accept lesbianism, at least as fiction, male homosexuality was still intolerable.  “The Laramie Project” tells the story of Matthew Shepard, a college student who was brutally beaten and hung up to die on a fence. Every single resident interviewed can’t imagine how that could happen here – but somehow it did. "The Laramie Project is often used as a method to teach about prejudice and tolerance in personal, social, and health education and citizenship in schools..."  

Matthew Shepard

“Brokeback Mountain” is a fictionalized account of two ranchers who become lovers. Ironically, the two men in Brokeback Mountain couldn’t accept themselves; even in sex they’re fighting each other. Like Matthew Shepard, Jack Twist is beaten to death, with tire irons and car jacks.

Brokeback Mountain death scene

More important than the movies themselves is what they tell us about American society in the 1990s and 2000s;  you can hardly find a straight man who voluntarily went to see them.  They may have been required for a college course, or a man might have gone at the insistence of the woman in his life who was tired of sitting through superhero movies, but even some of them will deny having seen them.  And when it came time for Academy Awards, Brokeback Mountain got 8 nominations and three awards – for screenplay, cinematography, and music. The three nominated actors were too much for American society, although the movie won acting and best picture awards in other countries.

Angels in America

I’m not sure whether Angels in America takes us to a better time or simply a more sophisticated place, but it shows us a much broader slice of America than any of the other films.  From Jeffrey Wright's brilliant portrayal of Belize, a stereotyped gay nurse, to Robert DeNiro’s enactment of Roy Cohn, the rehashing of the role of power in a male-dominated society, the reminder of that time in our society when we sentenced a woman to death for treason (one of Meryl Streep's four roles in the series), the internal struggles of a gay Mormon and the toll it takes on his wife, we’re given a fairly realistic view of gay America post-AIDS.

Smuggling Roy Cohn's stash of meds


Boys Don't Cry

There were efforts to deal with transgender issues before “Boys Don’t Cry,” but none of them is worth more than a historical footnote – mostly about transgender athletes. Aside from Hilary Swank’s brilliant role as Brandon Teena and Teena Brandon, the movie deals with two important issues: the extent to which transgender identity exists, and the extent to which it threatens traditional definitions of masculinity, as did “The Laramie Project” and “Brokeback Mountain.”

Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena

I think toxic masculinity became a topic of discussion more after this film than the other two because it separated gender identity from sexual orientation. The concept of gender fluidity may not be a common topic at the dinner table, but it has become a recognized social issue very much as a result of this film. Had Teena Brandon’s friends not accepted her efforts to become Brandon Teena, had Brandon Teena’s friends not had more flexible definitions of what boys could and could not be than earlier generations, the movie could never have been made (nor could Brandon Teena have had his life, even for a short time.) 

Culture by Cinema

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