Whether you’re looking for a film about a gay icon or whether it is a gay icon in a starring role, the cinema is the perfect place to track down your favourite idol.
The question of what defines someone as a vintage icon is a difficult one, whether it is their looks, their sexuality, their personal life or their work for equal rights. But taking the definition in its widest sense, here are six of the best films which, for various reasons, are perfect examples.
Icon status – Madonna is undeniably a gay icon for many reasons. A long and successful career and a devil may care attitude combine with her longstanding dedication to bringing gay rights to the attention of the public. Whether it is by dressing up as a boy scout, in her song lyrics, in the company she keeps or by expressing her sexuality through her creative output, she has been prominently in the public eye when it comes to issues of equality, HIV and AIDs or commenting upon change.
The film – What could be better than Madonna doing what she does best in this film which is, in essence, a two hour music video? But in the expert hands of director, Alan Parker, Madonna gives a career defining performance as Eva Peron, a poor villager who sleeps, manipulates and carefully plots her way to the arms and bed of the Argentinian President, becoming adored by the people and a strong political influence behind the scenes. But all the time, her self-serving ways are never far from her and as the people around her start to realise her motives, a split in the country and the political party starts to appear. Based on the concept album and subsequent stage show by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber, this is a sumptuously filmed movie with a golden globe winning performance from Madonna, who has never been better in an acting role, excellent support from Antonio Banderas and a soundtrack which you just can’t help singing along to.
Further suggested viewing – In Bed with Madonna; I’m Going to Tell You a Secret; A League of Their Own
The Colour Purple
Icon Status – Whoopi Goldberg has a cult following in America and is a prominent activist for gay rights. In 2010, Whoopi joined Cyndi Lauper for the launch of the Give A Damn campaign, to raise awareness of LGBT discrimination. She frequently defends the LGBT community on her talk show The View and in 1987 spoke at the historic March on Washington for Gay Rights. In 2013, she has been honoured by the Human Rights Campaign as the 2013 recipient of the organization’s Ally For Equality Award, which is “given to allies outside the LGBT community who stand up on behalf of equality for all Americans”. But she is also an Academy Award winning actress, singer, songwriter, and comedienne and, to top that list off, has appeared in the Absolutely Fabulous special “Gay”.
The Film – Adapted from the novel by Alice Walker, the Colour Purple tells the story of a black woman, Celie, growing up in 1930’s Georgia. Forced into marriage and living under the hand of her tyrannical husband, known as Mister, the film follows her transformation from a shy and awkward youth to empowered and a strong and independent woman. She empowers herself by being surrounded by people who love, support and care for her. She also forms a friendship with, and a deep love for, a beautiful and sultry lounge singer, Shug, and the two women form a bond which allows Celie to realise that she does not have to be the person that she has been told she has to be. This simply stunning film was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, was directed by Steven Spielberg and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. This touching and beautiful film is an often forgotten gem.
Further suggested viewing – Ghost; Sister Act; Made In America.
Icon Status – Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politician to be elected into public office in California. Initially, gay rights were not at the forefront of his agenda, but as his time in politics grew, so did his passion for the subject. During his relatively short 11 months in office, he passed a stringent gay rights ordinance for the city of San Francisco (where he lived), using the increasing political and economic power of the Castro District (San Francisco’s gay village) to push through changes. Tragically assassinated in 1978, he remains an icon and martyr in the San Francisco community and has been described as “the most famous and significantly open LGBT politician ever elected in the United States”.
The Film – Starring Sean Penn, the film tells the story of the political career and the tragic end to the life of Harvey Milk. Addressing his movements into politics, detailing his political battles against the limitation of the rights of gay people and his ideals in life, the film was a critical and commercial success. Securing a total of 8 Academy Awards, Penn won an Oscar for best actor in a lead role and the film also won for best original screenplay. Released in 2008, at the time when California were debating Proposal 8, an anti-gay marriage proposal which in some way mirrored the anti-gay rights legislation in Proposal 6 which is addressed in the film itself, it proves that the themes explored from the 70’s are as relevant today as they were then.
Further suggested viewing – The Times of Harvey Milk (a 1984 documentary).
Rebel Without A Cause
Icon Status – James Dean has long been considered a gay icon. His rugged, chiselled good looks, his masculinity and his status of the epitome of cool set him apart from other actors of his era. There were questions about his ambivalent approach to sexuality and debates about his sexuality have long been circulated. He is alleged to have slept with both men and women, but whether that was true and if so, whether it was for pleasure or to forward his career will forever remain a mystery. When asked if he was a homosexual, he replied “No, I am not a homosexual, but I am also not going to go through life with one hand tied behind my back”. The Gay Times Readers’ Awards have previously cited him as the male gay icon of all time. He is often said to be the epitome of cool and effortlessly projected an image of rebellion, non-conformity and, more importantly, living his life how he wished to live it.
The Film – Dean plays Jim Stark, a 17 year old young man who moves with his family to LA where he runs into difficulties with the local gang, finds love with a beautiful young woman and becomes a father figure to a 15 year old local trouble causer. He is increasingly frustrated by his family who don’t understand him and finds himself drawn into a feud with the local gang leader which results in tragic consequences. The film about confused, middle class adolescents was seen as an antithesis of the films around the time which depicted delinquents in the urban slums. Dean radiates charisma in his role and the film was ground-breaking in its portrayal of the moral decay of American youth.
Further suggested viewing – Giant; East of Eden.
Icon Status – Cher has been a stalwart of the idolisation of gay men for many years, especially in the USA. Her ability to transform her image and her musical style, coupled with her catchy, camp tunes, her high-spirited stage shows and her daring and non-conformist attitude confirm her icon status. But aside from her ability to not take herself too seriously (her appearance in Will & Grace is evidence of this), her music and her acting career, she is also a strong advocate for gay rights (supporting both the community and the parents of GLBT people) and has publically supported her oldest child, Chaz Bono who stated that he was transgender in 2009.
The Film – Ali Rose, (Christina Aguilera), a young country girl with an extraordinary singing voice, leaves her dead end life in small town rural America and heads to LA to make her fortune. She stumbles across a Burlesque club, run by a good natured and motherly woman called Tess (Cher). Within the amber tinged bar, she finds employment, friendship and a very attractive roommate, Jack Miller (played by the ridiculously handsome Cam Gigandet). Amazed at her remarkable talent, Tess makes her the star of the show. But can the novelty of singing live save the cash strapped club from a hostile takeover and will Jack and Ali ever admit their true feelings for each other? This film is corny and cheesy, but has a charm all of its own. It has a paper thin and highly predictable plot. But that is not the reason to watch this film. The skimpy and seductive costumes coupled with the exuberant and energetic burlesque musical numbers (performed with an almost overdose level of camp), mark the tone of the film. There are two icons for one in here, (both Cher and Aguilera have a huge gay following) and you get a naked Gigandet hiding his modesty under nothing but a packet of cereal. Throw in one of Madonna’s backing dancers and add Cher belting out a power ballad and you have a cheesy campfest which should be watched for what it is, which is just damn good, but terribly corny, camp fun.
Further suggested viewing – Moonstruck; Mask; Mermaids.
Gods And Monsters
Icon Status – The outstanding Sir Ian McKellan has appeared in many successful films, been in Coronation Street, played the Dame in pantomime, has performed on stage in the West End, Broadway and worldwide and is an openly gay man who is prominent in his active campaigning for equal rights. He has won numerous awards for his acting career and appeared in blockbusters like the X-Men series and The Lord of the Rings films, but has also done less mainstream films, such as his update of Richard III. Since coming out in 1988, Sir McKellan has often spoken and written about gay issues. He is a co-founder of Stonewall UK. He has had a high level presence at Gay Pride events in London and around the world and states that his most urgent concern is legal and social equality for gay people worldwide. Coupled with that, he is one of the nicest people you could wish to meet and always makes time for people at Pride events. How could this talented and dedicated man fail to make a list of vintage icons?
The Film – Gods and Monsters is the story of James Whale, the gay 1930’s film director, best known for making the Universal Pictures version of Frankenstein. This film follows the latter part of his life, when Whale is a fragile figure, who is physically and emotionally slowly giving up. He reminisces about gay pool parties of his youth and teases a star struck fan that comes to interview him for a magazine. But his new gardener, Clayton Boone, (played by Brendon Frasier) is a young, attractive and muscular straight man and he and Whale strike up an unlikely and, at times, uneasy friendship. Asking his young muse to pose nude for his life drawing, Whale’s obsession with his friend deepens. But to what end? Sir McKellan was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in this film, and rightly so. The film oozes class and explores the nature of the relationship between Whale and Boone in a sensitive manner. The film draws you in with its subtlety and culminates in an emotional gut punch. It is the perfect vehicle for demonstrating what an exceptional actor Sir McKellan is.
Further suggested viewing – Walter; Richard III; X-Men; Apt Pupil; The Lord of The Rings.