Film

LGBT+ history month: Ten essential queer movies, from The Wizard of Oz to Everything Everywhere All At Once

The history of queer cinema goes back almost as long as the story of film. This LGBT+ history month, we pick some of the all-time highlights

The Wizard of Oz and other highlights of queer cinema for LGBT History Month

Highlights of queer cinema Images: Alamy/A24 Collage: The Big Issue

The history of queer cinema goes back almost as far as film itself. There’s some (admittedly disputed) speculation that the first ever soundtracked movie, 1894’s The Dickson Experimental Sound Film, was queer coded. As far back as 1919 cinema was being used to promote gay rights. With this year’s Oscar race celebrating a combination of gay characters (Brendon Fraser in The Whale, Cate Blanchett in Tár), camp icons (Angela Bassett, Lady Gaga, Michelle Yeoh), and, in Everything Everywhere All At Once’s Stephanie Hsu, the first openly queer actor nominated for playing a queer character since Ian McKellen in 1998 (plus all the nods for Baz Luhrman’s Elvis, a movie that provides a one-word answer to the question, “Alexa, define camp?”), this LGBT+ history month is the perfect time to swot up on your queer cinema essentials.

The Wizard of Oz (1939) dir. Victor Fleming

Context is everything. Somehow MGM’s classic is simultaneously the least and most gay film on this list. There’s no overt sexuality or romance of any kind here, and (probably) no intentional queer coding, but such is the power of The Wizard of Oz and its star, all-time-one-off Judy Garland, that its imagery is synonymous with gay culture. It’s part of the canon. Friend of Dorothy has been slang for gay men for years (some chalk this up to Judy Garland, beloved of gay men everywhere, while others point to the original Oz books and the line “you have some queer friends, Dorothy”), Over the Rainbow is arguably the most important song in gay culture, as anyone who has heard Rufus Wainwright singing it will tell you, and rainbows themselves are part of the fabric of Pride. The technicolor, all-singing, ruby-slippered land of Oz is a safe space to spend LGBT+ history month. Just pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Paris Is Burning (1990) dir. Jennie Livingstone

A sacred text in queer cinema, this classic documentary is a snapshot of New York’s ballroom scene at a very specific time; ravaged by Aids, poverty, racism and poor health care, but glittering and strutting for all its worth. Drag culture has basically been riffing on it ever since. It’s absolutely essential viewing (for LGBT+ history month and beyond) and a window into a world that has, for heartbreaking reasons, all but disappeared in the form we see here.

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) dir. Stephen Elliot

Oh god, it’s magnificent. It’s perfect. It’s Priscilla. The image of three drag queens in the outback, hitting the open road with a giant glittering stiletto on the roof is as enduring as anything else in the queer canon. There’s more to Priscilla than campy fun though – it’s grittier than you remember. Those that think that “the trans issue” is a recent addition to the culture wars might be surprised to see Terence Stamp, in a late-period career high, tackling a believable trans character nearly 30 years ago and exploring those same topics.

Velvet Goldmine (1998) dir. Todd Haynes

“The only bits that I liked in Velvet Goldmine were the gay bits”, said David Bowie, the unwilling inspiration for Todd Haynes’ thinly-veiled Ziggy Stardust tribute act. “I thought they were really very well done and you really felt the heart of the director. But I thought the rest of the film wasn’t very good.” Bowie is right about the “gay bits” but uncharacteristically wrong about the rest – there’s plenty to enjoy in this glitter-hearted, sumptuous tale of decadence. Plus with Ewan McGregor and Christian Bale starring, where else are you going to get to see Obi-Wan Kenobi shagging Batman on a London rooftop this LGBT+ history month?

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But I’m A Cheerleader (1999), dir. Jamie Babbit

Made in the golden age of the high school comedy, this super-camp and surprisingly sweet take on conversion therapy stars LGBTQ royalty in Clea DuVall and RuPaul and puts (IRL straight) Natasha Lyonne on the path to lesbian icon-hood. It slipped through the cracks on release, but has since become a solid cult classic.

Brokeback Mountain (2006) dir. Ang Lee

Ang Lee’s quiet masterpiece gave us career-best performances for Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall as stoic bisexual cowboys discovering love. Both were advised to pass on the script due to the stigma playing a gay character could give an actor. Happily both ignored the advice. The film broke new ground as a queer drama that was accepted by a mainstream audience, though some have blamed private homophobia on behalf of Academy members for blocking what was expected to be a Best Picture shoe-in at the Oscars.

Pride (2014) dir. Matthew Warchus

The very British (and very Welsh and very gay and very lefty) true story of a group of gay Londoners, based around the real life (and still there) book shop Gay’s The Word, who decide to raise money for a Welsh town hit by the 1984 miners’ strike. Proper thesps Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton are great, but it’s the young cast that drive it. If you don’t weep controllably during the march scene at the end, then you are probably dead inside.

Call Me By Your Name (2017) dir. Luca Guadagnino

Probably the first film in which you saw Timothée Chalamet, and the last where you were pleased to see Armie Hammer. Call Me By Your Name’s tale of teenage lust and awakening sexuality has a sweet and carefree vibe, and is that rare thing – a high profile gay story in which no-one dies horribly. It’s idyllic and lovelorn and beautifully captures those first flushes.

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) dir. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

Hidden under all the absolute freewheeling lunacy of this year’s unlikely Oscar frontrunner is a story of queer acceptance. Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn is on a journey through the multiverse that isn’t just about saving a billion worlds, it’s about, ultimately, truly accepting her gay daughter, Stephanie Hsu’s Joy. It also happens to be a journey that involves fighting with dildos and having sausages for fingers. Oh, and Joy’s entrance with the pink hair and the Elvis suit? Peak camp. Extraordinary.

Bros (2022) dir. Nicholas Stoller

The pressure of being one of the first proper, mainstream gay rom coms gave this extremely likeable, funny and filthy film some performance anxiety at the box office, which is a shame. Removed from the weight of Terribly Important Cinema there’s plenty to enjoy here entirely on its own terms. Billy Eichner, who also co-wrote the script, is a joy.

Honorary Mentions: To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Bound, Boys Don’t Cry, Heavenly Creatures, Carol, Cruising, A Fantastic Woman, My Beautiful Laundrette, Tangerine, Moonlight, My Own Private Idaho, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Pink Flamingos, A Single Man, God’s Own Country, Love Simon, The Birdcage

LGBT+ History Month runs from February 1-28.

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