Queer Ghosts on Oscar Night
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Published in: May-June 2024 issue.


HOW HAVE LGBT people been represented in Oscar-honored films to date, and might it have been otherwise? The first actor to win an Academy Award for playing a character who was indisputably gay was William Hurt, for the doomed (and morally inscrutable) Luis Molina in Hector Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, in 1985. To be sure, there had been queer-coded characters in Best Picture-winning films before that—Lawrence of Arabia and Midnight Cowboy ­spring to mind—but, with Hurt’s Spider Woman win, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences betrayed a pattern of hostile prejudice toward LGBT people that would play itself out in the years to come.

            That LGBT people in film are disproportionately represented as killers or as killed (or both) is not breaking news. Active and passive homophobia in Hollywood was sweepingly chronicled by Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet and by subsequent film historians. Here my focus—and grievance—is with Oscar-winning films and roles after 1985 in which LGBT people perish or come to a bad end. Briefly stated, the past four decades form an era in which the major studios have finally acknowledged the existence of gay people even as they have persisted in punishing gay characters for daring to exist.

            Since Kiss of the Spider Woman, fourteen more Oscars have been bestowed for roles or films in which explicitly queer lead characters die by suicide (four), gunshot wounds (three), beatings (two), AIDS (two), poisoning (one), lethal injection (one), and gender-affirming surgery (one), making the Academy a wax museum of cinematic LGBT deaths. If we were to assume that Oscar-winning films killed off cisgender and straight characters at a similar rate to queer ones, we would be sorely mistaken. Since the Spider Woman offered Molina her Kiss, 25 or more straight and cisgender characters have survived slavery, the Old West, World War II, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, homelessness, and Hannibal Lector in Academy Award-winning movies. Only thirteen straight characters have died in Oscar-winning roles or as leads in Best Picture winners since 1985—giving heterosexual and cisgender characters a three in four chance of survival and LGBT characters approximately the same odds of perishing before the credits roll.

William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1985.

            That’s entertainment,

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Andrew White, based in Philadelphia, works in libraries, museums, and sometimes at the zoo. Now and then he publishes a short story.


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