lesbian films at the oscars: nominees but (almost) never winners

‘Carol’: 6 nominations. ‘Notes on a Scandal’ and ‘The Kids Are All Right’: 4 each. ‘The Color Purple’: 11. Total wins: 0.

by Emily Manning
01 March 2016, 5:00pm

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its Oscar 2016 nominations in mid-January, many saved what leftover rage they had from the all-white acting nods to chide Carol's snub. New Queer Cinema pioneer Todd Haynes was notably absent from the Best Director shortlist -- where he'd have been the only openly gay nominee -- and the film failed to seal the Best Picture nomination it had so frequently been tipped for. In spite of the major category shut-out, the film did net six nominations total. In the canon of mainstream queer cinema, Carol's humanistic representation of queer characters is, sadly, something of an anomaly. But the film's talented team walked away from Sunday's ceremony just like the casts and crews of many fantastic lesbian films have before it: healthily nominated, but entirely empty handed.

Though the Academy does not disclose its full membership, an extensive LA Times report published in 2012 sampled over 5,000 voting members. The paper found that at that time, the Academy was 94% white, 77% male, and 86% age 50 or older. With demographics like that, you couldn't be faulted for thinking that the Academy's voting body might not be so hip to the merits of lesbian cinema while they're outright ignoring actors and filmmakers of color. And to an extent, you'd be right. As Ian McKellen noted, no openly gay actor or actress has been awarded an Oscar while they've been out and proud (Jodie Foster has two trophies, but she earned them 20 years before she sort of came out at the 2013 Golden Globes). No LGBT-focused film has ever nabbed Best Picture -- just ask the makers of Brokeback Mountain, the film favored heavily for 2005's top prize before it was upset by Crash. Perhaps most notably, Blue Is the Warmest Color failed to receive any nods after its historic triple Palm win at Cannes. But in actuality, lesbian-focused films do get nominated for Oscars, and rather frequently. They just never seem to win any.

Carol landed more than a handful of nominations this year: a pair of actress accolades for Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, as well as laudes for costume design, original score, cinematography, and Phyllis Nagy's stirring screenplay. The Kids Are All Right and Notes on a Scandal were both nominated for four awards a piece in 2010 and 2006, respectively. Lesbianism -- both open and repressed -- united storylines in The Hours, a 2002 film shortlisted for nine Oscars. Of these cumulative 23 nominations, only one prize was awarded.

Don't get me wrong, Carol does represent immense, badly needed progress. As The AV Club's Nico Lang noted, "To win an Oscar for playing gay, everyone knows you have to kick the bucket. In the history of the Academy Awards, only two actors have won an award for playing an LGBT character who lives to see the end of the movie." (It's true: one of The Hours' most persistent images is that of Kidman's Woolf filling her pockets with rocks and slowly walking into a river.) "From Kiss Of The Spider Woman to Boys Don't Cry, the Academy Awards have a fetishistic relationship with queer misery and struggle. The Oscars like seeing queer bodies broken and begging for humanity, rather than fully human and already deserving of our respect," said Lang. Carol's characters aren't just allowed a happy ending and the preservation of their dignity, they're allowed to live! Even the prospect of a queer character with a hopeful future is itself game-changing when it comes to mainstream cinema. But lesbian-focused films receiving copious Oscar nominations with no ticks in the W column isn't anything new -- it's been happening for decades.

Though Steven Spielberg admitted to softening the relationship between Shug Avery and Celie in his 1985 filmic adaptation of Alice Walker's The Color Purple to fit a PG-13 rating ("I basically took something that was extremely erotic and very intentional, and I reduced it to a simple kiss. I got a lot of criticism for that," the director told Entertainment Weekly), intersectional queerness still very much shapes the film's emotional core. It received a whopping 11 Academy Award nominations and failed to win a single one. Many queer cinema fans are familiar with The Children's Hour, a film adapted from Lillian Hellman's play These Three, which was inspired by the true story of two school teachers whose careers and lives unraveled when a student accused them of being lovers (in 1809, by the way). The 1961 film -- which starred Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine -- was nominated for five Academy Awards. Five! In 1961! A year when queer people were still treated with electroshock therapy. But like the boundary-breaking lesbian films that'd follow it, it failed to take any of the five categories.

So why do wins matter? There are some practical reasons, sure. Oscar prizes are a cause to push projects -- often released in limited, liberal cities -- into further flung markets they might not otherwise reach. Wins help these independent films fetch greater box office dollars. (Even with Blanchett and Mara's star power, Carol was made on an impossibly lean $12 million budget.) Taken together, critical praise and commercial success demonstrates to studio executives that more LGBT-focused films should be made, and with greater resources. But the truth is, we don't really know how profoundly a landmark lesbian Oscar season would impact cinema because, time and time again, these films have failed to go all the way (and I'm not just talking about nominations).

Like many of the aforementioned projects, films with a lesbian relationship at their core are frequently adapted from literary works. So often in that process -- as was the case with Spielberg's The Color Purple and the nominated-but-statueless 1991 film Fried Green Tomatoes -- complex romantic relationships on the page have been reduced to furtive glances and strong sapphic implications on the screen. We nominate these projects and performances -- we herald the straight women who play the largely doomed characters as "brave" -- but we keep stopping short. Is there a glass ceiling in cinema, or a glass closet?

Carol didn't win a single Oscar or Golden Globe, but it's possibly the year's most victorious film. Nagy struggled through 15 years of roadblocks -- chiefly financial -- trying to bring her friend Patricia Highsmith's story to life authentically and without sensationalism about sexual taboo. "During its development, there was a very different kind of lesbian or gay movie that got financed," the screenwriter told the LA Times. "They were very agenda or issue driven, and this was not. In fact it insists on not being that in order to make the point. I would talk about that with financiers, and I could see them glaze over." The only thing more vindicating than Carol's 10-minute standing ovation at its Cannes premiere is the fact that it's raked in almost $36 million -- triple its budget. Oscar-less, yes, but maybe it's not just history repeating itself. Maybe the increasing interrogation of diversity and representation at the Oscars will help broaden the range of films winning awards. Maybe it's the first mark on a new upward trajectory for mainstream queer cinema.


Text Emily Manning
Image via The Weinstein Company

lesbian films