From the Magazine
Awards Insider Issue

Is This the Year a Queer Actor Goes All the Way at the Oscars?

Films like Strange Way of Life, Cassandro, and All of Us Strangers could break down some of Oscar’s most stubborn walls this season.
Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal in All of Us Strangers.
Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal in All of Us Strangers.PARISA TAGHIZADEH/SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES.

Andrew Haigh never cared about casting a gay actor in a gay role until All of Us Strangers. The British director’s new film, suffused with his own childhood memories, follows a 40-something queer Londoner named Adam who returns to the place he grew up and encounters his parents—who’ve been dead for decades—in the flesh as if they never left. “I didn’t have the happiest of childhoods.…As Adam was digging into his past, I wanted to do the same thing,” says Haigh, who filmed the metaphysical story in his actual childhood home. “I was trying to unpack some nuances of a certain generation of gay people. I needed someone who could understand that and have those conversations with me.”

That specificity is on display throughout All of Us Strangers, a gorgeously sad meditation on queer love and loneliness being released by Disney’s Searchlight Pictures. And it’s particularly evident in the performance from Andrew Scott, so vulnerable in the lead role. Strangers tends to leave audiences sniffling through a collective ugly-cry.

It’s unusual, to put it mildly, to find a film like this in the awards conversation. Queer people who love the Oscars—and trust, we’re out here—have gotten used to a severely limited brand of representation. We can be depicted in some brilliant films that go the distance, like Moonlight or Tár, but we’re rarely in front of or behind their cameras. And, as a result, even the most impressive projects often lack what Haigh is speaking to—that authentic rendering of experience, those idiosyncrasies drawn from intimate understanding. Gay men who’ve seen Strangers’ sex scenes will know what I mean.

Of the 88 titles nominated for the best picture Oscar over the last decade, only a small fraction featured primary LGBTQ+ themes; of this group, only two came from openly queer directors, and only one key queer role was occupied by an openly queer actor (Everything Everywhere All at Once’s Stephanie Hsu). An openly LGBTQ+ man has not been nominated for an acting award in more than 20 years, going back to Ian McKellen’s 2002 nod for The Lord of the Rings. No openly LGBTQ+ person has been recognized in best director by the Academy since 2010.

Pedro Pascal and Ethan Hawke in Strange Way of Life.SONY PICTURES CLASSICS.

Some of these unfortunate streaks should break this year, with All of Us Strangers leading a wave for queer cinema on the awards trail. I’m not talking about movies centered on LGBTQ+ characters that fit the typical Oscar profile, like Bradley Cooper’s Maestro or Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, nor about Todd Haynes’s May December, a (relatively) hetero drama from the New Queer Cinema legend regularly dismissed by the Academy. A wide range of films, made by and about openly LGBTQ+ people, are meeting serious consideration, and Disney, Netflix, Sony, and Amazon are all investing in their rollouts. Roger Ross Williams, the gay filmmaker making his narrative-feature debut with the Amazon-backed Cassandro, told me back in Telluride that he was being approached in droves by LGBTQ+ attendees who were energized by the sheer variety of movies on hand.

That high-altitude festival, a major Oscar season kickoff that took place over Labor Day weekend, offered the world premieres of Netflix’s queer-led biopics Nyad and Rustin in addition to screenings of Cassandro. Williams’s film examines the rise of the gay lucha libre star (played by Gael García Bernal) who defied the masculine norms of his country to become an unlikely icon of the sport. Cassandro takes the shape of a classic crowd-pleasing hero’s journey before spiking the formula with a proudly gay twist—a recipe that plays out similarly in both Rustin, following the unsung Civil Rights Movement organizer, and Nyad, about the legendary swimmer. “We haven’t had a lot of uplifting, positive LGBTQ movies,” Williams says. “Strong queer characters that have fought hard for acceptance and have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams—that’s how I see myself. I love telling inspirational stories, and I will always tell inspirational stories. This is just the beginning.”

Williams, who’s 61, became the first Black director to ever take home an Oscar, when he won best documentary short for 2009’s Music by Prudence. He is now finding new opportunities to venture out. Another Oscar winner, Pedro Almodóvar, was on the festival circuit with his gay-cowboy short, Strange Way of Life, starring Ethan Hawke and Pedro Pascal. It’s a stylish, moving revising of Western tropes from the gay Spanish director best known for woman-focused melodramas like All About My Mother. “This is a genre I never thought I could do,” he told me before starting production. Every time Almodóvar spoke the word Western over Zoom, in fact, he seemed to smirk, amused by its sudden prominence in his lexicon. With a splashy Cannes bow behind it and Sony Pictures Classics mounting a robust campaign, however, Strange Way of Life is now an Oscar contender aesthetically unlike any he’s made before.

Annette Bening as Diana Nyad and Jodie Foster as her coach, Bonnie Stoll, in Nyad.KIMBERLEY FRENCH/NETFLIX.

Two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster, meanwhile, plays the first fully realized queer role of her career in Nyad. Foster’s Bonnie Stoll coaches her obstreperous best friend, Diana Nyad (Annette Bening), to the remarkable feat of swimming from Cuba to Florida in one treacherous go; directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (Free Solo) center the drama on the two women’s loving, if fraught bond. “Jodie brought her point of view as a queer woman in her 60s,” says Vasarhelyi. Foster told me that she’d socialized with Stoll and Nyad for years, and that their friendship was why she wanted to join the movie: “Their quirky humor, familial banter, and all-around goodness just continually swept me off my feet.” Cheering Bening’s Diana on through storms both personal and meteorological, Foster makes Bonnie Nyad’s beating heart, an infectious grounding force that ought to grant the actor her first Oscar nod in nearly 30 years.

Like Strangers’ Andrew Scott, the 54-year-old gay actor Colman Domingo is finally stepping into a major lead role on the big screen. “I’ve supported many of my colleagues in this industry and that’s been lovely,” the Euphoria star told Vanity Fair. “But [Black queer men] are not in the center of our own stories. That’s the truth.” His exuberant performance in Rustin finds him tearing into the kind of part Hollywood kept out of reach his whole life: “There is a fearlessness to find that vulnerability and bring that part of myself to it. I don’t have to reach so far outside of my experience, but I can pull from within.” Rustin’s stirring portrait of the unheralded architect of the March on Washington, then, serves as a kind of metaphor for its star as he steps into the spotlight at last.

Domingo or Scott may well end the dreadful decades-long drought of LGBTQ+ male performers at the Oscars—in part because of the heavy-hitting studios behind them. (Domingo is also a scene-stealer in The Color Purple, distributed by Warner Bros.) Less flush is the campaign for Monica, IFC’s critically acclaimed mother-daughter indie, which is also climbing a steeper mountain when it comes to awards milestones: Its lead, Trace Lysette, hopes to be the first-ever openly trans acting nominee. Lysette already became the first trans lead to be featured in competition at the Venice Film Festival, where Monica premiered; she earned rave reviews and now wants to get the word out, despite the movie’s small marketing budget. “I feel like I’m still fighting for it to get the same love from the trades that the bigger films get,” Lysette says. “I want to level the playing field, and it’s very hard to do.”

Queer films have faced this reality for a long time: How can you keep up when you’re starting from so far behind? For some, there’s so much ground to cover, it’s hard to notice progress at all. “I just didn’t get nurtured in the same way that some of my cis actor counterparts did,” Lysette says. “A lot of trans people feel like they’re playing catch-up in their life.”

Trace Lysette in Monica.IFC FILMS.

Still, Monica’s very presence in this space, artfully illuminating a trans woman’s complex family dynamics, signals another step forward. Haigh says he’s noticed improvement in the climate for LGBTQ+ cinema since 2011, when his breakout film Weekend was released: “I’m pleased to see that there’s a lot more queer content around. Not as much as I’d like there to be, but there is a lot more.” Haigh appears to be hitting his stride at the perfect moment, boosted by a studio campaign bigger than any he’s had before. “I’ve tried to take the pressure off myself…. I’m trying to tell something that I understand and that is my experience of the world, and is authentic to me,” he says. “It doesn’t mean it’s going to be authentic to everybody who would call themselves part of the queer spectrum, but that’s all I can do, is tell something that feels right and honest.” For once, he’s far from alone.

Additional reporting by Chris Murphy.

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