For your consideration: Awards season is upon us, but will the best queer films get left out?
Justice for Rocketman, Pain and Glory, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Booksmart please!
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.
With last week's Spirit Award nominations and the incoming more-or-less daily bombardment of announcements that will begin next week and run nonstop until the Oscars on February 9, 2020 (save a little break around Christmas), awards season has officially arrived. And as the countless voting bodies start to take to their ballots, a simple request: consider the four wonderful LGBTQ-centric films 2019 had to offer in Booksmart, Pain and Glory, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Rocketman, all of which I fear could be lost in the mix of what looks like a fiercely competitive season — one that most predict will be led by the extremely white straight male trio of 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman.
If you recall, last time around we had a bit of (for better or worse) a wild ride when it came to LGBTQ representation. A historic seven of 20 acting Oscar nominations went to (straight) folks playing queer characters, all of them based on real-life figures. And three of those would go on to win, including Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley in Green Book and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Except it didn't exactly feel like cause for celebration. As I wrote in the post-Oscars edition of this column back in February (and, like, 100 other thinkpieces over the course of the season also discussed) Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody aren't quite beacons of unproblematic representation, and their collective seven Oscars were bemoaned by, frankly, anyone with taste.
The question of whether we can get something of a do-over this season thankfully does not come down to a lack of options. The aforementioned quartet — all of which made their festival debuts in the first half of this year (Pain, Portrait and Rocketman at Cannes, Booksmart at SXSW) — are exceptional in both nailing what they are trying to achieve as films, and in the manner in which they approach their LGBTQ characters. It helps that in two cases — Pedro Almodóvar's Pain and Céline Sciamma's Portrait — the directors are actually queer themselves. But awards voters are forgetful folks and historically have tended to have bias to what they saw last, so here's a little reminder for everyone's consideration.
Although Lady Bird and Juno are by far the greatest exceptions, teen comedies don't exactly regularly make the Oscar cut (it is absolutely not fetch that Mean Girls didn't even get a screenplay nomination for Tina Fey). So while I'm all for Olivia Wilde's heartfelt, hilarious and very gay directorial debut surprising us all and getting some sort of Oscar love (its screenplay really being its only remote chance), I mostly gear this plea toward the 90 mysterious members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who vote on the Golden Globes (which divide their awards into drama and comedy/musical categories). With almost all of the big contenders for best actress this year in films categorized as "drama" (see: Charlize Theron, Renee Zellweger and Scarlett Johansson), that leaves some room for the Globes to do what's right: nominate both Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein for their sharp and assured performances as two best friends trying to navigate the last night of high school.
Pain and Glory
Of the four films listed here, you'd think Pedro Almodóvar's latest is probably the most assured nomination, as Spain has officially submitted Pain and Glory for the newly re-named "best international film" category and Almodóvar is a living legend. But since he won the award 20 years ago for All About My Mother, the Academy didn't even nominate him either of the other times Spain submitted his work (for Volver in 2006 and Julieta in 2016). Let's please not make this case this time, as Pain and Glory is one of the director's greatest achievements in its masterful — and semi-autobiographical — exploration of an aging queer filmmaker (longtime Almodóvar muse Antonio Banderas) whose health and hope is fading. And while you're at it, nominate these other career highs: Banderas's meticulous and tremendously moving performance for best actor, and Almodóvar again for original screenplay and direction.
Unlike Pain and Glory, Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire was not submitted by its respective country in the best international film category (France went with Les Misérables instead), which leaves the truly glorious 1770s France-set lesbian romance (which I narrowly consider the year's best LGBTQ film over Pain and Glory) in a very unlikely position to receive any Oscar nominations. But hopefully other awards bodies will come through (like the Spirit Awards already did by nominating it in their best international film category) because Portrait is an instant queer film classic and the current pinnacle of an brilliant œuvre Sciamma has been building since 2007's Water Lilies. It's going to be tough against the mighty likes of Parasite and Pain and Glory, but Portrait deserves a share of the many critics award prizes for foreign language film, and its extraordinary leading ladies Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel warrant as many mentions as possible too.
I fear few things will feel as as tragic as when Taron Egerton fails to receive a nomination for playing Elton John in Rocketman in the same category Rami Malek won for playing Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Egerton's seismic performance is legitimately impressive in every way Malek's was not (i.e. he gives John a soul, and he actually sings) and Rocketman — unlike Rhapsody — is both respectful and well-made. But best actor is stacked this year, and Malek's win seems to have given a certain "but we just did that" air to Egerton's chances. But, please, let's give Egerton the chance he deserves, alongside nominations for costume design, makeup and hairstyling and best original song ("I'm Gonna Love Me Again" is really good). If you do all that (and some other things I've noted above), I'll start to consider the path to forgiveness for whatever the fuck you were thinking last year.