Arts·Point of View

This has not been an easy awards season for queer folks. Can the Oscars still salvage it?

From problematic representation winning big accolades elsewhere to all things Kevin Hart, the lead up to the "gay Super Bowl" has been anything but super.

The lead up to the 'gay Super Bowl' has been anything but super

Mahershala Ali, Emma Stone and Rami Malek await their likely Oscar nominations next week. (Universal/Fox Searchlight/20th Century Fox)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

Earlier this week, voting for the 91st Oscar nominations came to an end, offering a rare moment of calm in the middle of what has arguably been the most dramatic awards season...ever? Starting in August, when the Academy announced — and then quickly rescinded — the tremendously unpopular idea for a new Oscar rewarding "Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film," it's pretty much been six months of consistent controversy that hasn't exactly left this lifelong awards season nerd with high hopes for its big finale.

Perhaps it's just a matter of exhuastion that's keeping me from finding a little optimism that the Oscars might still be able to save themselves. After all, in those six months, I've lived through the following nightmares, in order of total horror experienced: the selection and then stepping down of a homophobic host, who refused to apologize when tweets that should have been deleted years ago (and that were not "just jokes," friends: they were violent, humourless statements) exposed said homophobia; the apparent desire of the Academy to hire that host again because Ellen DeGeneres very questionably wanted them to; the many awards and nominations that controversy-proof garbage fires Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody have somehow received; the lack of nominations for Toni Collette, Brian Tyree Henry, Marielle Heller and Paddington 2; the Directors Guild of America thinking Peter Farrelly was more deserving of a nomination than Barry Jenkins; the speech Lady Gaga gave at the Critics' Choice Awards; imagining the speech Lady Gaga could give at the Oscars; daily questioning of whether I've wasted my life giving a shit about awards season every year.

I know I'm not alone in how much this has all pained me. I feel comfortable suggesting that it's been a rough go for the majority of a demographic I belong to, who also just so happen to be universally regarded as having the most Oscar enthusiasts per capita: queer men. I mean, we might've even been (kinda) willing to forgive tweets where Kevin Hart said he'd break a dollhouse over his hypothetically gay son's head, as long as he even just pretended to say how wrong those statements were — that's how much we love the Oscars. We'll let the straights have whatever host they want, as long it leads us to what we really want: the drama of the awards themselves. (You thought I was going to the say the red carpet, didn't you?) But instead, Hart not only refused our more than reasonable terms but brought our now-fallen hero Ellen DeGeneres down with him.

Strangely, in the midst of all of this has emerged a narrative that should have been such a cause for celebration for queer folks: the fact that there are a pretty astounding number of stories prominently featuring LGBTQ characters in the Oscar race. If my predictions prove correct (and I suspect, for the most part they will), seven of the 20 nominations for acting Oscars will go to portrayals of queer characters, all of them based on real-life people: Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury (Best Actor); Olivia Colman as Queen Anne and Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel (Best Actress); Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley and Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock (Best Supporting Actor); Rachel Weisz as Sarah Churchill and Emma Stone as Abigail Hill (Best Supporting Actress).

For those of us who are math-challenged, that's 35 per cent of those nominations, which is more than triple the percentage most studies suggest there are actual LGBTQ people (usually 10 per cent). The previous record was in 2006, when four of the 20 actors nominated (Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Felicity Huffman and Jake Gyllenhaal) were playing LGBTQ characters. So — pretty amazing, right? Well...maybe it would be if even just one of those seven actors likely to be nominated this year (or any of the four from 2006, for that matter) were openly LGBTQ. 

Look, I'm totally okay with straight actors playing queer roles. Just not...all the queer roles all the time. Especially since it's still not very easy to be an openly queer actor in Hollywood. Only three actors who were out at the time have ever been nominated for an Oscar: Ian McKellen, Linda Hunt and Jaye Davidson (arguably Nigel Hawthorne is the fourth, as he was involuntarily outed during his Oscar campaign for The Madness of King George). Of those, only one has won (Hunt) and only one has been nominated for playing a LGBTQ character (McKellen). And none of these numbers have been upped in nearly 20 years — which is all the more insane given the Oscars are very often regarded as "the gay Super Bowl." Imagine if in the history of the straight Super Bowl (a.k.a. the actual Super Bowl), the winners were 99 per cent gay?

Look, I'm totally okay with straight actors playing queer roles. Just not...all the queer roles all the time. Especially since it's still not very easy to be an openly queer actor in Hollywood.- Peter Knegt

Unfortunately, the non-existence of LGBTQ actors isn't even my biggest issue when it comes to queer representation in this year's Oscar race: it's the queer representation in the films themselves, two in particular. Give all the nominations in the world to The Favourite and Can You Ever Forgive Me?, even if most people involved (save the latter's very talented co-screenwriter Jeff Whitty) are straight. Do I wish they had more queer talent involved? Sure, but at least they are both great films that handle their LGBTQ narratives perfectly. That absolutely cannot be said with regard to the other two. And you know what? I am so completely drained from any ability to re-discuss how much is wrong (LGBTQ-related or otherwise) with Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book that I will simply direct you to this piece I already wrote on the former, and this piece Vanity Fair's K. Austin Collins wrote on the latter. I know not everyone agrees that these films are simply unacceptable inclusions in the awards race (the Hollywood Foreign Press sure didn't, since they won the two best picture prizes there), but I for one will cringe every time either of them are nominated next Tuesday.

Speaking of next Tuesday, is there anything Academy voters could have vouched for — or not vouched for — that could help salvage the season? Besides, of course, not nominating Bohemian Rhapsody or Green Book for anything (at least beyond Ali and Malek, who I admittedly have trouble rooting against)?

Personally, I'd be pretty thrilled to see vocally out pop star Troye Sivan get a best original song nomination. His track for Boy Erased, "Revelation," is a gorgeous ode to finding yourself that has lyrics that poignantly reflect the film's anti-gay-conversion-therapy message. And in the same category, it would be great to see openly lesbian songwiter Linda Perry get some love for her collaboration with Dolly Parton (a gay icon in her own right who has somehow never won in this category), "Girl in the Movies" from Dumplin'.

Another category to watch is Best Cinematography, where Rachel Morrison has a solid chance to deservedly follow becoming the first queer woman (and sadly, first woman period) ever nominated last year (for Mudbound) by becoming the first to ever receive two nominations, this time for her stunning work in Black Panther. Somehow it's not a sure thing: the BAFTAs snubbed her (for Bohemian Rhapsody, no less), as did the American Society of CInematographers' annual awards, both highly predictive of the Oscars.

Three other films I'm a little worried about not receiving the love they deserve are The Favourite, Can You Ever Forgive Me? and If Beale Street Could Talk. The former is the only one of them that would be a sure bet for Best Picture, but its director Yorgos Lanthimos is a bit of a long shot in his category, somehow in favour of Green Book's Peter Farrelly. Hopefully Oscar voters can give him a surprise nod, and I'd be even more pleased if he's somehow magically joined by Can You Ever Forgive Me?'s Marielle Heller and If Beale Street Could Talk's Barry Jenkins. Heller would add a necessary (and much deserved, even if the work is subtle) woman nominee to the mix for directing one of the year's best queer films, while honouring Jenkins (clearly a stalwart LGBTQ ally at this point, given the unbelievable queer watershed that was Moonlight) would also honour one of the greatest queer writers who ever lived, James Baldwin.

That all said, the clearest path to redemption for the Oscars is the show itself next month. After fumbling hard with the popular film category and Mr. Hart — both attempts to steer viewership toward straight males — the show's producers Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss should realize that who they really should be catering to are the demographics that have been loyally watching the Oscars through thick and thin: not just queer men, but women as well. And do you know what we don't need? The entire cast of The Avengers on stage. And I promise you that's not going to bring a bunch of straight dudes who never watch the awards to the table either.

As a representative of Oscar's true audience, I for one would be ecstatic if they used the extra time without a host to bring back the absolutely fabulous idea of having five previous winners come out on stage to fete the nominees before announcing the winner. Every Oscar enthusiast I know agrees that was one of the best things the show's producers have done in the past 20 years. And as ratings continue to fall (and they will, primarily just because of the evolution of viewing habits in the Netflix era), we're the folks you don't want to abandon, Oscar. Because without us, you're nothing.

About the Author

Peter Knegt

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since way back in 2016, with highlights including co-hosting weekly live talk show State of the Arts, writing the regular LGBTQ-culture column Queeries and playing integral roles in the launch of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.