50 Essential Gay Films

12.9.2012

By Out.com Editors

Which gay movies deserve a bigger audience? We asked our favorite directors, entertainers, and artists to help us compile a hit list.

FEMALE TROUBLE (1974, dir. John Waters)

Charles Busch's Top Five Drag Films:
Divine is fantastic as a rotten-to-the-core high school girl who ends up a mass murderer. Although fearless in his vulgarity, Divine brought a sweetness and humanity to every role he played.

OUTRAGEOUS! (1977, dir. Richard Benner)

Charles Busch's Top Five Drag Films:
A wonderfully funny, touching, and somewhat forgotten film, Outrageous! stars the late great Craig Russell as a struggling performer who finds success as a female impersonator.

Tootsie (1982, dir. Sydney Pollack)

Charles Busch's Top Five Drag Films:
Dustin Hoffman is brilliant as an actor who disguises himself to get cast on a soap opera, and the film isn’t afraid to explore the more subtly comic possibilities of a man living as a woman.

PARIS IS BURNING (1990, dir. Jennie Livingston)

Charles Busch's Top Five Drag Films
This extraordinary film lifts the curtain on the world of voguing and Harlem drag families, transcending its subject and raising questions everyone can identify with.

HAPPY TOGETHER (1997, dir. Wong Kar-wai)

Tony Kushner, Playwright:
As I remember the story, the script Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit (called Happy Together, after the Turtles’ song, when it was released in the U.S.) was written by Wong Kar-wai in a Buenos Aires hotel room in just a few days, after the film he’d come to Argentina to make fell apart due to a labor dispute. With equipment, film stock, and the services of two of the actors he’d brought with him, Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Leslie Cheung, Wong’s eminently practical solution was to remain in Argentina, and in collaboration with his magnificent cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, create a romantic masterpiece featuring two lovers who happen to be gay men. The film is feverish, dark, mordant, melodramatic, hallucinatory, and starkly realistic. It’s a thing of fits and starts; it thrashes about, as if in the throes of the passion it’s describing. It seems to be searching, as it unfolds, for the means to capture the experience of love, to account for a bond between two people who are never happy together, who are incompatible and yet must be together. Wong finds metaphors for love in the loneliness, disorienting alienation, and magical strangeness of foreign travel; in the improvisatory open-endedness, discoveries dreamed of and actually made, and bone-deep road weariness that are its concomitants; in late-night Buenos Aires tango bars, shot in elegant, noirish black-and-white; along stretches of empty highway; and in kitchens and SRO hotel rooms shot in warts-and-all urban 1970s bleached greenish color. A recurrent image of the mighty Iguazu waterfall, on the Argentine-Bolivian border, the ostensible ultimate destination of the couple’s trip, is filmed from crazy angles in deep, heartbreaking blue monochrome. It becomes the image of love itself: chaotic, terrifyingly dangerous, utterly irresistible, boundaryless, infinite, unbearably beautiful.

The lovers, Ho Po-wing (Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Leung Chiu Wai), are complicated men, their complexity rendered with stunning dramatic economy. They lose their way -- geographically, emotionally, spiritually, internally, and with each other. The actors are both brilliant, funny, and terrifically moving, irritating and endearing; they bicker, battle, and make love with complete abandon, and -- well, why not say it? -- they’re the sexiest gay couple ever filmed.

Though it got great reviews and won Best Director for Wong Kar-wai at Cannes, it isn’t as widely known as it deserves to be. The matter-of-fact manner in which the characters’ homosexuality is treated in the film was startling in 1997. (Contemporary audiences watch Cheung’s performance as Ho Po-wing with an added grief; the actor, who was gay and tormented about it, committed suicide in 2003.) If the film’s assumptions of the universality of love, of humanity’s shared attachments, predicaments, sorrows, and joys, is perhaps less startling today, it’s no less appealing and moving.

It’s gorgeous. It’s essential. You’ll love it. You have to see it.

THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE (1968, dir. Robert Aldrich)

Matt Tyrnauer, Writer/Director:
One of the first films to explicitly deal with a same-sex relationship, The Killing of Sister George can be viewed as a distant precursor to The Kids Are All Right -- an unselfconscious examination of a lesbian marriage. The protagonist, George, played brilliantly by Beryl Reid, is the most popular soap opera character on the BBC. George’s alcoholism is beginning to jeopardize her relationship with her younger lover (Susannah York), and when she drunkenly molests two Irish nuns in the back of a London taxi, the BBC decides to kill off her character, a beloved eccentric, Vespa-driving village nurse. The film features an explicit same-sex scene, wherein York’s character betrays her longtime lover with an imposing BBC executive. The lesbian sex landed the movie an X rating and launched one of the most dramatic censorship battles of the 1960s. Aldrich spent $75,000 fighting the rating, but lost. In the U.K., the movie was cut in some cities and uncensored in others; people traveled around the country seeking out the uncensored version. Aldrich paid a huge price when the movie bombed at the box office due to the rating, but he created an extraordinary portrait of a life and marriage in crisis. It’s one of the great tragic love stories of the screen.

ANOTHER COUNTRY (1984, dir. Marek Kanievska)

Tim Gunn, TV Host:
I’m an Anglophile at heart, so give me an English period piece and, by definition, I’m all aswoon. Set in an English public school (think Eton or Harrow) in the 1930s, Another Country stars Rupert Everett as Guy Burgess, a gay teen coming to terms with his sexuality. The object of his affection is Cary Elwes, whose initial oblivion and subtle wandering eye drive Burgess to distraction. And there is a profound and relevant correlation to today’s tumultuous times: We see two other classmates engaged in a passionate kiss and stumbled upon by a professor. For one of the two young men, humiliation and fear of retribution drive him to suicide by hanging. Burgess, too, suffers: In a formal ceremony, he’s flogged by his peers for his homosexual dalliances. The societal perception of homosexuality is one of two parallel themes in the film, the other being Burgess’s eventual betrayal of his country as a spy for the U.S.S.R. This evolution in his character is at least in part propelled by his friendship with a Marxist classmate played by Colin Firth, but also fueled by his rejection by the elite class with whom he wants so desperately to belong.

PINK NARCISSUS (1971, dir. Anonymous/James Bidgood)

Dustin Lance Black, Screenwriter/Director:
Some call this film “overappreciated,” but I fell under its spell shortly after starting preproduction on Milk. Gus Van Sant popped it in his DVD player and asked what I thought -- I believe, with regard to how we might shoot Milk.

Although the production date says 1971, the film was actually shot between 1963 and 1970 on 8-millimeter, with a vivid, psychedelic color palette, and staged almost entirely inside Bidgood’s own tiny New York apartment on intricate, handcrafted sets.

For me, the film is as important a work of art as it is a historical signpost of the pre-Stonewall, pre–gay lib, cine-homo state of mind. It’s a picture of what Milk himself might have been searching for during his late night strolls through the West Village in the late ’60s.

As for plot or structure, don’t hold your breath. This film was about style, tone, and the poetry of once forbidden sexual fantasies. Where there is story, we have a beautiful young prostitute (played by real-life teen runaway Bobby Kendall) who, alone in his apartment, plays out phallus-filled fantasies of himself as a Roman slave, an emperor, and the master of a harem of striking, sometimes belly-dancing men. There’s also a urinal and a leather queen, but I’ll save those details for the cinephiles dogged enough to track the film down.

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