IT SEEMS THAT every year at least one queer film makes its way into the Oscar race. Playing a queer character can be a fast track to a trophy—or at least a nomination. In recent years, Sean Penn, Natalie Portman and Christopher Plummer have taken home Oscars for playing sexual minorities, while plenty of others have been nominated. Films like The Kids Are All Right, Milk and Brokeback Mountain all contended for top honors, with mixed results.
It’s tempting to paint the Academy’s apparent fascination with straight actors “playing gay” as subtly homophobic, as if it must be so difficult to pretend to be attracted to the same sex. I don’t think that’s the case. The performances that get singled out are deserving, not because of the characters’ sexual orientation, but because of the characters’ humanity, complexity and astounding journeys.
This year, after a banner year for LGBTQ cinema, the film that looks to carry the rainbow banner into the Dolby Theater is The Imitation Game. One might wonder how such a bland period piece is the one to make the grade, rather than the uplifting Pride, which managed a Golden Globe nomination, or the acclaimed Love is Strange, featuring a pair of beloved actors and backed by an awards-friendly distributor. How is The Imitation Game the one that made it all the way?
The film has two main factors working in its favor. First, it’s the sort of quasi-inspirational historical picture that Oscar voters can’t help but lap up. Some accuse latent homophobia as being the reason Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash ten years ago, and perhaps that’s the case.
But The Imitation Game won’t have to worry about it either way, as it isn’t that gay. We don’t see Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) engaging in any sexual acts; rather, we see him struggling under the weight of his dangerous secret while he tries to crack the Enigma Code during World War II. Those who criticize the film for not being gayer are missing the point of the film: the irony of a man with a big secret working in secret to break a secret code.
Second, and more importantly, The Imitation Game is backed by the all-powerful Harvey Weinstein, who has brought Oscar glory to films like The Reader, The King’s Speech and The Artist. This year, The Imitation Game is Harvey’s (he’s important enough in the industry to be referred to by only his first name) prized horse, as seen by the campaign ads pandering to the tech community and, more problematically, to the queer community. A recent ad has leaders from various queer groups praising Turing and basically amounts to: “The gays like our movie, so you should, too!” Perhaps more troubling is the subtle message that an Oscar win could help make up for the injustices Turing faced in his day, including the chemical castration he faced in response to his homosexuality.
As is the case every year, the important thing to remember on Oscar night is that the best films are rarely represented. This is especially true for queer films, which are still very much crammed into a niche where most viewers will never see them. Enjoy the glitz and glamour for what it is – a bunch of millionaires giving each other prizes – and rest in the knowledge that a lack of awards doesn’t diminish the power of a great film.