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27th February 2021

Essential LGBT biopics

To celebrate this year’s LGBT History Month our writers picked the essential LGBT biographical films
Essential LGBT biopics
Photo: Manchester Pride Parade

History has witnessed a multitude of LGBT figures, although world cinema hasn’t always reflected this. Recent trends in film and popular cinema are thankfully changing this, and LGBT history month is a great time to look back at the standout biopics which have undertaken the task of bringing out the realities of the LGBT experience onscreen.

Capote (2005) – Jonny Hosking

Capote, much like the man himself, is a deeply sophisticated and intelligent film. Set in 1959, the film follows esteemed New York writer Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as he ventures into the Deep South to uncover one of the most disturbing crime stories of the century. As cultures clash and tensions rise, the writer wrestles with his consciousness as he pieces together his magnum opus, In Cold Blood.

The film’s lasting merit is undoubtedly the central performance from Hoffman. From every mannerism, gaze, and inflection, the audience is never in doubt of his conviction and honesty. The rest of the cast are excellent as well, from Catherine Keener’s Harper Lee (a real-life friend of Capote) to Clifton Collins Jr.’s haunted Perry Smith.

Apart from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote’s cinematic legacy is rather brief, especially for a figure of his calibre. Capote sheds necessary light on the incredible historical figure, not only as an openly gay man in the 50s, but as a formidable novelist as well.

Frida (2002) Florrie Evans

Frida, directed by Julie Taymor, explores the turmoil of Kahlo’s life and her life’s work, her art. The film illustrates the ups and (mostly) downs of Kahlo’s life including her numerous love affairs with women, which her husband encouraged. 

Taymor’s film shows the strength of Kahlo’s character and her will to keep going in spite of the cards she has been dealt. By animating Kahlo’s art and bringing Kahlo’s own characters to life on screen, Taymor shows the way in which Kahlo expresses her emotion in order to get through the toughest times in her life. 

The film honours the forward thinking mind of Kahlo and her Mexican heritage through a vibrant and full-bodied colour palette, as well as a score filled with Mexican folk music. Every shot framed and every animation designed is based on Kahlo’s work, immersing the audience in the mind of the artist.

Milk (2008) – Florrie Evans

Gus Van Sant’s film tells the story of Harvey Milk, an American politician and the first openly gay elected official in California. The film, written by Dustin Lance Black, is based on Milk’s self-made tape which was meant to be listened to in the time of his passing. 

This basis creates a true and emotional illustration of the work Milk did for the LGBT rights movement. The use of archival footage acts as a signifier of truth and emphasises the reality of the events. 

In contrast to a lot of Gus Van Sant’s films, especially his Kurt Cobain anti-biopic, Milk gained its popularity thanks to its accessibility to mainstream audiences. The story is approached as a typical American film, using a linear narrative and many top Hollywood actors.

Rocketman (2019) – Michal Wasilewski

Unlike the horrendous and absurdly queerphobic mess of a film which Bohemian Rhapsody was, Rocketman is everything a music biopic should be. 

Following the most vital events of Elton John’s personal life and career, Dexter Fletcher’s film isn’t afraid of its main character and his homosexuality. On the contrary, it embraces the LGBT themes through bursts of positive energy provided by Taron Egerton’s electric performance, supported by colourful costumes and energetic covers of Elton John’s songs (not to discredit Rami Malek’s lip syncing, but Egerton actually sings here).

Overall, Rocketman is a film which everyone can enjoy; a biography which is as honest and in-depth as it gets; a story of finding peace and happiness after years of hardships.

The Danish Girl (2015) – Georgina Davidson

A combination of true story and aesthetic quality can be found and translated in the world of art through a splendid scene and contained within a beautiful frame. Rarely can either spill from the backdrop; particularly in a film which explores a taboo topic area such as LGBT rights. 

Unfortunately, the hazy, whimsical palette of Tom Hooper’s film The Danish Girl falls victim to the fate of poorly appointed frame. Set in a false historic time is the story of a transgender woman in play, in every sense of the word. 

Although beautifully appointed with stellar acting performances and astonishing production value, the storyline lacks the depth and complexity associated with the difficult decisions that are made throughout. The cast form a faded sky backwash for the main characters, Lilli (Eddie Redmayne) and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) to shine upon, in a surprisingly heteronormative display even for its vague historic setting. 

The film is emotive in its portrayal of identity and loss but misses the mark on providing a considered experience of transgender living. More than parties, colour, misery and death; the film has an opportunity to use real case studies and give the spectator the story of personal and societal impact. 

Hooper’s vision seems stylistically guided over substance. The film lacks a link to a changing human condition and experience which ultimately limits its potential towards a sad but glossily veneering finale. The Danish Girl is beautiful and sensitive, but devoid of a setting or accurate foregrounding.

The Naked Civil Servant (1975) – Freddie Johnson

It is hard to imagine the world in which this short, made-for-TV film arrived in 1975, let alone the deeper past it depicts. It introduces us to Quentin Crisp (literally, the real 66-year-old Crisp opens the film), an ‘effeminate homosexual’ and transvestite who challenged society and authority simply by refusing to be anyone else. 

This is an ‘autobiography’ but also, as Crisp announces, a fantasy (“All films are fantasies”). This dichotomy creates a wonderful ambiguity. Is this real life or a second draft? And does it matter? He writes himself as self-deprecating and aggrandising, at once utterly self-centred and enormously generous. His life morphs into a performance, a crusade, a public service. Could it have been otherwise? Crisp, perhaps with regret, thinks not. 

He, and the masterful John Hurt (“yes of course you must have an actor to play me, he will do it far better than I have done”) draw us into his world completely. Moving and beautiful, The Naked Civil Servant gives us a much-needed long lens on sex in Britain.

Michal Wasilewski

Michal Wasilewski

Managing Editor of Culture for The Mancunion.

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