Male actors are often lauded for their supposed bravery in playing gay on film, giving performances that regularly result in Oscar nominations and occasional wins. This year, Christopher Plummer has an enormous amount of traction in the Best Supporting Actor race for playing a gay widower who comes out at the age of 75 in “Beginners.”
The press has also been speculating on the potentially queer nature of Clint Eastwood‘s “J. Edgar,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black initially insinuated the film would speculate about the sexualities of the titular FBI director (DiCaprio) and his associate Clyde Tolson (Hammer). DiCaprio recently told GQ that J. Edgar Hoover “definitely had a relationship with Tolson that lasted for nearly fifty years. Neither of them married. They lived close to one another. They worked together every day. They vacationed together. And there was rumored to be more. There are definite insinuations of—well, I’m not going to get into where it goes…” Eastwood further clarified, “It’s not a movie about two gay guys. It’s a movie about how this guy manipulated everybody around him and managed to stay on through nine presidents. I mean, I don’t give a crap if he was gay or not.”
In any case, Plummer, DiCaprio, and Hammer all have quite a precedent to build upon if they are nominated for gay roles. Here is a look at some of the male actors who contended for playing gay.
Before Colin Firth won his Best Actor statuette for “The King’s Speech” (2010), he was nominated for playing a gay professor living in Los Angeles in “A Single Man” (2009). He lost on his first attempt to Jeff Bridges (“Crazy Heart”).
A year prior, Sean Penn won his second Best Actor Oscar (following “Mystic River,” 2003) for playing gay rights activist Harvey Milk in “Milk.” The film was nominated for eight Oscars and also won Best Original Screenplay for “J. Edgar” writer Black.
Three actors were nominated for playing gay in 2005. Philip Seymour Hoffman won for his portrayal of author Truman Capote in “Capote.” Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were both nominated for playing lovers in “Brokeback Mountain,” which won three Oscars in total, but controversially lost Best Picture to “Crash.” Gyllenhaal, contending in Supporting Actor, lost his bid to George Clooney (“Syriana”).
Ed Harris played a suicidal, HIV-positive author who had a relationship with Meryl Streep‘s character in his youth, but went on to have same-sex relationships including one with Jeff Daniels. The Academy gave the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Chris Cooper (“Adaptation”) instead of Harris.
His villainous turn in “No Country for Old Men” (2007) won Javier Bardem his Academy Award, but he was first nominated for playing real-life author Reinaldo Arenas in “Before Night Falls” (2000). Arenas was an influential Cuban writer who emigrated to the United States, dying of AIDS in 1990. Though Bardem was acclaimed for his performance, the Oscar went to Russell Crowe (“Gladiator”).
Ian McKellen was the early frontrunner in 1998 for “Gods and Monsters.” The openly gay actor portrayed director James Whale in his final days. Whale is best remembered for “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein.” Though McKellen won numerous awards from critics groups, Roberto Benigni (“Life Is Beautiful”) took home the Oscar.
Playing a struggling gay artist in “As Good As It Gets” (1997) earned Greg Kinnear his only Oscar nod to date. His co-stars Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt won in the lead races, but Kinnear lost Best Supporting Actor to Robin Williams (“Good Will Hunting”).
Tom Hanks famously outed a school teacher he thanked in his Oscar acceptance speech when he won for “Philadelphia” (1993). Hanks played a lawyer who sues his ex-employers when they fire him for being HIV-positive.
A controversial scene in Oliver Stone‘s “JFK” (1991) showed Tommy Lee Jones, as businessman Clay Shaw, engaging in a gay orgy. Jones lost Best Supporting Actor to Jack Palance (“City Slickers”), but later won the category for “The Fugitive” (1993).
Bruce Davison won a Golden Globe for his heartrending performance in “Longtime Companion.” He played David, who learns his boyfriend Sean (Mark Lamos) is dying of AIDS. Joe Pesci (“Goodfellas”) won the Academy Award.
The first actor to win for playing a gay man was William Hurt for “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1985). His superb and flamboyant turn as an imprisoned window dresser helped the small independent film pick up nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.
Song and dance man Robert Preston got his only Oscar nomination for “Victor/Victoria” (1982), though he is best known for his role in “The Music Man” (1962). In “Victor/Victoria,” Preston schemes with Julie Andrews to turn her into a gender-bending cabaret star. He lost to Louis Gossett, Jr. for “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
James Coco turned a few heads when he was nominated for both an Oscar and a Razzie for playing Marsha Mason‘s gay best friend in “Only When I Laugh” (1981). He lost the Oscar to gay actor John Gielgud (“Arthur”) and the Razzie to Steve Forrest (“Mommie Dearest”).
The only actor to be nominated for playing gay in a foreign language film is Marcello Mastroianni. In “A Special Day” (1977), he reveals to his neighbor Sophia Loren that he is being deported from Italy because he is homosexual. Richard Dreyfuss won Best Actor that year for “The Goodbye Girl.”
Peter Finch has the distinction of being the first actor to be Oscar-nominated for playing an openly gay character. He played a doctor in “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1971) who is having an affair with Murray Head. Though Finch would posthumously win Best Actor for “Network” (1976), he lost the first time around to Gene Hackman (“The French Connection”).
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