A movie doesn’t have to be gay to be, well, gay. So what makes a movie gay if it’s not explicitly gay? Put some top-notch gay icons in there — your Bette Middlers, your Joan Crawfords, your Faye Dunaways playing Joan Crawford — and most importantly have them replicate bitchy jokes that tear each other apart, and have an aesthetic that is wacky and unironically camp, and you have the winning formula starter pack for something delightfully fabulous and weird, even if not by intentional design.
Some movies have been dragged into the queer canon by virtue of their unintentional awfulness or questionable quality (“Showgirls,” “Mommie Dearest,” “Glitter,” that awful but delightful remake of “The Stepford Wives”), while others actually push forward the cinematic medium to create something that will stand the test of time and the weather of queer people and their changing tastes. Robert Zemeckis’ Oscar-winning ‘Death Becomes Beautiful’ boasts the double-whammy of Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn tearing themselves apart in an actress-diva showdown that’s about the actress-diva showdown, but classic campy it also pushed the boundaries of camera shooting and CGI effects in cinema. How did they make Goldie Hawn look like she actually had a hole in her stomach (“There’s a hole in my stomach!”) after Meryl Streep shot one through her? It’s simpler than it sounds.
But setting a precedent for movies now canonized by gay culture that technically don’t have any gay characters (uncoded, anyway) were some of Hollywood’s most legendary actresses of all time: Bette Davis in “All About Eve” made “it’s going to be a bumpy ride” an idiomatic line, while Elizabeth Taylor then made Bette Davis’ “what a dump” even more iconic in the opening line of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, pronounced while gnawing on a wing of chicken. And what’s stranger than a prickly or sassy return to the age of reading? Whoopi Goldberg in “The Sister Act” rendered “it’s better than sex” a retort so ingrained in cultural consciousness we almost forget where from come.
Ed Bianchi’s 1981 “The Fan,” meanwhile, delivered perhaps the greatest gift to gay movie fans of a certain era in casting Lauren Bacall as an aging actress struggling to maintain her legacy while being haunted by, what else but, a psychotic gay fan. Movies like ‘9 to 5’ and ‘Steel Magnolias’ continue to fascinate us because their casts are all female from head to toe, iconic among gays who can induce tears and laughter and shout unforgettable lines in the same scene. Documentaries, too, may resonate with the queer community who have adopted lines from the movies into their daily discourse: What’s really the best costume for today, as little Edie says in the Maysles’ monumental Gray Gardens? There is also, of course, the tendency in many of these films of men being humiliated and demeaned – something gay male audiences love to partake in – leaving our iconic women with all the chips in the end and who can we leave the cinema cheer for.
Below, IndieWire rounds up some of the best decidedly non-gay movies that are actually gay, after all — and gayer than many contemporary films that claim to be gay. Horror movies have been excluded (since there is a separate list for that) and all integers are sorted chronologically.
With editorial contributions from Tom Brueggemann, Wilson Chapman and Mark Peikert.