There comes a moment in every queer child’s life when their young mind starts to stir. It might happen while watching a movie at a sleepover or in the quietude of a darkened theater. Staring at the screen, something curious and exciting occurs, a response that often cannot be defined because the appropriate words aren’t accessible yet.
For much of the past century, that was how LGBTQ fledglings confirmed they weren’t alone in their experiences: through popular culture, however imperfect it may be.
To say that cinema’s queer history is fraught would be an understatement. But even in the early days of Hollywood, LGBTQ audiences found kinship through movies and television. Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich kissed women on-screen in the 1930s, and filmmakers ever since have tackled queerness in profound, titillating and insulting ways.
By my count, there are four types of queer-awakening movies:
Coming-of-age depictions built around sex and romance, often involving characters who are discovering or coming to terms with their own potential queerness (“Heavenly Creatures,” “Pariah,” “Call Me by Your Name”)
Slice-of-life stories that show queer people embracing their identities in spite of the world around them (“The Boys in the Band,” “Longtime Companion,” “The Kids Are All Right”)
Megahits that bring queerness into the mainstream (“The Color Purple,” “Philadelphia,” “The Birdcage”)
Movies with camp eccentricities, gay icons or coded queerness (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” anything starring Judy Garland)
With Pride Month arriving, I wanted to know what shaped today’s LGBTQ directors, so I asked a number of filmmakers and showrunners to reflect on the first queer or queer-adjacent movie they fell in love with. Their selections had little overlap, spanning a variety of sensibilities — everything from “All That Jazz” and “The Wiz” to ”Midnight Cowboy” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley” — and demonstrating the dynamism of the queer experience.
Below are the 40 responses I received, mostly by email. They are lightly edited for grammar, clarity and length.
Gus Van Sant (“My Own Private Idaho,” “Milk”)
His pick: “Pink Flamingos”
This film was, at the time (1972), an outrageous, willful, cheap crowd-pleaser. The crowd at the time was a very ragamuffin midnight crowd in New York City that showed me that the counterculture, in some places, had taken over and had its own values and brain. It was a gay culture essentially, but not a mainstream gay culture. It had a cast of gay pirates as far as I could tell, which was inspiring for me. It also showed that modern communication could be held in the hands of the gay fashion pirates: John Waters, Divine and Mink Stole.
Jill Soloway (“Transparent,” “I Love Dick”)
Their pick: “Working Girls”
As someone who really didn’t identify as queer or trans until waaaaay after I started seeing movies, I’ll talk about a movie that vibrated me to my very core. I wanna shout out Lizzie Borden and her 1986 film “Working Girls” (not “Working Girl” with Melanie Griffith!). Borden brought us straight into the heart of a brothel in Manhattan and just sat down in the lives of these amazing sex workers. Tupperware lunches and all. She answered my unnamed yearning to see content that did not come from the straight male gaze, that did not seek to flatter men. Seeing how Borden spent unfiltered time in the daily lives of sex workers was a very small but incredibly powerful bolt of lightning for me about the kind of work I wanted to do with art and film. Maybe I didn’t even quite know it yet. Maybe all I knew was that I was seeing something that no one had ever captured before. A kind of truth about being female and being human.
Bill Condon (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Dreamgirls”)
His pick: “Bonnie and Clyde”
One of the advantages of growing up in New York in the late ’60s was that lots of movie theaters were too run-down (or empty) to bother enforcing the ratings system. Which is how I managed to see “Bonnie and Clyde” four or five times as a 12-year-old, despite its R rating. It was the first movie I discovered on my own and the first I fell in love with. I was already a film geek, so I knew the movie was considered groundbreaking. But my personal obsession had more to do with the ambiguous sexuality of Clyde, as played by the stunningly beautiful Warren Beatty. Years later, I learned that in David Newman and Robert Benton’s original screenplay, Clyde was bisexual and involved in a ménage à trois with Bonnie and C.W. (played by Michael J. Pollard). Beatty ordered the subplot removed — but somehow enough of the intention survived that even a barely pubescent gay boy could revel in it. For this gift, as well as the introduction to the glorious icon known as Faye Dunaway, I will always think of “Bonnie and Clyde” as my first gay movie experience.
Jamie Babbit (“Silicon Valley,” “But I’m a Cheerleader”)
Her pick: “Heavenly Creatures”
“Heavenly Creatures” was a big inspiration to me. It shows lesbian love as wild, dangerous, even murderous! Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet give unbelievable performances, and Peter Jackson’s Claymation operatic orgy sequence was pure creative bliss for this Midwestern queerdo. “Heavenly Creatures” belongs on every dyke’s short list!
Steven Canals (“Pose”)
His pick: “The Color Purple”
Often overlooked when discussing the queer cinematic canon, Steven Spielberg’s film, based on Alice Walker’s sublime Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, has been one of my favorites since its release. In college, as I struggled with accepting my queer identity, I sought solace in film (despite rarely seeing accurate depictions of queer people of color). As I embraced my truth, “The Color Purple” was the first film to provide clarity. Though I’d seen it many times before, Celie’s journey, and specifically her kiss with Shug Avery, took on a deeper, richer meaning. Like that kiss did for Celie, the film empowered me to own my identity.
Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“Homecoming,” “The Stanford Prison Experiment”)
His pick: “The Talented Mr. Ripley”
There’s hardly any way to praise this movie that hasn’t been done already, but this one was particularly special to me. It wasn’t the first queer movie I saw, but certainly the first I saw in theaters and on opening day. I was completely unaware of the story and unprepared for how sexual it was going to be. The way the story wove a queer character into a classic genre thriller stunned me. In a way, the movie’s accessibility also allowed me to appreciate the movie on the surface to people while also being able to covertly enjoy how gay it was (that bathtub scene). I could “hide” my appreciation of the movie behind its genre without giving myself away. It certainly contributed to the drive and interest I have in telling queer stories that intersect with otherwise more accessible filmmaking. The Trojan-horse quality of bringing an audience in on the basis of one expectation while delivering on a total other was what stuck with me the most.
Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Carrie”)
Her pick: “8 1/2”
I always say Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2” is my favorite movie and that it made me a director. “8 1/2” expressed desire in ways I yearned to express but had never seen in any art form. It burst open a door of opportunity of what could be done and how. I revisited this beloved movie during quarantine. I was stunned. It’s gorgeous, free, powerful and deeply reflective of my aspirations to make art about human relationships and sexuality, and also reflective of both my 13-year-old and current self.
I loved women. Marcello Mastroianni as Guido loved and was loved by women of all kinds, beauty idols he unearthed from prior cinema days. Marcello felt his desire and acted freely — in and beyond marriage. I wanted to move through the world as an elegant 1960s Italian male. Handsome Marcello, with his sweeping silver-fox hair, in his Martini slim-fit black suit, thin black tie, crisp white shirt and overcoat, became my avatar.
As Marcello visits a 1930s Italian spa, he recalls a seminal moment when desire led him and other boys to escape Catholic school and run down the beach. A full-bodied woman with voluptuous bosom and wild hair emerges from a stone hut. Young Marcello offers her a coin and asks her to “dance the rumba.” She slowly exposes her shoulders and mountainous breasts, then sways her hips and dances. The boys jump wildly as she pulls young Marcello into a dance and lifts him into the air.
Like Marcello and the boys (and the film itself), I was wild with excitement and desire ― sensual and sexual. And then it all comes crashing down. The priests, like Keystone Cops, scramble in, grab Marcello, then shame and castigate him. This is a traumatic moment. His desire is pure, but he is haunted by the feeling he is sinning in society’s eyes. He replays this memory over and over.
Of course, as straight men, Marcello, Guido and Fellini’s desire is codified as the norm, and that brings all kinds of benefits and ease regarding being comfortable in their gendered body and attracting women. But my homo and trans-ish 13-year-old self latched onto our commonality of shame and Fellini’s wonderful identification with and depiction of THE LOVER ― loving desire and the imagination. Society and many movies make you feel sexual desire is wrong. Not Fellini. He makes you feel it is oh-so-right. I had no homo and/or trans cinema examples when I was young, so I enveloped myself in Fellini, shapeshifting in order to satisfy my desire and express myself until I could make my own story, “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Adam Shankman (“Hairspray,” “The Wedding Planner”)
His pick: “Longtime Companion”
The year was 1990, and I was just coming out of the closet. Coming out to people outside of my inner circle was perhaps less painful for me than for others in that my family and close friends supported and loved me, but as a survivor of childhood sexual orientation trauma (better left for another article) and the terrifying reality of the exploding AIDS crisis, I was like a tiny rowboat being bludgeoned and buffeted about in a dark catastrophic storm. The port that I found during that time appeared in the brilliant Norman René-directed “Longtime Companion,” written by Craig Lucas.
The movie was frank, beautifully directed, emotionally devastating and, ultimately, a cathartic and hopeful master class in empathy, community and connection. The sensitive acting, the observational style of shooting, the music and that beautiful script became an anchor for me at a time when I was so confused and seeking a sense of safety and meaning when there was very little to be found in New York City, where I was living as a young dancer attempting to fulfill my own small dreams and discover how I fit into the world when I was told by society writ large that I was an aberration. It was a miracle. It depicted people like me struggling to be happy in an out-of-control and dangerous world. I will never be able to adequately thank the filmmakers and the studio for this movie.
Liz Feldman (“Dead to Me,” “One Big Happy”)
Her pick: “When Night Is Falling”
The first lesbian movie I fell head-over-combat-boots in love with was “When Night Is Falling.” Written and directed by Patricia Rozema, this offbeat, charming 1995 film about a beautiful Christian college professor who falls for an equally beautiful circus performer rocked my tiny gay world. I was 18, newly out of the closet, and I saw it three times at the Angelika, my favorite art house theater in New York City. I had never seen a lesbian movie before, let alone a lesbian love scene. And this lesbian love scene? This was an exquisitely shot lesbian love scene set against the backdrop of a dark, quirky Canadian circus. If I had to categorize it, “When Night Is Falling” is like Cirque du Soleil meets “Blue Is the Warmest Color” if it had been directed by a lesbian. And that is what makes “When Night Is Falling” so resonant: It’s shot from a lesbian gaze, and I can still picture it perfectly.
Charles Rogers (“Search Party,” “Fort Tilden”)
His pick: “Addams Family Values”
I feel pretty lucky to have grown up a gay kid in the early ’90s. There was this window of time from the mid-’80s to mid-’90s when movies embraced camp and went back to their Blake Edwards origins. We perfected the genre but then for some reason acted like none of it ever happened and made way for a big wave of self-conscious boy humor that’s still with us today. But for that brief and exquisite period, we got “Addams Family Values.”
Not only is it one of the few instances of a sequel being better than its original, it’s also a pitch-perfect lesson in camp. Writers are often told that if you have a crazy world, you need a normal character to see it through the eyes of, but in “Addams Family Values,” even the normal characters are as crazy as the Addamses. There’s a scene wherein Joan Cusack’s character spends her first night at the Addams’ (on the exact same evening that she interviews to become their nanny) and is locked in a terrifying jail cell for a bedroom. Lo and behold, her first instinct is to cozy up on her soiled cot in a silk peach nighty and sexily feed herself chocolates. She just so happens to catch a news segment on the small TV in her room explaining that her character is a highly wanted professional black widow, which just makes her grin deliciously and slip another chocolate into her mouth. I mean, could there have been a better comedy for queer kids at that time? As queer artists, we get to orient our audience in a world they might not feel welcome in if it were real, givi