By Cody Dericks
The discussion of accurate representation through casting is not a new one. There have long been calls for proper portrayals of characters by casting actors of the same race, ability, and other factors of identity. This rallying cry for representation in performers’ employment extends to affording actors opportunities based on their sexuality and gender identity. While job options for LGBTQ+ actors have certainly increased, it’s not a given that they will be considered first to take on LGBTQ+ roles. Obviously, that’s not to say that heterosexual and cisgender actors can’t turn in impressive work, but it can lead to occasionally offensive and troubling performances. Viewed as a matter of labor equity and how playing these roles can affect a career, the fact of the matter is that non-LGBTQ+ actors still benefit from these types of roles far more than their LGBTQ+ peers. For example, 11 actors who don’t identify as LGBTQ+ have won Academy Awards for portraying such characters in this century alone (and that number more than triples when you include nominees). Comparatively, the only time an LGBTQ+ actor playing this type of character has won an Oscar is, arguably, the openly bisexual Angelina Jolie for “Girl, Interrupted.” But her character’s ambiguous sexual fluidity is so vaguely portrayed and relatively unexplored that most viewers might not even pick up on it.
In honor of Pride Month, I wanted to spotlight ten performances from LGBTQ+ actors that align with their sexuality or gender identity. They’re all remarkable performances that serve as proof positive of the benefits of accurate, representational casting.
Ariana DeBose – “The Prom”
Before winning an Academy Award for her passionate and energetic work in Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” Ariana DeBose made a splash in Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of another Broadway property – “The Prom.” And while the film is overall middling in execution and poorly directed, DeBose shines in the pivotal supporting role of Alyssa Greene. As the girlfriend of the central character Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), she nails her performance of the best song in the movie – “Alyssa Greene.” It’s a hurried, frustrated number about the typical pressures of adolescence that can be magnified and made even more stressful by living in the closet. Within the quick but powerful song, DeBose finds significant emotional levels, and her excellent vocals are able to overcome the trademark shoddy music production that Murphy has employed since “Glee.” In a cast full of Oscar, Emmy, and Tony winners, DeBose turns in the best work, which would prove to be but a preview of what she’s able to accomplish on screen.
“The Prom” is available to stream on Netflix
Robin de Jesús – “The Boys In The Band”
The film adaptation of the Tony-winning revival of Mart Crowley’s landmark gay play notably features a cast of completely openly gay actors. The ensemble comprises nine men, all performing at the top of their game, with notable work from Matt Bomer and Andrew Rannells. But the standout of the cast is Robin de Jesús as the flamboyant, vivacious Emory. A scene-stealer from his first nigh-camp line reading, de Jesús draws the camera’s attention at every moment, much like his spotlight-loving character. But buried underneath all the performative vibrancy is a soul wounded from, like so many gay men, the unrequited affections of a childhood companion. Emory details this memory that’s somehow both painful and beautiful in a heartfelt monologue, which de Jesús delivers with appropriate pathos while never sacrificing his bold character choices. After success on the Broadway stage, including three Tony nominations, “The Boys in the Band” proved to be a breakthrough screen performance for de Jesús. And after his impressive turn in last year’s “tick, tick…BOOM!” his star will hopefully continue to ascend.
“The Boys in the Band” is available to stream on Netflix
Cheryl Dunye – “The Watermelon Woman”
For her 1996 film “The Watermelon Woman,” Cheryl Dunye pulled triple duty by directing, writing, and starring in the landmark movie. Notably, she is generally considered to be the first Black lesbian to direct a feature film. Her film represents such a specific time in ’90s independent cinema and is one of the more entertaining movies on this list. It’s unapologetically and explicitly queer, so much so that the NEA restructured its grant distribution process after its partial funding of the film was called into question by conservatives. Dunye’s character, also named Cheryl, works at a video store while attempting to make a documentary about an unknown Black actress that she begins noticing in small roles in early Hollywood films. Through this project, she discusses the intersecting layers of race, sexuality, and the power of cinematic framing to distort our view of history. It’s a great ’90s throwback that’s eminently watchable while also engaging with the audience’s intellect.
“The Watermelon Woman” is available to stream on Showtime
Adèle Haenel – “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire”
Céline Sciamma’s masterpiece, “Portrait Of A Lady On Fire” is a gorgeously constructed work of art that delights the eye just as much as it simultaneously warms and tears at the soul. Adèle Haenel, a gay French actress, plays the pivotal role of Héloïse, a young woman who is dissatisfied with the forced-heterosexual path that her life is following. Upon meeting the painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who is tasked with creating a portrait of her, the two strike up a connection that moves from friendly to romantic. As Héloïse, Haenel is enigmatic and captivating, and her actions and behaviors that are carefully curated to keep others at a distance only invite Marianne, and the audience, closer. What follows is a lush, distinctly feminine journey through the passageways of romance and aesthetic beauty. Famously, the film concludes with a sequence that plays out entirely on Haenel’s face as she goes through a mixture of conflicting and varying emotions, all without dialogue. It’s an impactful performance that gives voice to the idea of artistic muses.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is available to stream on HULU
Nathan Lane – “The Birdcage”
After an array of smaller screen parts and Broadway triumphs, Nathan Lane had his breakout mainstream performance in “The Birdcage,” Mike Nichols’ adaptation of “La Cage Aux Folles.” With his expert direction and Elaine May’s exceptionally witty screenplay, every actor in this movie gets several iconic moments. But Lane is ultimately the scene-stealer among scene-stealers as the dramatically fabulous and fabulously dramatic Albert, better known to the art patrons of South Beach as his drag character Starina. While Lane is about as shriekingly broad as possible, his portrayal never teeters over into offensively stereotypical. This is one of the better examples of how casting a genuinely queer actor can add dimension and curtail clichés in a way that a straight actor might find more challenging. It’s a triumphant performance that the Academy famously snubbed, but its legacy lives on as a brilliant moment in Lane’s career, filled with practically nothing but high points.
“The Birdcage” is available to stream on HBO Max
Ian McKellen – “Gods and Monsters”
Notably, the only performance on this list of lauded work to be nominated for an Oscar, Ian McKellen, stars as openly gay film director James Whale. “Gods and Monsters” is a fictionalized account of the twilight of Whale’s life as he lives in retirement, long after directing his masterworks “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein.” McKellen brilliantly portrays Whale as a mischievous older man, fully aware of his abilities and station in life and consequently unafraid to be himself, especially with his knowledge that his end may be near. It’s a commanding performance that allows for the complexities of a character not always acting in the best interest of himself or others to be fully explored and not hastily written off. As the years go on, it’s become more and more apparent that the Academy truly missed an opportunity to reward a legend when they failed to give McKellen a well-earned Oscar for this mighty performance.
“Gods and Monsters” is available to stream on Roku
Sarah Paulson – “Carol”
Although it’s obviously a landmark entry in gay cinema, it’s worth pointing out that both the two actresses (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) in the doomed relationship at the center of “Carol” are straight in real life. And while they both turn in career-topping work, Sarah Paulson’s pivotal supporting turn is just as impressive. An openly queer actor, Paulson plays Abby, the friend and former flame of Blanchett’s titular character. While she doesn’t have much screen time, she makes a distinct impression, and her impact is felt even when she’s not seen. She’s often the voice of reason in a story about a romance that is both passionate and untenable. Paulson’s best work comes in a brief but tense stand-off with Carol’s husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). Her defiance and refusal to shrink herself stands as an inspiring moment that queer folk can point to as an ideal of steadfast, unapologetic queerness.
“Carol” is available to stream on Roku
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez – “Tangerine”
Sean Baker’s “Tangerine” is an energizing film that feels like the breathless, pulse-elevating buzz at the end of a long run. And it’s not just the beating soundtrack and zooming iPhone cinematography that keeps up this pace – Kitana Kiki Rodriguez’s unstoppable breakneck performance is the livewire shock that runs throughout the film. She’s hilariously unpredictable in her portrayal of Sin-Dee Rella, a transgender sex worker who has just been released from a month-long jail sentence. The film kicks off with her discovery that while she was away, her boyfriend/pimp Chester has been unfaithful. Without hesitating, she stomps her way into the frantic, frenetic plot of the film and rarely stops to allow herself or the audience to catch a breath. It’s attention-grabbing work in a film full of sensory overloads and rapid-fire filmmaking.
“Tangerine” is available to stream on Netflix & Prime Video
Mya Taylor – “Tangerine”
Conversely, Mya Taylor’s performance as Alexandra, Sin-Dee’s friend and fellow sex worker, is a more grounded and stabilizing factor of the unending sprint that is “Tangerine.” In fact, the film’s most memorable sequence occurs when the pace slows down and focuses on her performance of the song “Toyland” at a restaurant. It’s a surprisingly plaintive moment in a movie that is otherwise unceasingly bracing. Taylor’s work is undoubtedly the film’s heart, giving a humanistic edge to the plot’s raucous proceedings. Notably, she and Rodriguez were the center of the first-ever producer-backed Academy Award campaign for openly transgender actresses, and Taylor herself won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female. It’s undoubtedly a landmark performance that will go down in history both for its off-screen plaudits and on-screen impact.
“Tangerine” is available to stream on Netflix & Prime Video
Daniela Vega – “A Fantastic Woman”
The Chilean film “A Fantastic Woman” is an exercise in the camera’s ability to create and depict empathy. It’s sometimes both difficult to watch and empowering in its portrayal of the indignities and triumphs that Marina, a transgender woman, faces at a harrowing point in her life. As Marina, trans actress and singer Daniela Vega is, pardon the expression, fantastic. Most of the film centers around her and her journey as she attempts to reckon with the death of her older boyfriend and the hostility she faces from his surviving family. Vega is a powerful screen presence, delivering her lines with a forceful, unwavering quality that doesn’t allow the combative characters she finds herself confronted with to exploit any sort of weakness. She makes intense eye contact with her conversational foes and, in the film’s most notable moment, with the audience itself as she stares directly into the camera after a hallucinatory dance sequence. This instance wordlessly conveys the importance and necessity of visibility when it comes to the pursuit of societal equality. The role would be daunting for a performer of any experience level; the then-untested Vega takes it into her capable hands and makes it wholly her own.
“A Fantastic Woman” is available to rent
Do you agree with my picks? What are some of your favorite performances from LGBTQ+ actors that align with their sexuality or gender identity? Are you watching any LGBTQ+ films for Pride Month? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Cody and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @codymonster91