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The evolution of sexual tolerance in film and film awards from 1930 to 2016

By D.R

Sexual innuendo has always been present in film, but the evolution of what's considered risqué in terms of photography, subject or worthy of award recognition has drastically changed throughout the years. If we go back to the earliest years of cinema in the pre-code Hollywood days -- circa 1930 -- movies did actually contain a minor level of sexual tolerance.

A stand out in the 1930's film era was Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich a German-American, was not only famous because she was one of the highest-paid actresses at the time, but also because she was bisexual in real life. While Dietrich's on-screen roles involved romances with men, in one of her most famous roles in the film Morocco -- which earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress in 1932 -- she appears wearing a Tuxedo and kissing a woman.

Morocco 1930 film with Marlene Dietrich Tuxedo and kissing scene

Queen Christina 1933 film with Greta Garbo dabbling about marriage and kissing scene

Also in the 1930's, the Swedish film actress Greta Garbo who went on to have an illustrious career with three Oscar nominations for Best Actress in conventional roles, appeared in a somewhat unconventional film with limited exposure. In Queen Christina, Garbo stars as Queen Christina of Sweden, a monarch from 1632 who modern biographers generally consider to have been a lesbian due to her noted affairs with women during her lifetime. The film though dances around this fact, with some limited masculine demeanors and the kissing of a woman by Garbo, as can be seen toward the end of the previous clip.

But while Dietrich and Garbo rose to stardom and gained awards for their performances in more conventional roles. More unconventional subjects that required roles with explicit acting mostly remained secondary to the main movie plots and the films themselves went mostly unrecognized in terms of awards.

Our Betters 1933 film with Ernest as a dance instructor

Ladies They Talk About 1933 film set in a women's prison

In the film Our Betters from 1933 the British actor Tyrell Davis plays the role of Ernest the dance instructor, which as you can appreciate in the previous clip appears overrefined and only for a couple of minutes in the entire 83 minute film. In terms of award recognition Our Betters didn't amount to much and while Davis himself went on to appear in over a dozen films of his era, he only portrayed this type character in this one film.

Also from 1933, the film Ladies They Talk About takes place mainly in a women's prison, but aside from a few scuffles between women and masculine posturing as you can see in the previous clip, there's nothing much there in terms of risqué scenes or topics. In fact, in Ladies They Talk About the main character played by Barbara Stanwyck which lands in prison, is a woman that's in love with Preston Taylor and towards the end of the film they plan to marry. Interestingly, Ladies They Talk About just became a line item on Stanwyck's & Taylor's filmographies in both their extensive careers. Stanwyck went on to star in other films and receive an Oscar nomination for best actress in the 1948 thriller Sorry, Wrong Number and Taylor received other roles in important films, such as The Informer which was nominated for best picture at the 1936 Oscars.

In 1934 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) led by Will Hays led a major crackdown, dubbed: Motion Picture Production Code. The production code spelled out what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States. Although the actual production code was created in 1930, it began to be strictly enforced until 1934.

The production code was an extensive crackdown on not just sexual themes in movies, but also topics like crime, politics, social problems, comedy and even cartoons. But in terms of sexual tolerance, it went to the extent to 'eliminate all "nance" characters from screenplays' -- as stated in the book "Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930--1934" by Thomas Patrick Doherty.

The film industry followed the guidelines set by the production code well into the late 1950s, but starting in the 1950's the code began to weaken due to the combined impact of television, influence from foreign films, directors pushing the envelope, and intervention from the courts. This is why in 1951, the film Caged set in a women's prison jumped onto the screen and received three Oscar nominations. However, although Caged is set in a women's prison and with it has lesbian characters, the lead character played by Eleanor Parker -- which got her the Oscar nomination for best actress -- arrives at the prison pregnant and much of the plot revolves around her pregnancy and life in prison.

Caged 1951 film set in women's prison with lesbian characters

Gore Vidal screenwriter for Ben-Hur 1959 film on homosexual subtext

Toward the end of the 1950's, a series of other films appeared with what Hollywood called "subtext". One of the most widely awarded films of 1959 Ben-Hur which received four Oscars including best picture, director, lead actor and supporting actor, contains homosexual "subtext". Because "subtext" involves subtle gestures or wording, it can be subject to interpretation. But in the case of Ben-Hur, one of its screenwriters -- Gore Vidal -- has gone on the record about this topic as you can see in the previous video which also includes isolated gestures and wording from the film itself that sheds light on this fact.

More movies followed in the 1960's with the same "subtext", although more disputed given their epic nature. Films such as Spartacus which got an Oscar nomination for a supporting role in 1961 and Lawrence of Arabia which won the Oscar in 1963 for best picture and director, are both said to contain homosexual "subtext".

In 1968, after several years of minimal enforcement, the Production Code was replaced by what is still in use today which is the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film rating system (e.g. Film ratings such a G, PG, R). Ushering in this new era in terms of sexual tolerance was the film Midnight Cowboy which won the 1970 Oscars for best picture, director and adapted screenplay. Midnight Cowboy focuses on the subject of prostitution, although the main male character initially intends to sell himself to women, circumstances force him to sell his services to other males.

Throughout the 1970's more sexual tolerant films appeared and received awards, although it was characteristic for such films to explore such sexual topics in an indirect manner and through fortuitous circumstances. Just as Midnight Cowboy's character initially sets out to cater women clientele, but is forced to take on male clientele, many other films followed a similar technique to present viewers with more risqué scenes or topics.

Deliverance 1972 film trailer

Midnight Express 1978 film trailer

Deliverance which received two Oscar nominations for best picture and director in 1973, portrays a vivid male-on-male sexual assault, but which is intertwined along with the sadistic and inbred nature of the characters. Midnight Express which received four Oscar nominations -- including best picture -- and won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, also contains a male-to-male love scene, but which is also mixed into the gritty and desperate environment after years of living in a Turkish prison.

It wasn't until 1980 that the French film La Cage aux Folles about a conspicuously gay couple received three Oscar nominations for best director, adapted screenplay and costume design, albeit it did not win in any category.

La Cage aux Folles 1978 French film trailer

La Cage aux Folles behaving as straight men

The 1983 Oscars progressed toward honoring two films centered on cross-dressers: Tootsie and Victor/Victoria. Tootsie centered on a cross-dresser played by Dustin Hoffman which received six Oscar nominations -- including best picture -- and landed Jessica Lange an Oscar for best supporting actress. Victor/Victoria centered on a male/female impersonator played by Julie Andrews and received four Oscar nominations -- including the best actress nomination for Andrews.

Tootsie 1982 film trailer

Victor/Victoria 1982 film trailer

But as significant as both films were at the time, they both maintained the same subtle approach to sexual tolerance as 1970's films. Both films portrayed cross-dressing but as a means for career advancement. Hoffman cross-dressed due to circumstances needed to re-invent his career as an actor and eventually falls in love with his Jessica Lange. Where as Julie Andrews similarly adopts the personas of Victor/Victoria to get ahead.

Moving along through to 1980's, 1986 was the year Kiss of the Spider Woman received four Oscar nominations -- including best picture -- and also landed William Hurt an Oscar for best actor for his role as a homosexual with a criminal element -- a first of many films that would combine crime with sexuality.

In 1993 The Crying Game received five Oscar nominations -- including best picture -- and became one of the first recognized films to include a transgender in its plot. Even though The Crying Game's main theme is an IRA (Irish Republican Army) terrorist thriller-drama, the transgender revelation is one of the most recognized movie twists in film, which landed Jaye Davidson the 1993 Oscar nomination as a supporting actor for his transgender role as 'Dil'.

Also in 1993 Philadelphia broke new ground with Tom Hanks winning the Oscar for best actor for his role as a homosexual lawyer with HIV. Albeit Philadelphia strongly focuses on more tragic circumstances -- injustice and discrimination -- due to sexual demeanors, it undoubtedly marked a milestone as the first film with a non-heterosexual lead character to receive such an award.

Kiss of the Spider Woman 1986 film trailer

Philadelphia 1993 film clip in court

Throughout the 1990's and early 2000's the characterization of movies pushing the boundaries of sexual tolerance continued along the same lines, with either subtle sexual undertones, criminal elements associated with sexuality or tragic causalities brought on by sexuality.

Fried Green Tomatoes received two Oscar nominations in 1992 and relied on "subtext" to imply the lesbian romance between the two central characters, unlike the novel that portrays an explicit romance between the lead characters. Gosford Park was another film that received five Oscar nominations in 2002 -- winning best original screenplay -- taking a subtle look at sexual issues in the 1930's and implying a relationship between two men. The Hours received six Oscar nominations in 2003 -- including best picture -- and landed Nicole Kidman the Oscar for best actress in her role as Virginia Woolf -- a bisexual in real life, but which the film doesn't make a point about -- although the film does portray the life of a lesbian couple raising a daughter, as well as a married woman that struggles with her sexuality.

The Hours 2002 film clip with Julianne Moore kissing scene

Goodbye Horses by Q Lazzarus song from Silence of the Lambs famous for Buffalo Bill dancing scene

The Silence of the Lambs won 5 Oscars in 1992 -- including best picture and director -- with one of the film's villains 'Buffalo Bill' portrayed as a bisexual/transsexual serial killer who in one scene prances around in garb to the tune of Goodbye Horses by Q Lazzarus. In 2004 the film Monster won Charlize Theron the Oscar for best actress playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who in real-life was a prostitute that killed six men and had a girlfriend.

In 1999 Gods and Monsters received 3 Oscars nominations, recounting the last days of the life of troubled film director James Whale who was found dead in his pool and was also openly gay. Gods and Monsters ended up winning the Oscar for best adapted screenplay and earned Ian McKellen the nomination for lead actor for playing Whale and it landed Lynn Redgrave the nomination for best supporting actress. And in 2007, the film Notes on a Scandal which portrayed a teacher-pupil lesbian love affair, earned both Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett Oscar nominations for lead and supporting roles, respectively.

In 2000, the film Boys Don't Cry landed Hilary Swank an Oscar for lead actress portraying Brandon Teena, who in real-life was beaten and murdered by his male acquaintances after they discovered he was a transgender. Then in 2006 Transamerica earned Felicity Huffman an Oscar nomination for best actress for portraying a transgender woman who goes on a road trip with her long-lost son.

2006 marked another milestone because it was the year that not one, but two films, with openly non-heterosexual lead characters were nominated for best picture at the Oscars. Brokeback Mountain received six Oscar nominations in total and won the Oscar for best director and adapted screenplay, portraying the affair of two cowboys over the course of 20 years. Capote received five Oscar nominations and won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar for his performance as the lead actor playing the novelist Truman Capote who was openly homosexual.

Brokeback Mountain 2005 film trailer

Capote 2005 film clip

In 2007 Little Miss Sunshine received four Oscar nominations -- including best picture. And while Little Miss Sunshine is more of a dark comedy, the narrative is interesting because it portrays Steve Carell as a scholar and homosexual -- temporarily living at home with the family after having attempted suicide -- in the context of a broader family (husband, wife, son, daughter, grandfather) with each member having his own troubles and disfunctions.

For 2009 the academy awards gave one of the biggest nods of approval to the film Milk. Milk focused on the life of politician Harvey Milk who became one of the first openly gay elected officials. Milk was nominated for five Oscars -- including best picture and director -- and earned Sean Penn an Oscar for playing the lead role as Harvey Milk. In 2012 the film Albert Nobbs received three Oscar nominations, with Glenn Close receiving the Oscar nomination for best actress portraying a woman living as a man in 19th-century Ireland.

In more recent times, the 2013 film Blue is the warmest Colour about two teenage girls coming of age received wide acclaim. Even though Blue is the warmest Colour has extremely graphic lesbian sex scenes, it was honored at the 2013 Cannes film festival with the Palm d'Or -- one of the oldest and most respected awards of international film festivals. Blue is the warmest Colour was also nominated for best foreign film at the 2014 Oscars.

In the made for TV film segment, the 2013 film Behind the Candelabra received numerous awards for the dramatization of the last ten years in the life of pianist Liberace and the relationship he had with Scott Thorson. Behind the Candelabra won both the Golden Globe and Emmy in the made for TV movie category, as well as lead actor in a TV movie category won by Michael Douglas who played Liberace. Also in the made for TV film segment, the 2014 film The Normal Heart received multiple Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, winning the Emmy in the made for TV movie category and landing Matt Bomer a Golden Globe for supporting actor in this film about the rise of the HIV-AIDS crisis in New York City among gay people between 1981 and 1984.

Behind the Candelabra 2013 TV film trailer

The Normal Heart 2014 TV film trailer

Finally, closing out the field we come to two 2015 films which are looking extremely promising for the 2016 Oscars: Carol and The Danish Girl. Carol portrays a love affair between two women played by Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in 1950's New York. Carol has already been honored at the 2015 Cannes film festival in the main competition field with Rooney Mara receiving the best actress award, in addition, the film has also received multiple Golden Globe nominations -- which are often a good indicator for Oscar contention -- in the categories of best film, best director and two best actress nominations for both Mara and Blanchett. Where as the The Danish Girl is a film set in 1920 which portrays the life of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to undergo sex reassignment surgery. So far The Danish Girl has received two important nominations for a Golden Globe, a nomination for Eddie Redmayne as the lead actor playing Lili Elbe and the other nomination for Alicia Vikander playing Gerda Wegener as Elbe's couple.

Carol 2015 film trailer

The Danish Girl 2015 film trailer

As you can likely take away from the complete list, the film industry along with award committees have come a long way from the start of the 1930's and some 85 years later to present and recognize increasingly more real and explicit themes associated with sexual tolerance. It's in fact somewhat ironic that two films that just came out in 2015 are based on a 1950's novel and a 1920's person that actually existed, eras in which it would have been unthinkable to either make a film about such topics, much less recognize them with an award. Indeed, film and film awards have evolved in terms of sexual tolerance.