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Oscar announcement brings LGBT surprises

Some unfortunate omissions but some jewels

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Oscar viewing parties, gay news, Washington Blade

(Photo courtesy AMPAS)

The Oscar nominations for 2017 have been announced, and while there are, as usual, a few surprises as to who has been included and who has been left out, most savvy film aficionados will find the list of competitors a close match to their expectations.

It’s been an unusually rich year for “award bait” movies. In many (if not most) past Oscar races, there have been one or two clearly worthy front-runners and the rest of the crop has seemed like filler.

Even so, the Oscars have never been about quality alone; politics have always played a part in determining nominations and especially winners. In this year’s contest, not surprisingly in a cultural context rife with polarizing controversy, that observation may be truer than ever.

Categories that are traditionally all-male include women. Greta Gerwig received a nod for her direction of “Lady Bird” and “Mudbound” garnered a nomination for its cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, the first female to be so-recognized.

Black talent has also been acknowledged. Jordan Peele earned well-deserved (and pleasantly surprising) nominations for both directing and writing his brilliant blend of horror and social satire “Get Out,” which was also included as a Best Picture contender. That movie’s star, Daniel Kaluuya, is also a nominee for Best Actor as is Denzel Washington, for his work in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” a rare instance of two black performers included in the running for that prize.

The most obvious area of improvement this time out, however, is the amount of recognition the Academy has given to LGBT-themed movies and performances.

Most prominent, of course, is “Call Me By Your Name.” This gay coming-of-age story may have generated some controversy over the age gap between its two protagonists (especially after the revelations about Kevin Spacey’s long history of age-inappropriate sexual advances), but it overcame such concerns to become one of the best received and most recognized films of the year. Its nomination for Best Picture is no surprise, nor is its presence in the categories of Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, though its nod for Sufjan Stevens’ “Mystery of Love” in the Best Original Song category may have raised some eyebrows.

What’s disappointing and telling is the exclusion of co-star Armie Hammer (considered as a likely bet for a Best Supporting Actor bid) and, even more shocking, Luca Guadagnino for the Best Director prize. The latter snub seems particularly pointed, considering that Guadagnino is one of the film’s few openly gay contributors, underscoring the not-unfair criticism that, though “Call Me” is an LGBT-themed movie, its participants (including both lead actors) are straight.

On the other hand, James Ivory, who is also an out gay man, was nominated for his adaptation of André Aciman’s book; no stranger to Oscar attention (“A Room With A View,” “The Remains of the Day” and “Howard’s End”), he is considered a front-runner to take home the statuette.

Unfortunately for fans of Timothée Chalamet, his chances of a win are far less likely.  Though he grabbed some trophies early in this year’s awards season, he has since been eclipsed by Gary Oldman’s powerhouse turn as Winston Churchill in “The Darkest Hour,” which has dominated the Best Actor category at most of the recent ceremonies. Oldman is a well-loved performer who has been passed over several times for past work; on top of that, “Darkest Hour” proved its popularity among industry insiders by making a surprising show in the Oscar list, even grabbing an unexpected slot in the Best Picture roster. Both of those factors make it impossible to doubt that Chalamet, despite giving us one of the most unforgettable film performances in recent memory, will be going home empty-handed.

There are other LGBT-relevant films singled out in this year’s nominations.

Though not explicitly gay-themed, Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” does feature a tenderly handled subplot involving a gay character. That film is well-represented in the competition, and stands a reasonable chance of winning any of its nods for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Saorise Ronen) or Supporting Actress (Laurie Metcalf).

Likewise, Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” which leads the nomination tally with a total of 13, is not an LGBT movie but an exploration of “otherness” in a world dominated by straight, white, cis-gendered male identity. It also prominently features a gay character, an older commercial artist whose happiness is blocked at every turn by homophobia and the psychology of the closet, played by actor Richard Jenkins. 

For his likable performance, he has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor; like Chalamet, though, his chances are overshadowed by a powerhouse front-runner — Sam Rockwell, whose work as an evolving racist cop in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is considered the clear favorite for the win.

Finally, in the category of Best Foreign Language Film, the Chilean/German co-production, “A Fantastic Woman,” secured a nomination. The story of a transgender woman fighting transphobia for the right to mourn after the death of her lover, it should also have gotten recognition for its star, trans actress Daniela Vega, who gave one of the strongest performances of the year, by any standard. As a foreign performer, and a relatively inexperienced and unknown one, she didn’t stand much of a chance. But the Academy missed a chance to show support and solidarity with the trans community by giving her a nod. Even so, the film’s nomination is a major step, although the omission of “BPM (Beats per Minute)” within the same category, is a disappointment.

It’s too early in the race to make predictions. Though “Three Billboards” is currently considered the favorite to win (along with its star Frances McDormand and the previously mentioned Rockwell), controversy over its handling of racist themes (as well as some critical backlash over the contrivances of its story) may lower its chances as the big night draws nearer and “Shape of Water” made such a strong showing in the nominations that its popularity among Academy voters is impossible to ignore.

Even given such causes for doubt, however, it seems certain that Oscar will not be duplicating the triumphant validation it delivered for queer awareness with last year’s selection of “Moonlight” for Best Picture.

This year, it looks like the LGBT community will be an also-ran.

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Movies

‘Cured’ beautifully chronicles fight for dignity

New doc revisits APA designation of homosexuality as a sickness

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Disguised as ‘Dr. H. Anonymous’ in an oversized tuxedo and distorted Nixon mask, Dr. John Fryer sent shock waves through the APA’s 1972 convention. (Photo by Kay Tobin; courtesy Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library)

At the 1970 American Psychiatric Association convention, in front of 10,000 professional members, LGBTQ activists had a single rejoinder to decades of APA designation of homosexuality as a sickness in need of treatment: “There is no ‘cure’ for that which is not a disease.” It marked the first direct clash with a psychiatric profession that had classified homosexuality as a mental disorder and advised everything from talk therapy to psychologically destructive shock therapy to “cure” homosexuality. 

After Stonewall, gay activists concluded that the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness by the APA would hold back the advancement of the gay rights movement. To secure equality, activists knew they had to debunk the idea that they are sick. 

The struggle to remove homosexuality from the APA’s definition of mental illness is beautifully chronicled in the forthcoming documentary “Cured” — beautifully because the filmmakers contrast erroneous characterizations of homosexuality by mid-century psychiatrists with mid-century photographs that bore witness to gay people’s actual nature. 

Getting the APA to change required more than storming conferences. Gay activists, for instance, pinpointed sympathetic young psychiatrists who could act to reform the APA from within and helped them win seats on the Board of Trustees. Meanwhile, the culture was changing. In the 1970s, gay visibility was growing, which boosted the campaign to end the sickness label. 

At its 1972 convention, the APA offered a platform to gay rights activists Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings. The duo invited Dr. John Fryer to testify about what it was like to be a gay psychiatrist. Fearing damage to his reputation (he had previously lost a position for being gay), Fryer donned a mask and adopted the title H. Anonymous. Despite his cloaked persona, his testimony was, in the words of one attendee, a “game-changer.” 

Fryer spoke as a gay man with “real flesh and blood stand[ing] up before this organization and ask[ing] to be listened to” and evoked the great emotional toll of being forced to live in the closet — “this is the greatest loss: our honest humanity.” The tide was turning but the intransigent faction needed a few more kicks. Representing a new generation of psychiatrists, Dr. Charles Silverstein would lay down the gauntlet: The APA could either continue to promote “undocumented theories that have unjustly harmed a great number of people” or accept the genuine science that being gay was no illness. At the next year’s convention, in a final clash between opposing sides, Gay Activist Alliance member Ronald Gold pointed out the absurdity that a medical practice predicated on making sick people well was making “gay people sick.” The APA ended its mental illness classification in 1974. 

“Cured” represents a growing awareness of the history of “curing” homosexuality. Netflix recently premiered “Pray Away” about the so-called “ex-gays” who promoted conversion therapy, the destructive practice by fundamentalist Christian quacks. The film “Boy Erased” (2018) took a similar sledgehammer to conversion therapy. 

Precisely because of the long-term ill-effects of stigmatizing gay consciousness, the LGBTQ community has in recent years targeted conversion therapy. Twenty states have banned conversion therapy for minors, and an additional five states have enacted partial bans. 

Although thoroughly discredited by medical professionals, including the APA, conversion therapy continues to harm thousands of youths each year. While “Cured” is instructive for LGBTQ activists combatting conversion therapy nationwide, it has an even more important lesson. 

“There isn’t anything wrong with them, so there can’t be anything wrong with me,” is how one gay man remembers feeling upon entering a gay bar, witnessing convivial gay men and realizing it was time to ditch his homophobic shrink and embrace himself. 

It struck a deep chord with me because I had a similar epiphany as a young man. Feeling my way around my sexuality as a grad student in New York, it all finally came together one night at a Greenwich bar as I sat across from two gay men and chatted about traveling and career ambitions. I am doing nothing wrong, I thought. It made no sense to be afraid of living my life as a gay man.

Our determination to live openly remains a potent inspiration for those still struggling with acceptance, and the strongest rebuke of those who would seek to erase us. 

“Cured” premieres on PBS on Oct. 11. 

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Books

A bisexual coming-of-age tale with heart

‘Things We Couldn’t Say’ offers pleasant surprises

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(Book cover image courtesy of Scholastic)

‘Things We Couldn’t Say’
By Jay Coles
c.2021, Scholastic $18.99/320 pages

You’d like an explanation, please.

Why something is done or not, why permission is denied, you’d like to hear a simple reason. You’ve been asking “Why?” since you were two years old but now the older you get, the more urgent is the need to know – although, in the new book “Things We Couldn’t Say” by Jay Coles, there could be a dozen becauses.

Sometimes, mostly when he didn’t need it to happen, Giovanni Zucker’s birth mother took over his thoughts.

It wasn’t as though she was the only thing he had to think about. Gio was an important part of the basketball team at Ben Davis High School; in fact, when he thought about college, he hoped for a basketball scholarship. He had classes to study for, two best friends he wanted to hang out with, a little brother who was his reason to get up in the morning, and a father who was always pushing for help at the church he ran. As for his romantic life, there wasn’t much to report: Gio dated girls and he’d dated guys and he was kinda feeling like he liked guys more.

So no, he didn’t want to think about his birth mother. The woman who walked out on the family when Gio was a little kid didn’t deserve his consideration at all. There was just no time for the first woman who broke his heart.

It was nice to have distractions from his thoughts. Gio’s best friends had his back. He knew pretty much everybody in his Indianapolis neighborhood. And the guy who moved across the street, a fellow b-baller named David, was becoming a good friend.

A very good friend. David was bisexual, too.

But just as their relationship was beginning, the unthinkable happened: Gio’s birth mother reached out, emailed him, wanted to meet with him, and he was torn. She said she had “reasons” for abandoning him all those years ago, and her truth was not what he’d imagined.

There are a lot of pleasant surprises inside “Things We Couldn’t Say.”

From the start, author Jay Coles gives his main character a great support system, and that’s a uniquely good thing. Gio enjoys the company of people who want the best for him, and it’s refreshing that even the ones who are villains do heroic things.

Everyone in this book, in fact, has heart, and that softens the drama that Coles adds – which leads to another nice surprise: there’s no overload of screeching drama here. Overwrought teen conflict is all but absent; even potential angsts that Gio might notice in his urban neighborhood are mentioned but not belabored. This helps keep readers focused on a fine, relatable, and very realistic coming-of-age story line.

This book is aimed at readers ages 12-and-up, but beware that there are a few gently explicit, but responsibly written, pages that might not be appropriate for kids in the lower target range. For older kids and adults, though, “Things We Couldn’t Say” offers plenty of reasons to love it.

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Television

Father & Trans son musical duo make history on NBC’s ‘The Voice’

“I do have a special connection to the concept of a Blind Audition where the only thing that matters is the art and who the person is inside”

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Jim and Sasha Allen performing on NBC's The Voice, Sept. 21, 2021 (Screenshot via NBC)

BURBANK – The unique folksy blend of the voices in a sweet rendition of the John Denver classic song “Leaving on a Jet Plane” this week on NBC’s The Voice, caused celebrity judges Kelly Clarkson and Ariana Grande to mash their buttons and turn their chairs around and face the performance.

Unbeknownst to the entire panel of judges, which also includes John Legend and Blake Shelton, they were witnessing a bit of history for the reality musical talent search television show. On stage was 57-year-old music teacher Jim Allen and his son Sasha- the moment was groundbreaking as the 19-year-old teen singer is a Trans male.

In the pre-performance video profile, the younger Allen reflected “I do have a special connection to the concept of a Blind Audition, where the only thing that matters is the art and who the person is inside.” Allen went on to detail more of his background; “I was born female, and I never felt comfortable, and it ate away at me the more I grew up.”

The pair from Newtown, Connecticut have an obvious deep bond. Referring to his kid, the elder Allen said: ““It’s a parent’s job to listen to your child, even when it’s hard to understand them,” he then added. “And that brought forth extreme sadness at not having understood what he had been going through for years. […] While it is such a big and extraordinary thing to absorb, there are fundamental things that don’t change about a person. And it’s nice to be at that point where, you know, it’s not a big deal.”

Jim and Sasha Allen (Screenshot via NBC)

“I remember at night just laying in bed and thinking, ‘If I could just wake up as a completely different person, I would do it. I would give up everything I have to be able to live in peace and live comfortably without being tormented internally.’ I used to write in notebooks, ‘I feel like a boy. I want this so bad.’ And I’d shred it up into such tiny pieces, because I was so scared for anybody to know,” the younger Allen shared.

“The only way to feel like me was to transition to male. I dealt with a lot of hateful comments, whether it was from my classmates or from teachers. I wouldn’t have been able to get through high school without music and without art to express what I was going through,” he said.

Duo Jim and Sasha Allen Sing John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” | The Voice Blind Auditions 2021:

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