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More Queer women in film but no trans, limited screen time says GLAAD

This year’s report found a decrease in bisexual representation, and an increase in lesbian representation but no trans again for 4th year.

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NEW YORK – GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, has released its ninth annual Studio Responsibility Index (SRI), a study that maps the quantity, quality, and diversity of LGBTQ characters in films released by the eight major film studios.

Due to the unique disruption to theatrical releases in the U.S. in 2020 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, GLAAD chose to center its analysis on the eight film studios that had the highest theatrical grosses from films released in 2019 as the last standard full year, as reported by the box office database Box Office Mojo.

These studios were Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, STX Films, United Artists Releasing, Universal Pictures, The Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Bros.

GLAAD found that of the 44 films released from major studios in 2020, ten (22.7 percent) contained LGBTQ characters including Like a Boss, The Broken Hearts Gallery, Fantasy Island, Valley Girl, Freaky, The New Mutants, and Birds of Prey. This is an increase of 4.1 percent, but a decrease of 12 films from last year’s 18.6 percent (22 out of 118 films). The limited number of films released theatrically in 2020 is a direct result and consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down several theaters in the U.S. and globally for large portions of the year.

GLAAD counted 20 LGBTQ characters among all major studio theatrical releases in 2020, a decrease from 50 characters in last year’s report. This decrease is once again largely due to the much-reduced sample size of films released in 2020. Of the 20 LGBTQ characters, 11 are women and 9 are men, making this the first time in the SRI’s history that queer women characters outnumber the men. 

For the fourth year in a row, there were zero transgender and/or non-binary characters counted in the major studio films released. GLAAD’s call for increased transgender and non-binary representation and storytelling, especially in a political climate with anti-transgender legislation moving forward at a record pace, remains.

The racial diversity of LGBTQ characters saw a welcome increase in this year’s findings. Of the 20 LGBTQ characters counted, 40 percent (or 8 characters) were characters of color, an increase of six percent from 2019, though a decrease of nine characters. This is still 17 percent lower than the record high of 57 percent characters of color in 2017. Of the 20 LGBTQ characters, eleven (55 percent) were white, three (15 percent) were Asian-Pacific Islander, two (10 percent) were Black, two (10 percent) were Latinx, and one (5 percent) was Indigenous. One character (5 percent) was a non-human appearing alien in Onward.

There was a significant increase in the screen time of LGBTQ characters found in major studio releases in 2020. Half of LGBTQ characters (10 out of 20) registered ten minutes or more of screen time. Six of the 20 characters (or 30 percent) logged under one minute. While some films like The New Mutants, Freaky, Fantasy Island, and The Broken Hearts Gallery used that expanded screen time to tell more developed or nuanced queer stories, often with more than one queer character, more time did not equate to quality across the board. For example, The Gentleman and Buddy Games both registered more than ten minutes but with characters that were stereotypical and which elicited negative reactions from many LGBTQ viewers. There remains a huge opportunity for meaningful LGBTQ storytelling and for unambiguously marketing and promotion.

This year’s report found a decrease in bisexual representation, and an increase in lesbian representation. Of the ten LGBTQ-inclusive films released in 2020, five films (50 percent) contained a lesbian character, up from last year’s 36 percent, but still a decrease from the 55 percent of films with lesbian characters in 2018. Representation of gay men decreased from 68 percent to 60 percent (six films) this year, while bisexual characters decreased from 14 percent to 10 percent (only one film contained a bi+ character).

Of the 20 LGBTQ characters in this report, GLAAD found zero characters living with HIV and also zero LGBTQ characters with a disability. GLAAD began counting LGBTQ characters with disabilities in its 2020 Studio Responsibility Index, and only tallied one character in a 2019 film.

Based on the quality, quantity, and diversity of LGBTQ representation in the studios’ slate, GLAAD has previously assigned a grade to each major studio: Excellent, Good, Insufficient, Poor, or Failing. However, due to the unique and unforeseeable halt of theater operations for a majority of 2020, GLAAD suspended assigning each studio a grade in this year’s report due to circumstances outside of their control. GLAAD plans to resume its grading scale in the next study.

“This is a critical time of transformation for Hollywood – challenged to redefine business lines and practices during a global pandemic, driven by an increased demand from consumers hungry for new content, and rocked by the rightful reckoning and pressure for these studios to create more meaningful substantive change in representing and investing in marginalized communities,” said GLAAD President & CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. “This transformation represents a great opportunity to swiftly accelerate acceptance of LGBTQ stories, break new ground, and invest in queer and trans talent and stories that audiences are eager to watch. Hollywood and the business of storytelling must be more nimble, more creative, more open than ever before.”

In the past year, GLAAD challenged the TV industry to introduce new regular and recurring LGBTQ characters living with HIV in order to combat stigma. Now, GLAAD is similarly challenging Hollywood studios. GLAAD is calling on the distributors tracked in this report to urgently prioritize active development and theatrical release in coming years of stories featuring LGBTQ characters living with HIV. In 2020, GLAAD’s The State of HIV Stigma survey found that nearly nine in ten Americans believe “there is still stigma around HIV,” which is keeping progress back. Approximately 1.2 million Americans and about 38 million people globally are living with HIV. 

Three years ago, GLAAD issued a challenge to the film industry that 20 percent of annual major studios releases must include LGBTQ characters by the end of 2021, and that 50 percent include LGBTQ characters by the end of 2024. In GLAAD’s 2019-20 Where We Are on TV study, GLAAD challenged the TV industry to ensure that within the next two years, half of LGBTQ characters tracked are also people of color. At that time, only broadcast scripted primetime series had achieved that goal. In a single year, cable met and surpassed that challenge and broadcast continued to exceed this benchmark for the third year in a row GLAAD found in its most recent Where We Are on TV study. Last year, GLAAD extended that challenge to the film industry as well.

“We know that LGBTQ audiences are a powerful and invested audience – and a quickly growing one – as we see more and more people empowered to live their authentic lives. The power, passion, and growth of LGBTQ audiences proves that if studios wish to be successful in retaining and expanding fans, they must tell meaningful queer and trans stories,” said Megan Townsend, GLAAD’s Director of Entertainment Research & Analysis. “Nielsen reports that LGBTQ audiences are key box office drivers, heavy streaming users, and set the social conversation. As the industry looks towards a changing future, it is clear that LGBTQ characters need to be part of stories across all platforms of distribution, and prioritizing offering fan engagement experiences provides even greater opportunity for representation and inclusion. Sincerely engaging LGBTQ audiences can only benefit the studio’s bottom lines.”

GLAAD’s Studio Responsibility Index assesses films based on GLAAD’s “Vito Russo Test,” a set of criteria analyzing how LGBTQ characters are situated in a narrative. Named after GLAAD co-founder and celebrated film historian Vito Russo, and partly inspired by the “Bechdel Test,” these criteria represent an expectation and standard, providing a roadmap for a greater number of mainstream Hollywood films to reach and surpass. However, as several films tracked prove, passing this test does not guarantee that a film is free of problems, offensive in its portrayals or tropes in films where an LGBTQ character may be tied to the film’s plot, but whose stories were objectionable. Passing the Vito Russo Test is a first step, rather than the finish line.

For a film to pass the Vito Russo Test, the following must be true:

  1. The film contains a character that is identifiably lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ).
  2. That character must not be solely or predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity (i.e. the character is comprised of the same sort of unique character traits commonly used to differentiate straight or non-transgender characters from one another).
  3. The LGBTQ character must be tied into the plot in such a way that their removal would have a significant effect. Meaning they are not there to simply provide colorful commentary, paint urban authenticity, or (perhaps most commonly) set up a punchline. The character should matter.

GLAAD’s 2021 Studio Responsibility Index found that 90 percent of LGBTQ-inclusive films (9 of 10) released in 2020 passed the Vito Russo Test, which is the highest percentage recorded in the report’s history, or 20 percent of 44 total films. However, this finding again must be understood in the context of a much-reduced sample size of films released theatrically in the U.S. in 2020.

For the full report, visit: www.glaad.org/sri.

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Laverne Cox Dives into the Uglies World

Cox is the latest cast member to be announced, although exactly which role she plays is still a guarded secret

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Laverne Cox via Netflix

BURBANK – Imagine a world where at 16, you were forced into an operation that made you conventionally “pretty” along with the rest of the humans in the world.  That is the theme of the new Netflix film Uglies, based on the international best-selling dystopian fantasy novel by Scott Westerfeld.

Laverne Cox is the latest cast member to be announced, although exactly which role she plays is still a guarded secret. Joey King, Brianne Tju, Keith Powers and Chase Stokes were previously announced.

Whatever role Cox plays, her participation stays consistent with her brand of finding one’s authenticity and fighting to live as their truest self.  

Amazon describes the novel’s plot, of which the film is based as: “Tally is about to turn sixteen, and she can’t wait. In just a few weeks she’ll have the operation that will turn her from a repellent ugly into a stunningly attractive pretty. And as a pretty, she’ll be catapulted into a high-tech paradise where her only job is to have fun. But Tally’s new friend Shay isn’t sure she wants to become a pretty. When Shay runs away, Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world—and it isn’t very pretty. The authorities offer Tally a choice: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all. Tally’s choice will change her world forever.”

Of the casting, Cox posted on her Instagram, “I feel so blessed to be an artist hopefully getting better at my craft, certainly working hard to do so. What a privilege this film is, based on a powerful young adult book series by @scott_westerfeld!! What a privilege to work with such incredibly talented and committed young actors and @mcgfilm, our incredible director, oh McG you’re just incredible. Stay tuned!”

Cox will also star in the upcoming Netflix series Inventing Anna. Shonda Rhimes and her Shondaland partner, Betsy Beers, are executive producing that 10 episode series.  It is based on a true story in which a grifter faked being an heiress and fooled New York’s high society with her scam.

Uglies will be directed by McG, and has producers John Davis and Jordan Davis for Davis Entertainment Company; Robyn Mesinger for Anonymous Content; Dan Spilo for Industry Entertainment; and McG and Mary Viola for Wonderland at the helm.  Joey King, Jamie King, Scott Westerfeld, John Fox are executive producing.

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Verhoeven returns with subversive tale of lesbian nun in ‘Benedetta’

Period drama delivers sex, violence, and horrors of the Black Death

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Daphne Patakia and Virginie Efira in ‘Benedetta.’ (Photo courtesy IFC Films)

There was a time when Paul Verhoeven was a big deal in Hollywood.

The Dutch filmmaker first attracted international attention during an early career in his homeland, with critically acclaimed movies like “Turkish Delight” and “Soldier of Orange,” which found an audience outside of the Netherlands and brought him greater opportunities in America, Once here, he adapted his style to fit a more commercial mold and forged a niche for himself with violent, action-packed sci-fi blockbusters, scoring major hits with “Robocop” and “Total Recall” before reaching a pinnacle with “Basic Instinct” – arguably still his most influential and iconic film.

Then came “Showgirls.” Although the Joe Eszterhas-scripted stripper drama is now revered as a “so-bad-it’s-great” cult classic, it was a box office bomb on its initial release, and its failure, coupled with the less-spectacular but equally definitive flopping of his next film, “Starship Troopers,” effectively put an end to his climb up the Hollywood ladder.

That was not, however, the end of his story. Verhoeven moved back to his native country (where he was hailed as a returning hero) and rebounded with the critically lauded “Black Book” before spending the next two decades developing and producing new projects with other filmmakers. In 2016, he assumed the director’s seat again, this time in France, and the resulting work (“Elle”) put him once more into the international spotlight.

Now, he’s back with another French film, and fans of his signature style – a blend of social satire, psycho-sexual themes, graphic violence, and near-exploitation-level erotic imagery that has prompted some commentators to label him as a provocateur – have every reason to be excited.

“Benedetta,” which receives its long-delayed (due to COVID) release in the U.S. on Dec. 3, is the real-life story of a Renaissance-era Italian nun (Virginie Efira), whose passionate devotion to her faith  – and especially to Jesus – sparks disturbing and dramatic visions. When young novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) enters the convent and is assigned to her as a companion, it awakens a different kind of passion, and as their secret relationship escalates, so too do her miraculous episodes, which expand to include the physical manifestation of stigmata. Soon, despite the skepticism of the Mother Abbess (Charlotte Rampling), she finds herself heralded as a prophet by the other sisters and the local community, leading to controversy, investigation, and a power struggle that threatens the authority of the church itself.

Inspired by “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy,” Judith C. Brown’s biography of the real Sister Benedetta, Verhoeven’s latest work is perhaps his most quintessential to date. In his screenplay (co-written with “Elle” collaborator David Birke), the Dutch auteur – who is also a widely recognized, if controversial, religious scholar – gives free reign to his now-familiar obsessions, weaving them all together into a sumptuously realized period drama that delivers copious amounts of nudity and sex, bloody violence, and the horrors of the Black Death while exploring the phenomenon of faith itself. Is Benedetta a saint or a harlot? Is she chosen by God or mentally ill? Are her visions real or is she a fraud, cynically exploiting the beliefs of those around her in a bold-faced grab for power and glory? And if she’s lying, in the larger context of a world held firmly in the grip of a church that treats salvation as transactional and levies its presumed moral authority to unlimited financial and political gain, which is greater evil? Though the film strongly implies the answers lie somewhere between the “either/or” of absolutes, it shrewdly leaves the viewer to contemplate such questions for themselves.

What concerns “Benedetta” more than any esoteric debate is a sly-yet-candid commentary on the various levels of societal hierarchy and the ways in which the flow of power perpetuates itself through their devotion to maintaining the status quo. As Benedetta’s perceived holiness carries her upward through the strata, from unwanted daughter of the merchant class to Mother Superior and beyond, more important than the veracity of her claims of divinity are the shifting and carefully calculated responses of those she encounters along the way. Fearing the loss of their own power, they ally and oppose themselves in whichever direction will help them maintain it. It’s a Machiavellian game of “keep-away” in which those at the top will not hesitate to use economic class, gender, sexuality, and – if all else fails – torture and execution as weapons to repress those they deem unworthy.

Inevitably, the above scenario provides plenty of fodder for Verhoeven’s movie to make points about religious hypocrisy, systemic oppression, and the way white heterosexual cisgender men keep the deck eternally stacked in their own favor – all of which invites us to recognize how little things have changed in the five centuries since Sister Benedetta’s time. That, too, is right in line with the director’s usual agenda.

Ultimately though, the signature touch that makes the movie unmistakably his is the way it revels in the lurid and sensational. Verhoeven delights in presenting imagery designed to shock us, and key elements of the film – from hyper-eroticized religious visions and explicit lesbian sex, to the prominent inclusion of a blasphemous wooden dildo as an important plot point – feel deliberately transgressive. This should be no surprise when one remembers that this is the director who brought us not only “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” but also “The Fourth Man,” a homoerotic psychological thriller from 1983 still capable of making audiences squirm uncomfortably today; and while all this titillation may trigger the most prudish of viewers, it makes “Benedetta” into a deliciously subversive, wild-and-wooly ride for the rest of us. More to the point, it underscores the film’s ultimate observation about the empowering nature of sexual liberation.

Helping Verhoeven make maximum impact with this obscure historical narrative is a cast that clearly relishes the material as much as he does. In the title role, the statuesque Efira successfully creates a compelling and charismatic figure while remaining an enigma, someone we can believe in equal measure might be sincere or corrupt and with whom we can empathize either way; likewise, Patakia exudes savvy and self-possession, transcending moral judgment as the object of her affection, and the two performers have a palpable chemistry, which is made all the more compelling by their thrillingly contemporary approach to the characters. Rounding out the triad of principal roles is Rampling, a cinematic icon who brings prestige and sophistication to the table in a masterful performance as the Abbess; more than just a grounding presence for her younger co-stars, she provides an important counterbalance with a subtle and layered performance as a woman who has devoted her life to a belief in which she has no faith, only to find herself overshadowed by a charlatan.

“Benedetta” is not exactly the kind of film that’s likely to put Verhoeven back on the Hollywood fast track – it’s far too radical in its underpinnings for that. Nevertheless, it’s a welcome return to form from a unique and flamboyant filmmaker we’ve missed for far too long, and his fans – along with anybody with a taste for provocative cinema – should consider it a must-see.

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‘Tick, tick… BOOM!’ explodes with the love of Broadway

A perfect film for fans of musical theater

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Andrew Garfield shines in ‘Tick, Tick… BOOM!’ (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

If you are a person who love musical theater – or if you know someone who does – then you know there is something about this particular art form that inspires a strong and driving passion in those who enjoy it, often to the point of obsession. For this reason, perhaps it’s no surprise that those who work in musical theater – the creators, performers, and all the other people who make it happen – are often the biggest musical theater lovers of all.

Because of this, “tick, tick… BOOM!” (the new film directed by Lin-Manuel “Hamilton” Miranda and written by Steven “Dear Evan Hansen” Levenson) might be the most perfect movie ever made for such fans. Adapted from an autobiographical “rock monologue” by Jonathan Larson, it follows the future “Rent” composer (Andrew Garfield) for a week in the early 1990s, when he was still an unknown young Broadway hopeful waiting tables in a New York diner. He’s on the cusp of turning 30, a milestone that weighs on his mind as he prepares for a showcase of a musical that he hasn’t quite finished – even though he’s been writing it for eight years. With limited time left to compose the show’s most crucial number, his race against the clock is complicated by major changes in his personal life; his lifelong best friend Michael (Robin de Jesús) has quit acting in favor of a five-figure career in advertising, and his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) is moving away from the city to accept a teaching job and wants him to come with her. With reminders everywhere of the ongoing AIDS epidemic still raging in the community around him, and with his own youth ticking away, he is inevitably forced to wonder if it’s time to trade in his own Broadway dreams for a more secure future – before it’s too late.

As every musical theater fan knows, the young composer’s obsession with time (hence the title) is laced with bittersweet irony in the context of what eventually happened in his real life: the day before “Rent” opened on Broadway and became a smash hit that reshaped and expanded the boundaries of what musical theater could be, Larson died of an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35. He never lived to see the full fruition of all those years of hard work, and that tragic turn of events is precisely what makes “tick, tick… BOOM!” relevant and provides its considerable emotional power. In that light, it’s essentially a musical “memento mori,” a reminder that the clock eventually runs out for all of us.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not also a celebration of life in the theater, and Miranda is probably better suited than anyone to make us see that side of the coin. Now unquestionably in the highest echelon of status as a Broadway icon, he came of age in the era of “Rent,” and he takes pains to make his depiction of Manhattan in the ‘90s as authentic as possible.

Capturing the era with touches like Keith Haring-inspired murals and the use of “Love Shack” as a party anthem, his movie keeps Larson’s story within the context of his time while drawing clear connections to our own. His reverence for Larson – whom he cites as a seminal inspiration for his own future work – manifests itself palpably throughout. Yet despite that (or perhaps because of it), so does an infectiously cheery tone. Yes, things get heavy; there are hardships and heartbreaks at every turn, because that’s what a life in the theater means. But at the same time, there’s just so much fun to be had. The camaraderie, the energy, and the joy of simply living in that world comes leaping off the screen (often thanks to the enthusiastic choreography of Ryan Heffington) with the kind of giddy, effortless ease that might almost make us jealous if it didn’t lift our spirits so much. No matter that the lead character spends most of the movie second-guessing his path; we never doubt for a moment that, for him, the rewards of following his passion outweigh the sacrifices a thousand times over.

That’s something Miranda also understands. His movie drives home the point that the joy of doing theater is its own reward, and he’s willing to prove it by turning up in a bit part just for the sake of being a part of the show. And he’s not the only one. The screen is littered with living legends; in one memorable sequence alone, a who’s-who of Broadway’s brightest stars – Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Andre DeShield, Bebe Neuwirth, Joel Grey, and at least a dozen more – serve as a high-profile backup chorus of extras for a song at the diner, but there are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos in almost every scene. It almost feels like a gimmick, or an effort to turn the movie into a “spot the star” trivia game for hardcore fans – until you realize that these are the best and brightest people in their field, who have willingly chosen to show up and participate even though they did not have to. They are there purely for love, and you can see it in their faces.

Miranda scores big across the board as a director – this is his feature film directorial debut, which confirms the standing assumption the man can do anything. But “tick, tick… BOOM!” is a star turn for its leading player, and full credit must also go – and emphatically so – to Garfield, who surpasses expectations as Larson. The one-time “Spiderman” actor trained extensively to be able to master the demands of singing the role, and it shows; he comes off as a true musical theater trouper, worthy beyond doubt of sharing the screen with so many giants. Even better, he integrates that challenge into the whole of a flamboyantly joyful performance that makes Larson endearingly, compellingly three-dimensional. It’s a career-topping piece of work.

The rest of the principal cast – a refreshingly inclusive ensemble that reminds us that Larson was instrumental in making Broadway a much more diverse place – are equally fine. De Jesús gets a long-deserved chance to shine as Michael, and Shipp brings a quiet calm to the easily-could-have-been-overshadowed Susan that makes her the perfect balance to Garfield’s high-octane energy.

Joshua Henry and Vanessa Hudgens contribute much more than their stellar vocal talents to their pair of roles as Larson friends and collaborators, and there are delicious supporting turns by Judith Light and Bradley Whitford – who gives an affectionately amusing and dead-on accurate screen impersonation of Broadway legend-of-legends Stephen Sondheim, one of Larson’s (and Miranda’s) biggest influences and inspirations, who accordingly looms large in the story despite his relatively short amount of screen time.

It should be obvious by now that “tick, tick… BOOM!” is a delight for people who love musical theater. But what if you’re not one of those people? The good news is that there is so much to enjoy here, so much real enjoyment, so much talent, so much hard work on display that nobody will have any reason to be bored.

Even people who DON’T love musical theater.

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