Tag Archives: Patricia Highsmith

Fall movie season brings a wealth of quality LGBT feature films

Ellen Page was first approached about the true-life gay rights drama Freeheld when she was 21, just coming off her breakthrough in Juno. It was seven years before the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a right, and six before Page, herself, came out.

“It really did align with an internal process I was going through with my own identity, with my own struggles of being closeted,” says Page of Freeheld. “It’s lovely to be part of a film that’s reflecting upon why we need the Supreme Court ruling and why we need to continue to strive to equality. I think the film is reflecting a time when that change is happening.”

As much as change is in the air in 2015, it’s also on the screen. Though Hollywood’s track record when it comes to telling the stories of LGBT lives is far from gleaming, this fall season boasts one of the richest and most varied batch of films yet to dramatize the struggles of gay and transgendered people.

Freeheld (in theaters Oct. 2) is about Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and her domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Page). When Hester, an Ocean County, New Jersey, police officer, began dying of terminal lung cancer in 2005, she appealed to the county Board of Freeholders to allow her pension to go to Andree. Though it would have been automatic for a married couple, the board initially refused.

Eight years after a documentary short on Hester won an Oscar, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) has penned the dramatization, directed by Peter Sollett and co-starring Steve Carell and Michael Shannon.

Todd Haynes’ Carol (out Nov. 20), based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, is about the illicit love affair between two women (Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara) in the conservative 1950s. A lushly detailed period film, thick with an atmosphere of socially enforced repression, the film rides a wave of praise from the Cannes Film Festival, where Mara shared in the best actress award.

Blanchett, in an interview at Cannes, said that while love between two lesbians is of course central to Carol, it’s ultimately about love, regardless of gender.

“There’s something Romeo and Juliet-esque about it,” Blanchett said. “There’s a universality to the love story that moves it out of the niche. It’s about the perspective or the feeling of being in love for the first time. And, yes, it’s not immaterial that there are two women at the center of it. But at certain moments, it kind of is.”

Also in November is The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech). Based on the 1920s Copenhagen novel by David Ebershoff and starring Eddie Redmayne, it’s a fictionalized account of Lili Elbe, among the first to undergo sex reassignment surgery.

While that trio of films is expected to play major roles in awards season, there are others in the mix, too.

Roland Emmerich, taking a break from the disaster spectacles like White House Down and The Day After Tomorrow, depicts one of the most pivotal moments in the gay rights movement in Stonewall (Sept. 25), a drama set around the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots in New York’s Greenwich Village.

And months after the celebrated transformation of Caitlyn Jenner, About Ray (Sept. 18) is about a teenager’s (Elle Fanning) transition from female to male, and how her family reacts.

It can be overly optimistic to take any seasonal trend as a sign of wider industry progress. Studies have confirmed that Hollywood continues to lag in representing the diversity of its audiences. Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg school recently found that among the 4,610 speaking characters in the 100 top-grossing films in 2014, only 19 were lesbian, gay or bisexual. None were transgender.

Many of these films also struggled to make it to the big screen. It took Carol almost two decades to finally get made; screenwriter Phyllis Nagy wrote her first draft in 1996.

Equality for LGBT people also, of course, continues to be a divisive issue for some across the country. Page recently confronted presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz at the Iowa State Fair on his views on gay rights.

But in a year marked by significant advancement for gay rights, many, like Page, are buoyed by the upswing in this fall’s films — a crop of movies that add more lesbian and transgender stories to the indelible, but largely male movies (Philadelphia, Milk, Brokeback Mountain) that have come before.

“I wish there were more gay stories and I do think that that’s happening,” she says. “That does seem like something that’s getting a lot stronger, thankfully — a voice that’s getting stronger, a community that’s getting stronger.”

Lesbians who made a difference

Noble and Nobel-winning, creative and creepy, these wildly different lesbians are worth noting during Women’s History Month.

Born in 1860, Jane Addams overcame crippling self-doubt to become one of the greatest social and peace activists in American history. 

The educated daughter of a wealthy Illinois family, Addams experienced many youthful traumas. Her mother and four of her siblings died by the time she was 8. She was ashamed of her looks and the limp she acquired from a bout of spinal TB. She felt oppressed by the expectation that she should marry well and raise a family. She yearned for a higher purpose but despaired over what course to take. 

Her years of depression were lifted after a trip to England, where she visited Toynbee Hall, a “settlement house” where professionals lived among and worked to empower poor people. In 1889, Addams brought the idea to America. She used much of her own money to establish Hull House in Chicago.

Hull House offered recreation, meal programs, emergency housing, English language and other instruction to poor people and immigrants. It provided the dynamic laboratory from which professional social work developed and fueled what is known as the Progressive Era. 

Hull House tackled issues like blighted housing, infant mortality, juvenile crime and the rights of workers. It won significant reforms: stricter building codes; improved street lighting and sewer maintenance; a separate juvenile justice system; child labor laws; factory inspections; and public health services.

Addams thrived on the work. Her vision of social welfare and justice continually expanded. She was a leading voice for women’s suffrage and a founding member of the NAACP, the ACLU and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Addams’s companion through the years was Mary Rozet Smith.

Patricia Highsmith achieved fame in the 1950s for writing nail-biting psychological thrillers like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, both made into hit movies. She also wrote, under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, The Price of Salt, one of the first novels in which a lesbian did not meet a tragic end, instead walking into the sunset with her lover.

Like Addams, Highsmith endured years of anguish before achieving clarity. Texas, where she was born in 1921, could not contain her wayward energy. Highsmith’s mother was mortified by her intractability and their lifelong relationship was bitterly contentious.

Transplanted to New York to attend Barnard, Highsmith excelled intellectually and had a number of affairs with women. She worked for college publications and spent years writing copy for comic books, a job that honed her plotting skills. People who knew her in the 1940s recall her beauty and wit but also her cold and aloof nature.

Pressured by family and a boyfriend, Highsmith underwent a long period of psychoanalysis to “cure” her homosexuality. It failed. The acceptance of her lesbianism ushered in decades of unbridled creativity and publishing success with bestselling novels and short story collections.

There are two good biographies of Highsmith: Beautiful Shadow and The Talented Miss Highsmith. Both detail her personal struggles, many love affairs and macabre imagination. Always an odd duck, Highsmith became increasingly misanthropic and creepy before her death in 1995. She developed a fondness for snails, for instance, and toted her pet snails around in her purse!