Spoiler alert: Heavy spoilers follow for The Favourite, Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Green Book.
While the celluloid closet might (mostly) be a thing of the past, the advertising closet remains a roadblock.
A robust slate of queer-themed films debuted in 2018, but very few people, even queer people, know about it. Earlier this week, a co-worker came into the office raving about The Favourite. Despite being a lesbian who will go see any movie featuring queer women, she had no knowledge that the film is about a queer love triangle between Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Olivia Colman, who engage in explicit sexual acts.
The problem is the marketing — though the content is queer, marketing campaigns coat the films with a varnish of heterosexuality for easy mainstream consumption. Despite having queer characters, storylines and themes, several films released this year have failed to translate the film’s content to trailers and descriptions, perhaps leading queer people to think that there are far fewer queer options on the slate this year than there actually are.
Though The Favourite’s trailer does show a few of the film’s explicitly queer moments, sans context the scenes only register as female friendship.
That illusion isn’t shattered by the description of the film that sent out to critics inviting us to review the film. Here’s the way the film was marketed to critics (emphasis mine):
“Early 18th century. England is at war with the French. Nevertheless, duck racing and pineapple eating are thriving. A frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) occupies the throne and her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs the country in her stead while tending to Anne’s ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant Abigail (Emma Stone) arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah. Sarah takes Abigail under her wing and Abigail sees a chance at a return to her aristocratic roots. As the politics of war become quite time consuming for Sarah, Abigail steps into the breach to fill in as the Queen’s companion. Their burgeoning friendship gives her a chance to fulfill her ambitions and she will not let woman, man, politics or rabbit stand in her way.”
Those who have seen the film know that Lady Sarah and Queen Anne are more than “close friends” and it’s not only Abigail’s charm that endears her to Sarah — it’s her top-notch fingerbanging skills. And while they are fighting to be the queen’s companion, it’s pretty clear from a queer perspective that they’re using a term that connotes friendship more than it implies being lovers.
What about the trailer for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which erases all of the queerness from the film, even though we spend every frame of the film witnessing the unfolding friendship of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a lesbian, and Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who is gay and, by the film’s end, diagnosed with HIV. (Also, half the film takes place in Julius, New York City’s oldest gay bar.)
Once again, the description given to critics (once again, emphasis mine):
“In CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?, Melissa McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, the best-selling celebrity biographer (and cat lover) who made her living in the 1970s and 80s profiling the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Estee Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. When Lee found herself unable to get published because she had fallen out of step with the marketplace, she turned her art form to deception, abetted by her loyal friend Jack (Richard E. Grant).”
While the film’s A-plot might not seem ultra queer, the film is not solely about Israel’s dalliances with criminal behavior. The film is actually a portrait of a writer dealing with potential obsolescence, and of the fear that many queer people have that they will grow older without a partner or any kind of romantic companionship. That McCarthy and Grant’s characters are both older queer people is not a superfluous detail.
And then there’s Green Book, which I would argue even fewer people knew had any queer content. It wasn’t until Tre’vell Anderson, Out’s director of culture and entertainment, wrote about the film that many queer people, including myself, knew that Mahershala Ali’s character, Dr. Don Shirley, was somewhere on the queer spectrum and that his identity plays into the film’s plot. That is something, once again, completely left out of the film’s trailer, which instead focuses solely on Shirley’s race, betting I’m sure, on his presumed heterosexuality rather than historical queerness.
Other films have had a similarly deliberate marketing strategy, namely A Simple Favor and Blockers, though both of those (sadly! They’re great!) are not considered awards fodder.
So why, then, would a character or film’s queerness end up on the cutting room floor? There are, of course, a few easy theories. Films might want to go for a more general audience and thus erase queerness from the film’s campaign to make it palatable. But then what happens when a moviegoer takes a bite into the confection, not knowing its flavor?
Failing to relay that a film is queer to its audience implies at best that queer stories are unmarketable and at worst that queer people are not worth caring about. Compounding both these problems is that for several of the actors in these films, playing queer could be a conduit for awards consideration, meaning that queer lives are complex enough for awards consideration but too complex for moviegoers in general. When it comes time to simplify complex queer people into marketable flat characters, their queerness is the first thing on the chopping block.
Yes, there is some kind of insidious net positive effect from all this. In some way, lying about the fact that these movies are queer means more people will enter the room and hopefully walk out having spent two hours with a queer person and their inner life. But still, this doesn’t sit well. It feels a little too close to the historical archetype of LGBTQ people “tricking” straight and cis people. Except rather than tricking them sexually, these films and their marketing campaigns “trick” a general audience into caring about our lives and realizing our humanity.
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