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Dee Rees and James Ivory Could Both Extend Tradition of LGBTQ People Winning Writing Oscars

One of the people nominated for an Oscar at this Sunday’s 90th Academy Awards is almost the same age as the ceremony itself. Another one could be the first black woman to win a writing Oscar. Both are queer.

While Call Me By Your Name was one of the buzziest films this Oscar season especially if your social media sphere happens to be full of queer men few of the conversations have included the fact that the film’s screenwriter, James Ivory, is an octogenarian gay man who is Hollywood royalty. (On the flip side, much has been made of the heterosexuality of the novel’s author, Andre Aciman.)

Also absent from much of the conversation is an even more historic feat: Dee Rees is the first black womanand first black queer womanto garner a writing screenplay nomination.

For those who don’t know James Ivory, he’s one third of the famous duo behind Merchant Ivory Productions, which has produced several award-winning films. The other half was James Ivory’s long term partner, Ismail Merchant. Their professional and personal relationship lasted 44 years, from 1961 until Merchant’s death in 2005. Together they created a slew of Academy Award-winning and nominated films, including Howard’s End, A Room With a View, The Remains of the Day, and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.

Despite the awards his films have garnered, including a Best Actress win for Emma Thompson, Ivory has yet to nab an Oscar for one of his screenplays. When he won the BAFTA for best adapted screenplay, he became the oldest person ever to take home a BAFTA in any category. If he succeeds again at the Academy Awards, he’ll also hold the record for oldest Oscar winner ever in any category.

Though Rees’s time in Hollywood is shorter, she has already brought several queer stories to the screen. In 2011, she wrote and directed the film Pariah, about a black woman who begins to reckon with her identity as a lesbian. (It’s excellent. If you haven’t seen it, stop reading this and watch it right now.) She also wrote and directed the HBO film Bessie, about queer blues singer Bessie Smith, which won an Emmy for Outstanding TV Movie and for which Rees won a Directors’ Guild Award.

Should Ivory or Rees declare victory on Sunday, it would be the second year in a row that a queer person won a writing Oscar. The list of LGBTQ people who previously won include out gay man Bill Condon won for 1999’s Gods and Monsters, Dustin Lance Black for the 2009 biopic Milk, and Geoffrey Fletcher for 2010’s Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. Fletcher was also the first black person to ever win an Oscar for writing.

Should Ivory win, it would be the second year in a row that a queer person won for writing a queer-themed film. Last year Moonlight became the first LGBTQ-themed film to win best picture, and its gay writer Tarell Alvin McCraney, along with straight co-writer and director Barry Jenkins, took home the best adapted screenplay.

Call Me By Your Name isn’t the first time Ivory has tackled queer themes in his films. Ivory wrote the 1987 film Maurice, based on the novel by E.M. Forster, which starred James Wilby and Hugh Grant in a gay love story set in early 20th-century England.

Ivory spoke to the Hollywood Reporter about the difference between the two narratives.

Maurice and this film are quite different in that Maurice has a happy ending, an absolute happy ending: The two young men get together and apparently, they’re going to live happily ever after,” Ivory said. “[T]he story in Maurice is really a tortured kind of thing. Maurice goes through all kinds of awful things and real problems. They have to hide the affair because in those days, in Edwardian times, it was criminal.”
“By the time you get to the 1980s [when Call Me by Your Name is set], it’s a very different world,” he continued. “And so there was not that threat hanging over the two boys. The worst thing that could happen to them probably would be some sort of parental disapproval, and even the parental disapproval wasn’t there.
“One is a story of stress and the other is a story of desire,” Ivory concluded. “Really two different things.”

Similarly, Rees has spoken about complicating representations of queer women especially black queer women on screen in Bessie. She told RogerEbert.com, “I really wanted to show the ‘sporting life.’ You had women like Gladys Bentley and Moms Mabley dressed as men onstage in Harlem. I wanted to explore the intersectionality of Bessie and Ma Rainey; they weren’t just one thing. You see them in suits, you see them in dresses, with both male and female lovers.”

Both Ivory and Rees’ thoughtfulness about queer life is apparent to anyone who has seen their films. While there’s little that’s revolutionary about an older white man even a gay one (sorry, Sam Smith) winning some Oscar hardware, Ivory’s victory would further cement what should be law: letting queer people breathe life into queer films. And Rees’ victory would be momentous in creating spaces for black women in Hollywood.

Besides, if we’re going to root for our faves at the Oscars, who better to take home the gold than family?


Mathew Rodriguez

Mathew is a staff writer at INTO. His work has appeared in Mic, Slate and Complex. He loves "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," Flannery O'Connor and female rappers and is working on a memoir.

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