How Many People Had to Pretend to Die to Get Us Here?

How Many People Had to Pretend to Die to Get Us Here?


Summer is here and gay pride parades have begun. And this weekend the GAZE International LGBTQ film festival will take place in Dublin.

To celebrate we take a look back at the roles which have shaped how gay characters are represented on the screen today. Spoiler Alert: we discover that most celebrated gay characters either end up dead or end up killing people. The specter of death is never far away when actors play gay.

Words: Niall Murphy

The Tragic Heroes.

Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon

Pacino holds up a bank to pay for his boyfriend’s sex-change operation. In a career that shone very bright very early on, this performance is arguably the brightest. Though he developed the habit of being shouty here that he never lost, and which ultimately blighted his career.

Cause of death: Shot by police.

Awards? Oscar nomination for best actor.

Is the film any good? Yes. It’s one of the best films of the 70s. And not in a boring way.


William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman

Hurt shares a South American prison cell with revolutionary Raul Julia, who he keeps talking to about his favourite movies, which happen to be Nazi propaganda stories. Bromance with benefits blossoms, because it’s prison.

Cause of death? Shot by the fascist government.

Awards? Oscar for best actor.

Is it any good? Yes. Hurt gives one of the great performances of the 80s. But the film itself is even better.


Tom Hanks in Philadelphia

Hanks is sacked from a law firm, perhaps for being gay. On top of this he is dying from AIDS, so he needs to fight his firm in court while being followed around by a downbeat Bruce Springsteen track that doesn’t inspire much hope. It’s the role that suddenly made Hanks a serious actor, though it’s debatable if he’s any good in it.

Cause of death: AIDS

Awards: Oscar for Best Actor.

Is the film any good? It is. But could do with some levity.


Colin Farrell and Jared Leto in Alexander

Farrell and Leto romp across the Middle East and into India, exchanging coy looks, trying to keep the audience in the dark about whether or not they’re shagging each other. But of course they are. Everyone at the time knew. All through human history the entire world has known. So it’s only Oliver Stone who seems to think it’s a delicate subject.

Cause of death? Leto decides dying is the only way to get off the picture. While Farrell tries to chew so much scenery he chokes on it.

Awards? Farrell was nominated for worst actor at the Golden Razzies.

Is it any good? Better and more successful than people make out.


Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain

Gyllenhaal is perhaps the actor that did the most to detoxify gay characters for the mainstream, playing the passive partner in that sex scene in the tent, and going on to resist stereotyping ever since.

How does he die? In the source story by Proux, and as described by Anne Hathaway, he dies in a routine accident. But Heath Ledger’s imagination leaves open the possibility he was a victim of a homophobic attack.

Awards? Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

Is it any good? It’s considered one of the great masterpieces of modern American cinema. Though it’s actually made by a guy from Taiwan.


Colin Firth in A Single Man

Firth’s college lecturer is seen as a catch about campus, but plans to commit suicide because he can’t live without his dead lover. Gay Mr Darcy is as understated as Straight Mr Darcy. Though the loneliness and tragedy of his gay life is perhaps overstated.

Cause of death? Either him or the wallpaper had to go.

Awards? Oscar nomination for best actor.

Is it any good? It’s fine. But it’s difficult to sympathise with a middle aged man being pursued by young hot men, who experiences spiritual anxiety because they’re not the young hot men he wants.


Leonardo DiCaprio in Total Eclipse

A very young DiCaprio gets naked and has some boy sex, playing crazy French poet Rimbaud. It’s one of his forgotten indie films back when he was trying to be the new Jonny Depp. Hasn’t played openly gay since, but hey, everyone experiments at that age when they’re that good looking.

Cause of death? Rimbauld manages to cut his own leg off.

Is the film any good? No. No, it is not.


Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra

Douglas is the dirty old man to Matt Damon’s pretty boy, in what we’re assured by people who remember is a spot on, and not over the top, depiction of the famous pianist.

Cause of death? AIDS

Awards? Emmy for best actor (tv movie)

Is it any good? More than any film on this list, it seems to be primarily about gay sex, and little else. A particular criticism is it fails to explain how a guy who just played piano could be that famous. But apparently he was.


Sean Penn in Milk

Penn is perfect as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to political office in the US. Strange that this is one of the only civil rights themed movies the politically obsessed and intense Penn has ever done. He should do more. It seems to do wonders for his temperament, he seems completely and uncharacteristically relaxed.

Cause of death? Shot by a political rival.

Awards? Oscar for best actor.

Any good? Doesn’t put a foot wrong.


Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club

Leto needed to apologise somehow for Alexander. So here he helps Matthew McConaughey smuggle AIDS drugs into Texas, as a fictional trans woman in a true life story. He throws himself into the role, losing a shocking amount of weight in a dangerous method acting competition with McConnaughey that gets out of hand.

Cause of death? AIDS

Awards? Oscar for best supporting actor.

Is it any good? Again, it’s rather bleak, but well acted.


The Angels of Death

Tommy Lee Jones in JFK

“You don’t know shit because you’ve never been fucked in the ass.” It’s one of the standout lines from JFK, delivered by Kevin Bacon, the prostitute who gets wrapped up in the head-spinning world of conspiracy inside Oliver Stone’s head. But it’s his customer Tommy Lee Jones that is alleged to know everything. He plays Clay Shaw, the gay businessman, who was the only man prosecuted for the assassination of the US President.


Will Smith in Six Degrees of Separation

Smith plays a gay con man, a kid pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier, who smooth talks his way into New York high society. The well-heeled set are charmed by him. Everyone is charmed by him. A straight guy is so charmed by Smith he even sleeps with him, but then kills himself. As though this one night of indiscretion lead to a bad dose of tragic gay. Let that be a lesson to us all.


Chris Cooper in American Beauty

The film begins with Kevin Spacey telling us he’s dead. But by the end we’re really nowhere closer to that happening than we were at the start. So enter Chris Cooper as a conflicted, repressed, gay man, to move the narrative forward. Apart from one comment an hour before, there really is no build up to this explosion of self hating violence, but you never know when the gay is going to strike.


Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher

Carrell is in love with Channing Tatum. Which is understandable. Most people are. It’s normal. But Carrell’s obsession turns to jealous rage directed against Tatum’s brother, who he proceeds to murder in cold blood. That’s less normal, for sure.


Matt Damon in Talented Mr Ripley

No, just because Jude Law and Gwyneth Palthrow are incredibly hard work in this movie, doesn’t mean we’re supposed to forgive Damon for being a psychotic, gay, serial killer who destroys their lives. It’s tempting to cheer him on, especially when Palthrow starts whining, but remember, he’s still crazy. It’s a testament to Damon’s performance that his vulnerable likeability makes us hope he’s never caught. It’s the performance that most clearly sets a standard that his contemporaries, like DiCaprio, have never been able to match.


Charlize Theron in Monster

Due to certain factors, like the relatively lower instances of HIV amongst lesbians, women aren’t generally part of the tragic gay narrative. It’s not that they don’t exist on screen. It’s just that with movies like Bound and Basic Instinct, they can sometimes be more decorative titillation, than fully formed characters. This is changing very rapidly with films like Carol and Blue is the Warmest Colour.

But much like gay men we’ve been much quicker at accepting gay women as villains than heroes. And no such film is more appropriately named than Monster, in which Charlize Theron plays a man hating, serial killer prostitute, who refuses to be pretty. She’s a straight guy’s worst nightmare, perhaps more than any man could be.