Sean Penn, Harvey Milk

“Stonewall” Isn’t Alone: Most LGBTQ Films Are White Historical Dramas

Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall was released last Friday to widespread boos and hisses, with reviewers tripping over one another to hurl the sharpest zingers. The film came in 37th place in its opening weekend, grossing just $122,834 — less than 1 percent of its production budget. While the internet hivemind celebrated the film’s abysmal numbers — just desserts for a film that focuses on a generically pretty white boy and not the trans women of color who actually started the 1969 riot — they’ve largely overlooked the much bigger elephant in the room: namely, that Stonewall isn’t all that different from all the other major LGBT theatrical releases.

stonewall movie poster
Pride comes before the fall (of Roland Emmerich’s career)

We went back to the year 2000 and found the thirteen queer films that made the most money at the US box office. Each of these movies made more than $17 million — what it cost to produce Stonewall — and most share traits in common with Emmerich’s film. Seven are based on true stories and nine are firmly set in the past (ten, if you count the decade-hopping The Hours). Seven have one-word titles, just like Stonewall, and eleven out of thirteen feature predominantly white lead characters.

Some of these movies were considered failures – Oliver Stone’s gay biography of Alexander the Great being chief among them — and some were big successes. But seen all together, it becomes clear that the movie industry isn’t willing to take any risks, choosing over and over again to tell weepy historical dramas over original stories, and choosing over and over again to focus only on the stories of white people.

Here’s a recap of queer Hollywood since the year 2000. Or 2002, actually, since the first two years of the decade weren’t very queer-friendly.

Salma Hayek in Frida
Salma Hayek as bisexual painter Frida Kahlo

Frida (2002)

Production budget: $12 million
Domestic gross: $25.9 million
Star power: Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas

Salma Hayek played bisexual Mexican painter Frida Kahlo in a lush biography that showed the character having affairs with both men and women. Hayek was nominated for an Oscar, but her exaggerated eyebrows lost to Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic-nosed portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

Meryl Streep in The Hours
Meryl Streep in The Hours

The Hours (2002)

Production budget: $25 million
Domestic gross: $41.7 million
Star power: Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore

Everyone’s a little queer in The Hours, which won Nicole Kidman an Oscar and which also scored nominations for Julianne Moore as a suburban lesbian in the fifties and Ed Harris as a dying AIDS patient in the early 2000s. (The film hops around between three different time periods.) It’s all very tragic and literary but managed to make a healthy chunk of money at the box office, anyway.

Charlize Theron in Monster
Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos

Monster (2003)

Production budget: $18 million
Domestic gross: $34.5 million
Star power: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci

In a role that won Charlize Theron an Oscar, Monster is a fictionalized biography of real-life lesbian serial killer Aileen Wuornos. It’s pretty bleak, but Theron was universally praised for her portrayal of the Florida prostitute that killed six johns in 1989 and 1990.

Colin Farrell in Oliver Stone's Alexander
Colin Farrell as the gay Greek king

Alexander (2004)

Production budget: $155 million
Domestic gross: $34.3 million
Star power: Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie

Oliver Stone’s Greek epic did fine internationally but tanked miserably in American theaters, a fact the director blamed on sex-crazed reviewers and “moral fundamentalism.” (The real culprit was clearly Colin Farrell’s blond dye job.) In the film, young Alexander has a homosexual relationship with a character played by Jared Leto.

Philip Seymour Hoffman - Capote
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote

Capote (2005)

Production budget: $7 million
Domestic gross: $28.8 million
Star power: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener

Another biopic with a one-word title, Capote told the story of gay writer (and birthday boy) Truman Capote, who traveled to Kansas with his friend Harper Lee to cover a grisly murder. Hoffman took home a Best Actor Oscar. (Here’s some bonus trivia: the screenplay was written by Dan Futterman, the actor who played the straight son in gay ’90s comedy The Birdcage).

Rent, the movie
The cast of Rent, the most racially diverse film on the list

Rent (2005)

Production budget: $40 million
Domestic gross: $29.1 million
Star power: Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs

From the director of Home Alone and the writer of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the big-screen adaptation of Broadway-smash Rent might have come a few years too late. Critics thought it was ho-hum, the songs were too showtune-y for middle America, and queer audiences looked for 525,600 other things to do rather than sit through this movie. It was quickly forgotten when Brokeback Mountain was released just a few weeks later.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain
Cowboys will be cowboys.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Production budget: $14 million
Domestic gross: $83 million
Star power: Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger

It’s generally agreed that Brokeback Mountain was robbed at the 2005 Oscars, famously losing the Best Picture honor to Crash, an unpopular movie that has only soured over time — even its director thinks Brokeback Mountain or Capote should have won. Despite the fact that it’s a slow-moving western, Brokeback Mountain offered audiences an extremely rare chance to see a beautiful, if doomed, gay romance, and the film was a huge hit.

Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal
Cate Blanchett, object of Judi Dench’s predatory affection

Notes on a Scandal (2006)

Production budget: $15 million
Domestic gross: $17.5 million
Star power: Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench

Judi Dench scored an Oscar nomination for Best Actress as a predatory lesbian fixated on destroying a young art teacher. The film was modestly successful at the time, though today the psychological thriller has largely been forgotten.

Sean Penn, Harvey Milk
Sean Penn as Harvey Milk

Milk (2008)

Production budget: $20 million
Domestic gross: $31 million
Star power: Sean Penn, James Franco

Sean Penn won the Best Actor Oscar for playing real-life martyr Harvey Milk. Presented more as a costume drama than a film with any modern relevance, Milk‘s power to move is largely dependent on the viewer’s ability to watch Sean Penn make hammy faces at the camera. Movie critics love it when he does that.

Sacha Baron Cohen, Bruno
Sacha Baron Cohen anticipating audience reaction to Brüno

Brüno (2009)

Production budget: $20-$25 million (estimated)
Domestic gross: $60.1 million
Star power: The guy that played Borat, plus cameos from Elton John, Bono, Snoop Dogg, etc.

A comedy about actual queers? Maybe in the nineties, when people flocked to see The Birdcage and In & Out. Not so in the newer millennium, unless you’re talking about Sacha Baron-Cohen in the mockumentary Brüno. Universal purchased the film rights for $42 million and then the film literally became a textbook example of a movie tanking because of bad reviews on social media. It was considerably more expensive to produce than Borat, but only made half as much at the box office.

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore

The Kids Are Alright (2010)

Production budget: $4 million
Domestic gross: $20.8 million
Star power: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore

Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play lesbian parents whose lives are interrupted when their teenaged kids track down their biological father. The film is very unique in that it’s set in the present day and not based on the lives of anyone real. Bening got an Oscar nomination but lost to Natalie Portman for Black Swan, which had a woman-on-woman sex scene but which [SPOILER ALERT] wasn’t actually about lesbians.

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Jared Leto as Rayon

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Production budget: $5 million
Domestic gross: $27.3 million
Star power: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto

IndieWire didn’t include Dallas Buyers Club on its list of the decade’s top-grossing LGBT films, since the lead character is a straight guy. But Jared Leto won an Oscar for his portrayal of an HIV-positive trans woman named Rayon, so it seems right that the film should be included here, even if some viewers would disagree.

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

The Imitation Game (2014)

Production budget: $14 million
Domestic gross: $91 million
Star power: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley

By far this decade’s biggest commerical LGBT success so far, The Imitation Game told the story of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who saved his country during World War II and who was later driven to suicide for being gay. The film was accused of straightwashing its protagonist, but it received eight Academy Award nominations. Benedict Cumberbatch lost Best Actor, although Graham Moore’s screenplay did receive an Oscar that night.