When Moonlight won Best Picture at the 2017 Academy Awards, it wasn’t just a victory for independent arthouse cinema and filmmakers of colour but also a landmark for queer cinema. Nothing quite as dramatic happened this year, and yet, significant inroads were made. Several categories had LGBTQ+ nominees. Two Best Picture nominees, The Shape of Water and Lady Bird, featured prominent gay characters, while Call Me By Your Name—also nominated for the top award—was a sparklingly sensual same-sex love story. The film, based on André Aciman’s 2007 novel, won for Best Adapted Screenplay, making its writer, 89-year-old James Ivory, the oldest Oscar winner in history.
Ivory, whose professional partnership with the late Indian producer-director Ismail Merchant—also his life partner—spanned almost half a century, had included gay characters in his films before. In an interview with LA Times, he recalled how British actor James Mason played a gay man in his 1975 film Autobiography of a Princess. “When we tried to sell it to the BBC, the guy who was buying it said he refused to show it (and that) he personally felt so sorry for James Mason being in such a film. That was 1976… Ten years later, we’re making Maurice and there (wasn’t) a peep out of anyone.”
Few would have guessed that the director of Maurice would be involved, some 30 years later, in the making of another landmark gay film, one which would win him his first Oscar. Accepting the award in a tux and a shirt with Call Me By Your Name star Timothée Chalamet’s face on it, Ivory said: “Whether straight or gay or somewhere in between, we’ve all gone through first love, I hope, mostly intact.” He thanked his old collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and said that working with Merchant had “led him to this award”.
Ivory’s win was the only Oscar that would go Call Me By Your Name’s way—Chalamet lost to Best Actor favourite Gary Oldman, and Sufjan Stevens, tipped to win Best Original Song for Mystery of Love, lost to Remember Me from Pixar’s Coco. This Mexico-set film, which won for Best Animated Feature, broke down its own barriers: in a year of ugly rhetoric involving immigrants, it was a critical and box-office success in the US. The film’s co-director, Adrian Molina, and its producer, Darla K. Anderson, both of whom are gay, mentioned their spouses in their acceptance speeches—a completely normal thing for an Oscar winner to do, and yet, in its very normality, a milestone.
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Daniela Vega’s charged performance in Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman was a rare instance of a transgender character being played by a transgender actor. This contained but wrenching drama won Best Foreign Language Film, and Vega was one of the people who went up on stage to receive the Oscar. It’s hard not to wonder how enormously significant it might have been had Vega also been nominated—deservedly—for an acting Oscar. Two years ago, there was the possibility of Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor becoming the first openly transgender Oscar acting nominees for Tangerine. That never happened, and by passing over (or not considering) Vega, the Academy has left this particular watershed for another year.
Yance Ford, meanwhile, became the first openly transgender man to be nominated for any Academy Award, as well as the first transgender Oscar-nominated director. His film Strong Island was one of the favourites to win Best Documentary Feature, but lost out to Icarus.
A Fantastic Woman’s win wasn’t the last we saw of Vega at the Oscars. A clip of her from the film was featured in a “trailblazers” montage, introduced by Ashley Judd, Annabelle Sciorra and Salma Hayek, which celebrated “equality, diversity, inclusion, intersectionality”. More significantly, she became the first openly transgender presenter in Oscar history. “Thank you so much for this moment,” she said, before introducing Sufjan Stevens. “I want to invite you to open your hearts and your feelings, to feel the reality, to feel love.” A standard-issue Oscar pronouncement, and a small, special moment.