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Oscar Movies Are Still Apologetic About LGBT Characters

LGBT characters are gaining ground in visibility, but when it comes to Academy Award season, there are certain stories, like Stonewall's and Freeheld's, that still stick too.

Stonewall is a movie about a pivotal moment in LGBT history as filtered through the perspective of a fictional hunk of Wonder Bread named Danny (Jeremy Irvine) who steps off a bus from Indiana and right into a central role in the Christopher Street scene. In just three months, Danny falls in with a rainbow of stylistically and ethnically diverse street kids, dabbles in hustling, gets his heart bruised by the older man (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who sweeps him off his feet, and meets a bunch of people in passing who are revealed in title cards after the movie to have all been very important in real life, if not in Stonewall itself.

After as many as several weeks in Greenwich Village, Danny's understanding of and anger about the injustices faced by the community is such that he's the one who yells "Gay power!" and hurls the brick that sparks the Stonewall riots. Then he heads to Columbia for the fall semester, all prepared to write the best "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" essay ever.

Stonewall belly-flopped at the box office, with dozens of critics calling it out for, among other things, its whitewashing and cutifying of history, its invention of an insipid hero to play tourist in a community and an era that was anything but, and its toxic serving of factually dubious cheese.

"I'm too angry to love anyone right now!" is its worst howler, directed at gender-fluid Puerto Rican street urchin Ray, played by Jonny Beauchamp, whose yearning for Danny is depicted like that of a charismatic drama kid hopelessly pining for the oblivious high school football star — which, we see in flashbacks, is exactly what Danny was, having been secretly involved with, of course, the quarterback.

All of these criticisms are true, but what they don't capture is the heedless earnestness with which the film was made. It's the aspect of Stonewall that, once the smoke has cleared on the streets of Montreal-somewhat-passing-for-New York, is actually the most difficult to contend with. The movie may have been directed by Roland Emmerich, king of blockbustery destruction like 2012 and Independence Day, but it's personal, a passion project, the misbegotten product of good intentions. It wasn't studio pressure that led Emmerich and writer Jon Robin Baitz, both gay, to frame their story this way but their own thoughts on the best way to make the Stonewall riots palatable to broad audiences.

"You have to understand one thing: I didn’t make this movie only for gay people; I made it also for straight people," Emmerich told BuzzFeed News. "I kind of found out, in the testing process, that actually, for straight people, [Danny] is a very easy in. Danny’s very straight-acting." If the idea that audiences require this sort of "in" feels woefully outdated, well, it was only four years ago that The Help nabbed a bunch of Oscar nods with what was essentially the same approach to its story of the racism experienced by a group of black maids in 1960s Mississippi.

Stonewall was clumsy enough to be both laughable and enraging, but as we get into Important Movie Season, it's also a good reminder that many of the films that will be trotted out soon and taken more seriously do their own sanitizing of social issues and historical injustices, using characters as symbols rather than as people unto themselves, and mediating stories through the more "relatable" perspectives of outsiders and allies.

Sometimes they bring national attention to under-discussed problems by demanding empathy for and understanding of their characters' struggles. And sometimes they're just a way for the industry to pat itself on the back for its own supposed relevance, so that Jared Leto can blithely thank "the Rayons of the world" for providing "the inspiration" for his Dallas Buyers Club Golden Globe win with their difficult lives and tragic deaths.

This Academy Award cycle is one in which LGBT themes are due to play a prominent part — talk of whether a cis guy should really be playing the part aside, Eddie Redmayne's basically already gotten a nomination for his role as 1920s transwoman Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, while About Ray loads a great cast into a clunky family dramedy about a teenager transitioning to male (Elle Fanning), his conflicted single mom (Naomi Watts), and his lesbian grandmother (Susan Sarandon). And then there's Todd Haynes' swoony 1950s drama Carol, which foregrounds its heart-stopping romance between a housewife (Cate Blanchett) and a shopgirl (Rooney Mara) so that the period attitudes and laws they face feel like the obstructions they are rather than the reason the film exists.

And then there's Freeheld, which hits theaters next, a five-hanky weepy directed by Peter Sollett of Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. The film is based on the life of New Jersey detective Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and her fight to bequeath her pension to her partner Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), something other cops are able to do for their spouses, after she learns she has terminal cancer. And while it's no Stonewall, it is evidence of how conservative so many prestige pics still tend to be in their treatment of stories about LGBT characters — calculated and cautious and nice, avoidant of sharp edges that might drive away potential viewers, holding up their messages of understanding like offerings on trembling hands.

There's this one interesting, brief flicker of discomfort in Freeheld when activist Steven Goldstein (Steve Carell) basically admits to the initially reluctant Laurel and Stacie that he's using them because they're ideal figureheads. Laurel wasn't an activist before her illness — she was closeted, worried she'd face discrimination at the job she loved. But after her request is denied, she gets the support of and eventually becomes a spokesperson for the marriage equality movement, through Steven's coaxing.

Laurel is politically valuable, not just because of the gross injustice she's facing and not just because Laurel doesn't have long to live, but because she and Stacie are working-class New Jersey folks, a cop and a mechanic who wanted to make a life together, not trouble. They're not inconveniently flamboyant or angry or demanding of attention. Aside from Laurel's sexual preference, her desires are presented as so unobjectionably traditional — monogamy, house, dog, and two dutiful decades of hard work for the county that pats her on the head and tells her "no" when she just wants a right her straight colleagues already have.

The movie doesn't linger on this unease very long though, maybe because it ultimately uses Laurel and Stacie the same way, efficiently laying out the details of their meeting, falling in love, and making a home together before moving on to focus on the pension fight. Moore and Page do some nice work, but Laurel and Stacie recede as the film goes on, crowded out by the others involved in the fight, including a scene-stealing Michael Shannon as Laurel's partner-turned-ally Dane Wells. Dane gets to change and grow and call his fellow policemen onto the carpet for their refusal to get involved. But Laurel is mostly a martyr, and Stacie is mostly just steadfast at her side.

Freeheld is written by Ron Nyswaner, who won an Oscar in 1994 for his screenplay for Philadelphia, a movie that was at the time groundbreaking in its mainstream treatment of homophobia and AIDS. It's been two decades that have brought a lot of change since then, but Freeheld (which is set in the mid-'00s) feels startlingly similar despite the gap. It is, like Philadelphia, largely sexless, and it is tastefully and undeniably sad while being more concerned with how its gay characters die than how they live (an Oscar tradition).

Freeheld assigns its most dynamic arcs to the straight characters who align themselves, sooner or later, with Laurel and Stacie, from Shannon's stalwart detective to Josh Charles' local politician — because its stakes rest in whether the community will align itself to them. What will happen to Laurel is already set. Freeheld is a movie about marriage equality with a main character who dies before she ever has a chance to get married, which is part of its point, but it's also where it has more in common with Stonewall than it would surely like. It's apologetic about the people it wants to salute.