Marlene Dietrich in tux and tails truly surprised unsuspecting audiences with the first on-screen lesbian kiss in Morocco in 1930. And Queen Christina (1933) starring Greta Garbo followed suit with some equally scintillating scenes. But a looming economic depression and World War meant the cinema would not be safe for same-sex female love stories until late in the 20th century. Here are ten of the best:
Wild Nights with Emily (2018)
There is something wonderful about watching a Victorian period piece that’s full of passion. This historically groundbreaking film transforms the image of literary giant Emily Dickinson from reclusive spinster to heartthrob. First and foremost, this film is a creative exploration of the historical finding that Dickinson had written romantic passages about one “Susan” in her private papers. Susan, it seems, was her lifelong love and muse. (However, she ultimately erased the name and wrote over it to conceal the identity and gender of her love from prying eyes.) A highlight of the film is when Dickinson, played to perfection by Molly Shannon, recites her own poetry. Written and directed by Madeleine Olnek. Read our official review along with other exciting movies from Spring 2019.
Battle of the Sexes (2017)
The film starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell celebrates a real event in sports history. Tennis great Billie Jean King achieves a victory for women everywhere when – in 1973 on live television – she soundly defeats Wimbledon winner and gambling addict Bobby Riggs. Everything about the tennis match is perfectly poised to soundly defeat King (and by proxy the women’s movement), but things don’t quite go as planned. For example, the cameraman clearly remains focused on King, intending to to highlight her every misstep. But they don’t come. The camera instead catches her returning impossible shot after impossible shot, running from one end of the court to the extreme opposite end to great applause. Then when the cameraman finally gives up and focuses on Riggs as he misses many shots on camera. There’s no way a story this good doesn’t go into cinematic history.
Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf? (2014)
Writer/director Anna Margarita Albelo poured her soul into this delightfully transcendent picture starring Guin Turner and Janina Gavankar. At times raw, this film is always real and hilarious. It’s about an accomplished lesbian filmmaker who finds herself in the depths of a mid-life crisis with no job, no girlfriend, and no idea what to do next. So she takes the only logical next step: she dresses up in a giant, six-foot-tall, cuddly, intricately designed pink monochromatic plush vagina outfit; she gets a job waving a placard advertising bikini waxes; she meets someone, and discovers some important truths about life, the universe and everything.
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This is a poignant coming out story written and directed by Dee Rees. The film expertly portrays the truth that – for many people – coming out today is no easier than in past generations. Specifically, one scene illustrates the growing phenomenon of predatory “straight” women using gay women for sex and then discarding them as pariahs. The scene in which this occurs is especially cruel, since it is the first sexual experience of 17-year-old Alike (Adepero Oduye). Afterwards, she is disconsolate. Plus, her mother makes everything worse, even physically attacking Alike when she comes out to her parents. Later attempts to reconcile with her mother prove fruitless. And when she finally decides to move far away, Alike memorably tells her father she is “not running but choosing.”
Undeniably this is one of the best films most people have not seen. Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker play a couple from Maine who feel great urgency to marry after a granddaughter decides to put one of them in a nursing home. So they drive to Nova Scotia where they can marry. They pick up an interesting young hitchhiker along the way. And they have a number of foul-mouthed adventures that deepen their ties.
It’s In the Water (1997)
There’s something surprisingly extraordinary about this film written and directed by Kelli Herd. Its borderline “cheesy” premise involves rumors that drinking the local water makes you gay. At the film’s heart is a securely middle class family in small town Texas during the time of AIDS and the fears the epidemic stirred up. Kelli Herd is a master at turning back the clock and giving the audience a good hard look at the hypocrisy, egotism and dramatic flair for calling attention to themselves that the most negative people possess.
Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives (1992)
Critics and audiences alike praise this Canadian documentary. Unfortunately, surprisingly few people know about it. Directed by Lynne Fernie and Aerlyn Weissman for the National Film Board of Canada, it features paperback author Ann Bannon and nine amazing interviews. In them, gay seniors talk openly about their experiences in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.
I, the Worst of All (1990)
This is the real life story of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. (Here “Sor” is a nun’s title, as an English-speaker might say “Sister.”) The film is based on research published by Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz. Sor Juana was a self-educated Renaissance woman of 16th century Mexico: painter, poetess, scientist, composer and philosopher. This Argentinian film about her life was directed by Maria Louisa Bemberg. It adeptly conveys the misery of the plagues and contentious atmosphere of the counter-Reformation/Inquisition that prevailed at the time. Sor Juana impressed the royal court with her unsurpassed intellect and artistic achievement. Along the way, she won the heart of the Viceroy’s wife. The legendarily beautiful nun was has been read and admired throughout the Spanish Empire since her own lifetime. While it’s light on outright lesbian passion, audiences will feel romance bubbling between Sor Juana and her protectress.
The Color Purple (1985)
Director Steven Spielberg brings Alice Walker’s novel to life on the big screen. This beautifully told story is about a woman devalued and knocked down by life. But she regains a sense of her own worth through the love and friendship of a larger than life bisexual singer named Shug (Margaret Avery, voiced by Tata Vega), who turns out to be a preacher’s daughter. When Celie (Whoopie Goldberg) nearly kills her abuser in a dramatic scene, she walks out on him triumphantly shouting, “I may be ugly, but I’m here! I’m here!” The film received 11 Oscar nominations including the Oscar for the Best Picture of the Year.
Dark Habits (1983)
Almodovar’s hilariously-outlandish yet dead-serious film has a nearly all-female cast (plus a pet tiger and chicken who find it hard to co-exist). It takes place in an unusually worldly convent. The Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) takes in wayward girls, sometimes to her own bed. Meanwhile, an older nun (Chus Lampreave) writes about their stories, making a mint for her less-literary sister who publishes them under her own name (due to the nun’s vow of poverty). One day everything changes when the Mother Superior’s favorite nightclub singer moves into the convent with no place else to go. Subsequently, this film became the basis for an American film with a very different emotional baseline: Sister Act.
Interested in more content about women? Read about one woman’s struggle to reconcile her sexuality and religion.
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Last modified: September 24, 2019