Many of us who are fortunate enough to get some extra time off around the holidays love to pass the time watching movies. We all know the lesbian classics, like The Hunger, Desert Hearts, and Bound, and some of the films with kick-ass women who just might be in love, like Thelma & Louise. But there’s also plenty to enjoy in films you may have overlooked because of their age or genre, or because they vanished so quickly from cinemas. Some offer top actresses as out-and-proud lesbians, some have same-sex desire simmering under the radar, and some simply depict solid female bonding that makes you want the characters to take it up a notch. In no particular order, here are 10 worth a look.
This sexy, compelling 1987 thriller gives us two strong, beautiful women who, it’s been observed, would undoubtedly have been lovers under other circumstances. But as the circumstances have it, Theresa Russell’s Catharine (is that even her real name?) is an identity-shifting serial killer of wealthy husbands, and Debra Winger’s Alex is a tenacious federal agent tracking her. Their game of cat and mouse is consummately entertaining; as bonuses, Russell kisses Winger and tells her their relationship is the most memorable of her life.
This 1940 melodrama was Alfred Hitchcock’s first American movie and, amazingly, the only one of his to win the Best Picture Oscar. Among its many pleasures is Judith Anderson as housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who obviously carries a torch for the late Rebecca de Winter and torments the young woman (Joan Fontaine) who succeeds Rebecca as mistress of the manor house Manderley. Mrs. D. is by no means a positive character, but she’s hugely fun to watch. It’s said that Hitchcock was warned against portraying lesbian desire in the film, but he certainly got it across.
The 1963 original is so many times better than the misguided 1999 remake, there’s no comparison. It’s ideal for Halloween viewing but enjoyably chilling any time of year. Gorgeous Claire Bloom is the clairvoyant Theo, a chic early-’60s lipstick lesbian; she sports a Mary Quant wardrobe, runs a little shop in Greenwich Village, and wants to be more than “like sisters” with poor, repressed Eleanor (Julie Harris) while they investigate paranormal happenings in a truly creepy New England mansion. There’s no blood and gore (which the remake took to excess), but this movie may still make you want to sleep with the lights on—as compensation, Bloom will definitely haunt your dreams.
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Yes, everyone loves the recent HBO remake with Kate Winslet, but the 1945 Joan Crawford version remains a classic, and not just for the gay guys who savor its melodrama. For us, there’s the relationship of Mildred and her most faithful pal, Ida, played by Eve Arden, the quintessential “best friend” in vintage Hollywood cinema. They obviously care more about each other than any man—makes you wish they would take things to another level!
Bette Davis was Oscar-nominated for playing terminally ill socialite Judith Traherne in this 1939 “women’s picture” (she lost to Vivien Leigh, who starred in a little film about the Civil War). The men in her life include a pre-presidential Ronald Reagan as a playboy (if his movie career had been bigger, think what the nation would have been spared), a pre-superstardom Humphrey Bogart miscast as an Irish stableman, and a rather dull George Brent as an earnest doctor. But Judith’s closest bond is with her devoted secretary and companion Ann, played by the lovely Geraldine Fitzgerald, who brought style and grace to many a supporting role.
Showing that playing gay can make your career, not break it, Cher began being taken seriously as an actress after portraying Karen Silkwood’s lesbian friend Dolly in this 1983 biopic. Deglamourized and totally believable as a blue-collar dyke, Cher holds her own with Meryl Streep, who plays the titular whistle-blowing nuke-plant worker. Both were Oscar-nominated.
The same year her first Oscar-winning performance (in Kramer vs. Kramer) hit screens, Streep appeared as Woody Allen’s ex-wife, who has left him for a woman (the eminently sensible Connie, played by Karen Ludwig). Often called a love letter to New York City, this 1979 film has gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, glorious Gershwin music, and a literate, well-acted script that’s mostly about heterosexual romance—but Streep, haughty and beautiful, makes a lasting impression that shows why she would become the top actress of her generation.
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The 1966 film of Mary McCarthy’s popular 1963 novel tracks the lives of eight young women after graduation from an exclusive college in the 1930s and showcases another star at the start of her career—the stunning Candice Bergen as out-and-proud lesbian Elinor “Lakey” Eastlake. Other terrific actresses in the cast include Elizabeth Hartman, Shirley Knight, Joanna Pettet, Joan Hackett and Jessica Walter.
Bright Young Things:
Another period piece, this 2003 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (written for the screen and directed by gay thespian Stephen Fry) follows a group of upper-class young Brits behaving badly between the world wars. Among the large ensemble, the chief scene-stealer is Fenella Woolgar as the suit-wearing, substance-abusing, lady-loving Agatha Runcible. And that’s no small feat in a cast that features Emily Mortimer, Stephen Campbell Moore, James McAvoy, Stockard Channing, Michael Sheen and Dan Aykroyd.
Janet McTeer, winning raves for her lesbian turn in Albert Nobbs, starred in this underappreciated 2000 release as a musicologist who leaves academia and her patronizing male colleagues to research traditional folk tunes in Appalachia in the early 20th century. McTeer plays straight here, but the luminous Jane Adams (of Frasier fame) is her lesbian sister, with E. Katherine Kerr appearing as her lover, and their relationship is portrayed with frankness and sensitivity. The film has some romance, some tragedy, and lots of great music for Americana fans.