Thursday morning’s Oscar nominations were more notable for who they left out than the group of names included. The announcement was a list of the usual suspects: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, and Mark Ruffalo. Notably absent from the pool was any actor of color—the second year in a row that the Academy has elected an all-white group of nominees—and Todd Haynes’ Carol, the acclaimed 1950s lesbian drama starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Carol’s actors both reaped nods, but the film and its director were shut out of the top categories, despite that Carol was considered all but a lock for a Best Picture nod.
After Haynes—one of the most eclectic and accomplished talents of his generation—was snubbed at the Director’s Guild, there were rumblings that he might be shut out, yet again, from the Oscar shortlist. (In his place, the Academy tapped The Big Short’s Adam McKay and Room’s Lenny Abrahamson for kudos.) But the film’s shutout shouldn’t have been a major shock. Exactly a decade after Brokeback Mountain was famously snubbed at the 2006 Oscars—thwarted by Paul Haggis’ Crash in a shocking upset victory—Carol’s snub is just how the Academy does business. To date, a queer-themed movie has still never won Best Picture, and those that do receive any kind of recognition prominently feature queer suffering.
To win an Oscar for playing gay, everyone knows you have to kick the bucket. In the history of the Academy Awards, only two actors have won an award for playing an LGBT character who lives to see the end of the movie: Penelope Cruz joined the grand tradition of Woody Allen ingenues by winning Best Supporting Actress in 2009 for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. She took home a trophy for playing Maria Elena, a tortured artist with a violent streak who gets involved in a dangerous (and sapphic) love-triangle with Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson).
In 2006, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman snagged a Best Actor award for playing writer and socialite Truman Capote. As Bennett Miller’s Capote focuses on the complicated relationship between Capote and the subject of the 1965 non-fiction opus In Cold Blood, Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), its protagonist’s death takes place off screen. He’s killed off by the closing credits, an intertitle card informing us that nearly two decades after the release of his most famous work—after which he would never publish another book—he died of liver cancer (likely caused by years of alcoholism). He was 59.
Most queer characters who are the subject of an Oscar-winning performance, however, don’t get the dignity to die outside the camera’s gaze. Charlize Theron won Oscar gold in 2004 for playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, and the film ends with her death by lethal injection. In The Hours, writer Virginia Woolf—who was known to have relationships with women—kills herself. The final moments of the film are her suicide note, read by Nicole Kidman with maximum tenderness as Woolf walks into a river. In Philadelphia, Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) dies of HIV in extreme close-up, as he tells his partner, Miguel: “I’m ready.”
From Kiss Of The Spider Woman to Boys Don’t Cry, the Academy Awards have a fetishistic relationship with queer misery and struggle. The Oscars like seeing queer bodies broken and begging for humanity, rather than fully human and already deserving of our respect. In an essay for BuzzFeed, Allison Wilmore argues that the issue is that most “Oscar movies” aren’t made with queer audiences in mind: They use “characters as symbols rather than as people unto themselves, and mediating stories through the more ‘relatable’ perspectives of outsiders and allies.” In other words, if queer audiences are already aware that we are people, Philadelphia was made for those who have yet to be convinced.
But that ubiquity of violence against queer characters can erase the exact communities filmmakers hope to advocate for. In Dallas Buyers Club, the death of Rayon (Jared Leto)—a trans sex worker with HIV—is treated as a footnote to the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), a straight man who learns tolerance. During his controversial acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, Leto didn’t even say the word “transgender.” Instead, he credited the “Rayons of the world” for the inspiration to make the movie, as if the only reason trans people die is so that Jared Leto can get an award for playing them. (He went onto win the Oscar for that performance.)
The stories of LGBT people can be important teachable moments in our nation’s ongoing struggle for equality, but the issue is that awards groups like the Oscars only tend to recognize a single story—in which queer people are being sacrificed for our sins. That non-narrative often has the opposite intended effect: According to Decider’s James Worsdale, it illustrates that all queer characters are “deranged, dead, or doomed.” Instead of proving that we are human, too, it creates a nonstop pattern of punishment. As Wilmore suggests, it’s as if Oscar movies implicitly are apologizing for the exact people they purport to find “brave” and “inspiring.”
Queer audiences aren’t the only population who is faced with this issue when it comes to the way their stories are represented onscreen. After being passed over for a nomination for his performance as Martin Luther King last year, Selma’s David Oyelowo said that this is indicative of how the Academy Awards treat black narratives. “We, as black people, have been celebrated more for when we are subservient, when we are not being leaders or kings or being at the center of our own narrative,” he told the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Thus, movies like The Help, in which black characters serve as props in a white person’s story, are more likely to get recognized than Straight Outta Compton or Creed.
The latter pair of movies—like Carol—were likewise omitted from this year’s Oscar race, despite the fact that Straight Outta Compton had been picking up major awards season momentum. The F. Gary Gray-directed film made the cut at both the Producers Guild and in the Best Cast category at the Screen Actors Guild awards, the group’s equivalent to Best Picture. No film has earned Best Picture without a Best Cast nomination since 1995, when Braveheart upset Apollo 13 at the Oscars. Creed had to settle for a lone Supporting Actor nomination for Sylvester Stallone.
What makes films like these quietly radical is that they create narratives where pain isn’t the raison d’être. If Roxane Gay suggested that 12 Years A Slave exists to see slaves horrifically beaten before the camera’s unflinching eye—and for no other purpose—then Creed deals with the same themes as every sports movie: overcoming the odds. As Aisha Harris argues in Slate, what’s so revolutionary about Ryan Coogler’s film is its very retro, old-fashioned feel—the fact that the exact same story could be told about a white character and it would change almost nothing about the film. Instead of being a symbol for the black experience, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) gets to do something just as powerful: be his own person.
The reason that Carol is unique and extraordinary is likewise the exact reason that the Academy didn’t deem it Best Picture-worthy. Patricia Highsmith’s The Price Of Salt was a landmark work of LGBT fiction, not just because it was published in 1952 (a time many Americans were unaware lesbians even existed) but because it didn’t punish its star-crossed lovers for their desires. In Gore Vidal’s early gay novella The City And The Pillar, Jim cannot have Bob, the now-married object of his affections, and so he rapes his ex-lover in a hotel room; the original draft ended with Bob’s murder. The Price Of Salt, however, leaves the door open for a happy ending.
Haynes’ film adaptation is more explicit about the possibility of a future between Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who meet in the department store where Therese works. The two strike up a tentative romance in a Brief Encounter-style fashion—conducted through whispers and quiet glances—but societal convention (and Carol’s ex-husband, Harge) stand in the way. In a more conventional treatment, Harge (Kyle Chandler) would have murdered Carol for daring to leave him.
But the film doesn’t swoon with death; instead, it leaves us with hope. Carol’s final shot is as unforgettable as anything I’ve seen this year, simply because it feels like something I’ve been waiting for decades to see: Queer people falling passionately in love, without having to apologize for their happiness. What makes stories like the romance portrayed in Carol isn’t the ecstasy of queer agony but that that there were real women like Carol Aird and Therese Belivet. The simple act of loving someone and being loved in return might not win Oscars, but these everyday acts of courage made an entire generation of LGBT victories possible. Carol and Therese didn’t have to die for their lives to have purpose; they were meaningful because they lived.