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In part 2, SCREEN-SPACE examines the coming-out of gay- and lesbian-themed works from the 1970's to the present day. (Read part 1 here)

(Pictured, Phoebe Hart's Orchids: My Intersex Adventure, 2010)

Several films from the much-lauded ‘renaissance’ period of Australasian filmmaking touched on homosexual ambiguity - Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Bruce Beresford’s The Getting of Wisdom (1978) employed corseted yet lilting explorations of hidden and unrequited same-sex longing; Tom Cowan’s Journey Among Woman (1977) drew strength and unity from female partnerships; New Zealander Richard Turner’s Squeeze (1979) was a bold experiment in homosexual cinema from the small Kiwi film community; Fred Schepisi’s The Devil Playground (1976) potently mixed Catholic guilt, teenage confusion and repressed homosexuality

Schepisi, however, upset gay audiences with his 1978 film The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, in which an elderly homosexual was portrayed as a predatory aggressor. Gay characters as evildoers onscreen is not particularly endemic to Australian cinema, but our filmmakers are as guilty of it as any other nations, amongst them Igor Auzins (High Rollin’, 1978), David Barker (The Great McCarthy, 1975) and Dr George Miller (Mad Max II, 1981).     

Whilst it is true that the 1970’s was a time of expanding cultural tolerance, of pushing the boundaries of acceptable social issues onscreen, this often manifested itself in crude representations of how ‘Ockers’ saw gay Australia. Bruce Beresford’s The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1971) and John D Lamond’s Felicity (1978) and The ABC of Love and Sex: Australian Style (1978) all presented queer living as the strangest of alternatives to mainstream society; Peter Bernardos’ bigscreen version of the hit TV series Number 96 (1974) took an each-way bet, featuring a camp caricature in Dudley Butterfield (Chard Hayward) and an urbane gay lawyer in Don Finlayson (Joe Hasham). Alternatively, positive representations of gay culture could be found in such underground hits as Pride and Snide (1973) and Paul Bugden’s Adam (1975).   

The 1980’s saw a major shift in the profile of gay culture in Australia, accompanied by a wave of exciting gay filmmaking talent. In 1982, anti-discrimination laws were introduced (Susan Lambert’s On Guard, 1983; Noellie Taylor’s Even Cowgirls, 1985; the works of Franco Di Chiera); in 1983, the AIDS epidemic began to impact the gay community (George Pugh’s AIDS, 1985; Bob Huber’s Understanding Sexuality, 1986). The Mardi Gras had mobilised the gay masses following a 1977 Sydney screening of the US documentary Word is Out; by the early 1980’s, its associated events, including the constantly-evolving film festival sidebar, became the frontline in the dissemination of information pertaining to the increase in mainstream acceptance of LGBT culture. Richard Turner documented the Mardi Gras parade in his landmark documentary We’ll Dance if We Want To (1984).

But without a doubt the greatest achievement of this 1980’s period in LGBT films was the foundation it laid for the familiarity and acceptance of gay characters on screen. At the start of the 1990’s, almost every Australian capital city had its own gay-themed film festival. In 1993, American comedienne Sandra Bernhardt travelled to Australia to star in Ann Turner’s lesbian-fish-out-of-water comedy, Dallas Doll, and audiences flocked to see Baz Luhrmann’s flamboyant Strictly Ballroom; Ruth Carr’s Mimi Pulka was Australia’s first indigenous lesbian-themed feature. Then, in 1994, the Australian mainstream audience came out to embrace homosexual characters and gay-themed storylines – it would be the year of Stephan Elliott’s The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Geoff Burton and Kevin Dowling’s The Sum of Us (pictured, left) and PJ Hogan’s kitschy, thinly-veiled same-sex relationship smash Muriel’s Wedding.

A gay sensibility had infused the production sector and audiences alike – this was the time of Emma-Kate Croghan’s Love and Other Catastrophes (1996), Lawrence Johnson's Life (1996), Anna Kokkinos’ Head On (1998) and Samantha Lang’s The Well (1997) and Monkey’s Mask (2000). It was not all good news for the gay cinema industry over this period; in 1995, twelve films screening at Tasmania's Queer Film Festival, including Spikes and Heels, Coming Out Under Fire, What a Lesbian Looks Like, Mad About the Boy, 21st Century Nuns and Sex Fish, were banned outright by the only state that (at the time) still outlawed consensual sex between age-appropriate men. But that was a blip on the radar from a decade that saw homosexual cinema conclusively enter the mainstream cinema-going habits.

The past decade began with Tony Ayres' (pictured, right) Walking on Water (2002), a bittersweet tale of friends dealing with the death of one of their own by AIDS. Ayers has been a leading figure in gay Australian cinema – he produced the 1991 documentary Double Trouble, which examined the multi-faceted prejudices faced by LGBT Aboriginals, inspiring similar works from Reno Dal (Voices, 1997) and Lou Glover (Black Sheep, 1999); he would also produce the documentaries China Doll (1997) and Sadness (1999), which examined the lives of gay Asian Australians.

We are seeing a new dawning of equally-committed LGBT filmmakers – creatives who grew up through the impassioned emergence of gay cinema in the 80’s and 90’s. Phoebe Hart’s documentary Orchids: My Intersex Adventure (2010) chronicles Hart’s journey of self-discovery; Robert Chuter’s The Dream Children (2011) examines the adoption process as it affects the lives of two gay men who want to have a child; and the annual Mardi Gras Film Festival effortlessly programs diverse Australian short films from a wide-range of talented, emerging directors.




Australia's 'Pink Cinema' culture and the representation of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender Australians on our cinema screens is as expansive as the history of our mainstream film heritage. SCREEN-SPACE presents the first of our two-part examination of the role that our national cinema has played in reflecting and defining the LGBT community.

(Pictured, Lou Glover's Black Sheep, 1999)


A furtive glance back over the first 100 years of Australian cinema indicates that our filmmakers are not averse to the onscreen representation of homosexuality in our culture. What does emerge, however, is that in reflecting the profile of gay and lesbian Australia, our films have perpetuated our society’s misunderstanding of or, worse still, its prejudices towards the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) culture.

But that has not always been the case; in fact, it has only been in the last 20 years that Australian gay cinema has found a receptive sector in mainstream cinema culture. Prior to that period, homosexuality was peripheral to the main narrative, mostly existing as either comical relief or thinly-veiled caricature. Legendary film pioneer Ken G Hall introduced us to ‘Entwistle’, a mincing owner of a ladies fashion boutique in Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938, pictured). As played by South African actor Alec Kellaway, the character’s showy femininity ensured cheap laughs at the expense of homosexual flamboyance (though, in fairness to the production, the character did ultimately play a wise and supportive role in the Rudd family story). So popular was ‘Entwistle’ with audiences, he returned in Dad Rudd MP (1940) and set the tone for the onscreen depiction of gay men for nearly 40 years.

A far more thematically-ambiguous device from this very early period of Australian film culture is that of cross-dressing. Dusty outback melodramas would often feature tough-as-nails women, the ‘jilleroos’of legend, suitably attired to fight the elements in the same garb as the men. This led to often-knowing encounters, however shrouded in masculine bravado, in such films as husband-and-wife team Louise Lovely and Wilton Welch’s Jewelled Nights (1925; their marriage would end when Welch revealed his bisexuality), Lawson Harris’ Sunshine Sally (1922), Hall’s The Squatter's Daughter (1933) and Lovers and Luggers (1937, pictured; referred to by its detractors at the time as ‘Lovers and Buggers’) and Ralph Smart’s Bitter Springs (1950). Male-to-female cross-dressing, generally employed for farcical means, surfaced in AC Tindale’s The Laugh on Dad (1918), Franklyn Barrett’s The Breaking of the Drought (1920) and PJ Ramster’s Should a Girl Propose (1926).

Particularly important to the representation of gay longings onscreen from the era is Clarence Badger’s Rangle River (1936, pictured). RAF pilot Reggie Mannister (Robert Coote) has several moments in the country-set soap opera where he very obviously seeks the affection of co-lead Victor Jory, playing the handsome Dick Drake. A restored screening of the film at the 2004 Mardi Gras Film Festival drew resounding applause from an audience able to identify with the film’s depiction of misunderstood, silent passion.

The tide of social change that swept through conservative Western cultures in the late 1960’s led to a landmark film in the depiction of authentic same-sex relationships – Frank Brittain’s The Set (1970, below). In its portrayal of a cross-section of love stories in the bohemian inner-city enclaves, The Set features lesbian romances and gay awakenings with an earnestness that was admirable for the period. The film features an appearance by renowned drag queen ‘Candy’ (American Ken Johnson) and was one of the first high-profile Australian films to explore the alternative gay lifestyle with some modicum of truth and minimum of exploitation.

Also crucial to the emergence of a gay cinema culture at the start of the 1970’s was the Ubu Film Collective (later The Sydney Film-Makers Co-op). Having riled the Censorship Board with its gay-themed parody The Sound of Mucus (1965), Ubu became the first stop for fearless, experimental filmmakers and produced same-sex themed films from Gillian Armstrong (Satdee Night, 1973), Jan Chapman (Showtime, 1977), Jeni Thornley (Maidens, 1978) and Peter Wells (Foolish Things, 1981). One of the legacies of the Ubu era was the formation of the Gay Film Fund, which supported homosexual projects and filmmakers between 1976 and 1980.

Stemming from the country’s strong factual film-making tradition, documentaries reflected a willingness to embrace topics that were once taboo, thereby helping to shape a landscape of tolerance. Key amongst them were Barbara Creed’s Homosexuality: A Need for Discussion (1975), Digby Duncans’ Witches, Faggots, Poofters and Dykes (1979) and Fiona Cunningham Reid’s Feed Them to the Cannibals (1992).

Traits that ‘out’ otherwise-closeted homosexual characters onscreen have afforded gay Australian audiences some cinematic acknowledgement of their lifestyle, but invoke a conundrum. There is satisfaction to be found in connecting with the below-the-surface subtleties of such characterisations but gay audiences must then reconcile themselves with the secretive nature in which they are presented. Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971, pictured) slyly explored simmering homosexuality in a desolate outback region via the both the lead character, English teacher John Grant (played by openly-gay actor Gary Bond) and the leering, mentally-unstable ‘Doc’ Tydon (Donald Pleasance) – educated, understated men, unable to assimilate with the brashness of the Aussie male (embodied by a strapping, mostly-pissed Jack Thompson) and  whom the working-class Australia of the early 1970’s would have labelled ‘pommy poofters’.

In PART 2: LGBT influence upon the Australian film renaissance of the 1970s; The mainstream embraces gay culture; Strong new voices....

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