The significant Oscar recognition for Dallas Buyers Club was obvious when the Academy Award nominations were announced. Honoring the stunning performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto was to be expected as was the Best Picture nomination. However, additional nominations in categories of Original Screenplay, Editing, and Makeup showed how much the Academy adored Dallas Buyers Club. It played well to this group with a perfect combination: an inspiring story of overcoming improbable circumstances and the struggle of an oppressed minority. The raw acting talent made it excel. Now available on DVD/BluRay, Dallas Buyers Club joins other Focus Features titles that have paved the way for LGBTQ cinema.
Mr. McConaughey continues redefining his career in a stunning performance delivering a raw vulnerability of insecurities and self-loathing. Dallas Buyers Club (mostly) avoids fabricating shallow heroism (a weakness of bio-pics) of combating HIV to honestly show someone’s personal ambition to live life which also helps the greater good of his community. He starts a business smuggling drugs from Mexico assisting others while defying the medical establishment & FDA regulation to allow those with AIDS to live with dignity. Mr. Jared Leto (TV’s “My So Called Life,” the band 30 Seconds to Mars) gives the performance of a lifetime. Not since Heath Ledger’s Joker has an actor completely transformed into a kooky, unrecognizable supporting character so incredible it commands every second of screen time. At times Dallas Buyers Club almost suffers when he isn’t there. Mr. Leto as a transgendered individual isn’t indulging in a flamboyant gimmick, but rather becomes consumed in a broken, drug addicted person burdened by an unfamiliar identity. He is living in a judgmental society while dying from AIDS. Many beloved, A-List established actors will never accomplish a performance as fantastic as Leto does here. Mr. Leto recently addressed the controversy of playing a transgendered person as a straight man claiming that gay actors shouldnt be restricted from playing straight characters. These two standout performances are more noticiable with every re-watching of the awards screener.
One could see how Dallas Buyers Club is a fitting final tribute to influential Focus Features CEO James Schamus. Focus Features has made quiet the career on showcasing the struggles and victories of members of the LGBTQ community. When James Schamus started Focus Features, few could have envisioned the numerous, quality movies would come out from the studio reaching beyond the arthouses and into the mainstream. Many of those movies featured LGBTQ characters. In the span of the Focus Features history, numerous releases gave a voice to the LGBTQ that were marginalized beyond the stereotypes of a sassy sidekick in a mainstream comedy.
Here is a look at the Focus Features films that gave a voice to gay movie characters and the award recognition they received:
Far From Heaven (2002)
Set in 1950’s Connecticut, Housewife Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) discovers the homosexuality of her husband Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid). All is not well with their marriage as she seeks companionship from their African American gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). Both relationships confronted were alternatives to strict societal taboos. A husband coming out of the closet at a time where gay people were mostly shunned in American society was a daring and bold move for a studio. 4 Oscar nominations followed suit including one for Julianne Moore.
My Summer of Love (2004)
A budding young romance Mona (Natalie Press) and Tamsin (Emily Blunt) set in Yorkshire focused on the exploration of attraction. This movie didn’t really catch on in America. Politically, you could say, “The Autumn of Bigotry” took place as anti-gay marriage amendments were added onto the ballots in numerous states as a way to increase voter turnout to re-elect President George W. Bush. The most prominent award The Summer of Love won was the BAFTA for Best British film.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Comparing Focus Features prominence in gay cinema, nothing was as earthshattering as Brokeback Mountain. The story of a secret gay relationship between two cowboys (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) surprisingly became a definitive pop culture movie attending event during the awards season. Winning 3 Oscars including Best Directing, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score, Crash wrecked the Best Picture anticipated victory. Crash has faced the scorn of angry movie fans in the comment sections of Oscar blogs accusing the Academy of homophobia ever since. Despite losing the Best Picture Oscar, Brokeback Mountain has aged into a cinematic classic regardless of the official title.
The election of “Hope and Change” candidate Barack Obama was overshadowed by some with the backdrop of California’s Prop 8. Appropriately, it was ideal timing when Harvey Milk’s legacy was showcased in Milk which opened that same November. Harvey Milk was the first openly gay politican to win an election in California fighting for the decency of equal rights. The set back of the close vote for gay marriage in California among LGBTQ rights activist was countered by the inspiration found in the life of Harvey Milk. Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, Milk won two Oscars for Sean Penn and Best Original Screenplay for openly gay Dustin Lance Black.
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
The cultural shift drastically changed when The Kids Are All Right was released in the summer of 2010. A gay family was portrayed as a normal way of life in this family dramedy. The focus was on two teenagers of a lesbian couple wanting to meet their biological father. To the discomfort of social conservatives, I would claim that The Kids Are All Right is the most pro-family movie in years. Nominated for 4 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actress (Annette Bening), Best Supporting Actor (Mark Rufalo), and Best Original Screenplay, The Kids Are All Right was a small indie summer hit among critics and audiences.
Mike Mills presented a tender and humorous tale of family confession and redemption. The aging father (Christopher Plummer) of a lonesome graphic artist (Evan McGregor) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and comes out of the closet. He has the freedom to live his life honestly in both a serious and light heared look at family. As a supporting character, Christopher Plummer stole the movie wooing audiences and awards voters. He won numerous awards including a Best Supporting Academy Award.
Dee Rees exploration of urban gay youth was a risk for Focus Features. Considering many of their previous movies focused toward white, upscale audiences more tolerant toward homosexuality, Pariah was groundbreaking showcase of black youth exploring and coming to terms with a budding sexual identity as LGBTQ youth. Adepero Oduye (most recently in 12 Years A Slave) delivered a complex role overlooked by the Academy but received a nice Indie Spirit Award nomination for Best Actress.
As gay marriage laws were being passed in a few states, the unorthodox and underappreciated politically incorrect animated children’s movie ParaNorman featured a (minor spoiler warning) surprise gay character. The children’s animated adventure film about the haunting undead played for a lot of laughs and a few scares as well as one of Focus Features widest release. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, Sam Fell and Chris Butler’s ParaNorman also received recognition from GLAAD for Outstanding Film – Wide Release as well as some Chainsaw Award nominations from Fangoria.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
This brings us to the incredible work Mr. McConaughey and Mr. Leto command the screen in Dallas Buyers Club. They were the on-screen odd couple of 2013. As gay marriage is gaining legal recognition (and court challenges) in the Red States, it seems fitting a movie about a homophobic Southern man is transformed to understand gay people’s humanity and fight to live. He even sheds tears as he lost the close people around him. Dallas Buyers Club seems timelier than the average moviegoer realizes in regards to the South accepting people with alternative lifestyles. Academy Award winners seem likely in a few categories.
Finally, it is good to point out where Focus Features could potentially be heading as a studio. The acquisition of Focus Features from FilmDistrict will put the progressive indie studio at a crossroads. Sure they could make the same cutting edge features but would face the pressure of an emerging studio wanting to make money. For every movie FilmDistrict released like Drive, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Looper, the studio also distributed the remakes of Red Dawn, Old Boy, and Evil Dead. In honoring James Schamus’ Focus Features legacy, it would be fitting if FilmDistrict continued the tradition of distributing cutting edge and alternative movies instead of carbon copies of what the big studio system releases.
Writers Note: The original post claimed Kent Sanderson was a co-founder of Focus Features and the one who influenced the LGBTQ programming. He reached out to me via email to tell me that is not correct. Mr. Sanderson was on the “distribution side and acquisitions for the “Focus World” slate.” He said all the credit goes to the great James Schamus.