The Gayest Movies That Aren’t Actually Gay

A movie doesn’t have to be gay to be, well, gay. So what makes a movie gay if it isn’t explicitly? Cast a few top-shelf gay icons in there — your Bette Middlers, your Joan Crawfords, your Faye Dunaways playing Joan Crawford — and especially have them reparteeing bitchy lines tearing each other to pieces, and have an aesthetic that’s outre and unironically camp, and you’ve got the winning-formula starter-pack for something deliciously fabulous and queer, even if not by intentional design.

Some films have gotten swept up into the queer canon by virtue of their unintentional awfulness or arguable quality (“Showgirls,” “Mommie Dearest,” “Glitter,” that ghastly but delightful remake of “The Stepford Wives”) while others actually push forward the cinematic medium to create something that stands the tests of time and the weathers of queer folks and their mercurial tastes. Robert Zemeckis’ Oscar-winning “Death Becomes Her” boasts the double whammy of Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn ripping each other apart in an actress-diva showdown that’s about actress-diva showdowns, but the campy classic also broadened the borders of in-camera and CGI effects in cinema. How did they get Goldie Hawn to look like she actually had a hole in her stomach (“There’s a hole in my stomach!”) after Meryl Streep shotguns one right through her? It’s simpler than it looks.

But setting a precedent for movies now canonized by gay culture that don’t technically have any (non-coded, anyway) gay characters were some of Hollywood’s most all-time legendary actresses: Bette Davis in “All About Eve” made “it’s going to be a bumpy ride” an idiomatic quip, while Elizabeth Taylor then made Bette Davis’ “what a dump” even more iconic again in the opening line of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” delivered while gnawing down on a chicken wing. And what’s queerer than a biting or saucy comeback in the age of Reading? Whoopi Goldberg in “The Sister Act” made “it’s better than sex” a retort so embedded in the cultural consciousness that we almost forget where it came from.

Ed Bianchi’s 1981 “The Fan,” meanwhile, delivered perhaps the greatest gift to gay film fans of a certain era in casting Lauren Bacall as an aging actress struggling to hold onto her legacy while being stalked by, what else but, a psychotic gay fan. Films like “9 to 5” and “Steel Magnolias” keep captivating us because their casts are all top-to-toe, iconic-among-the-gays women who can induce tears and laughs and shout unforgettably quotable lines in the same scene. Even documentaries can resonate among the queer community who’ve adopted the films’ banter into their own everyday speech: What really is the best costume for today, as Little Edie says in the Maysles’ monumental “Grey Gardens”? There’s also, of course, the trend in many of these movies of men being humiliated and debased — something the gay males in the audience love to partake in — leaving our iconic women with all the chips in the end and whom we can leave the theater rooting for.

Below, IndieWire rounds up some of the best decidedly non-gay films that are actually gay after all — and gayer than many contemporary movies proclaiming themselves as such actually are. Horror films have been excluded (since there’s a separate list for that), and all entires are ordered chronologically.

With editorial contributions by Tom Brueggemann, Wilson Chapman, and Mark Peikert. 

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