by: Addison Bell
The other night I watched Beginners, a film about a man (Ewan McGregor) coping with his father’s (Christopher Plummer) terminal cancer and also with the discovery that his father is gay. I cannot remember the last time I cried so much because of a movie. No, not crying, sobbing. Uncontrollably.
Hal comes out of the closet at the age of 75, shortly after his wife of 45 years passes away. The film shook me for several reasons. Hal lives with the secret of his homosexuality for almost a lifetime. His wife is miserable throughout most of her marriage. As a result of his parents’ unhappiness, Oliver (McGregor) is unable to stay in relationships, until he meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent), but she also has commitment issues. Perhaps the saddest part, though, is that Hal dies shortly after he meets his young lover. Although Hal finally finds someone to love and finds freedom through it, the tragedy is that he only experiences it for a short time.
Seldom do I cry, and when I do, something bad has happened or I am incredibly moved. I cry more when I read than I do when I watch movies (one film that always gets me is Old Yeller). After I watched the movie, I thought about why this is. In books, I feel more attached to the characters because I dedicate more time to them. Movies are different because on average a film lasts two hours, so I do not feel like I am that invested in those characters.
But then I watch a film like Beginners and I lose it.
Even though I am not in my 70s or closeted, I felt like I could relate to Hal. I understand what it is like to live with the burden of such a secret, but I could not imagine what it would be like to live with it for most of your life. Repressing my homosexuality almost destroyed me. When I came out, there was an ecstasy of relief. All of the fear went away. What was dark became light. I imagine that Hal feels the same way, which is why it is so devastating that he only experiences a brief period as an out gay man.
Then I thought about George (Colin Firth) in A Single Man (originally a novel by Christopher Isherwood). This was another film that broke my heart. I found it sad that George had to hide his identity from so many people. Of course, his grieving of his partner’s death is more devastating. This one of the first queer films I saw after I came out, and I remember thinking, “I want to love someone as much as George loved Jim, and I want to be loved like that.” But then I thought of how sad it would be to keep such a love hidden from everyone. The fact that George loses one of the only people who knows about his homosexuality and is practically left alone to suffer is what killed me.
George’s situation — of keeping his homosexuality a secret — is similar to some of my other favorite queer characters. David (Michael C. Hall) from “Six Feet Under” struggles from keeping his identity from his family. When he is around them, he is cold and rigid, but when he is with his boyfriend/partner, Keith, he is able to show his true colors.
Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry faces similar difficulty, although her trans character, Brandon, has to hide his gender. I watched Boys Don’t Cry for the first time in high school. My friend, who was one of the openly lesbians I knew, invited me over to watch it. I grew up in a very small, close-minded town, so I knew very little about transgendered people and the issues that they face.
After we watched the movie, we sat in silence for a few minutes. My friend looked over at me and realized that I was silently crying. She asked me what was wrong and I said something among the lines of, “It’s so sad.”
But it was more than sad. Boys Don’t Cry takes place in a small, rural town, much like my own. How Brandon is treated in the film made me realize how cruel and uncompassionate people can be. When I watched the film, I thought that I would never be able to come out, because I was terrified of being ridiculed and attacked. I admired Hilary Swank’s character for his bravery, a bravery that I thought I would never have.
Obviously, I get upset when I see people (and animals) suffering either physically, mentally or emotionally, which is why Steve Carrel’s Frank in Little Miss Sunshine is another one of my favorites. I always tear up when Olive asks him, “Why were you unhappy?” Frank replies, “I fell in love with somebody who didn’t love me back.”
Of course, I did not get upset the first time I watched the movie — because I had not experienced a serious relationship and I hadn’t come out yet. And, honestly, I could not fathom why he would attempt suicide over unrequited love. But now when I watch it, I just want to give Frank a hug — because I completely understand him.
It is not that I necessary fall for characters in pain. While I dislike “Glee,” I love Kurt and want to marry Chris Colfer; Jack from “Will & Grace” never fails in lifting my spirits; I admire Maxxie from “Skins” (the U.K. version, not the shitty MTV show) for his determination.
Nor do I pity queer characters because of their struggles, and I certainly do not want the straight population to pity them either. I grew up believing that my life would play out like a Drew Barrymore or Julia Roberts film. When I realized that this notion was complete bullshit, I distrusted movies and put my faith in books. I still connect more with literature, but I find comfort in queer characters — because several of them do not seem fictional to me. I love them for what they represent. I watch them on the screen and I feel proud—not sad—because they are, in so many ways, the voice of who I am.
Addison Bell is a senior at DePaul University where he is studying English Literature. He is the President of Oxfam DePaul and volunteers with Oxfam America, an organization dedicated to ending world hunger, poverty, and social injustice. Follow Jacob on Twitter @boy_1904 and on Tumblr: colourmegreenwich.tumblr.com.