Is Hollywood still in love with the suffering ‘gay icon’? | Film

There’s a touching scene in the new movie Judy (as in Garland), when the legendary trouper, played by Renée Zellweger, meets two gay fans after her London show and invites herself back to theirs for dinner. After a comically disastrous meal, the tone turns melancholy, as Garland laments her unhappy life and her hosts reflect on theirs, as closeted partners in pre-legalisation 1960s Britain. It’s a little moment of solidarity that gets to the heart of Garland’s gay appeal.

Judy Garland didn’t simply tick the boxes for “gay icon”, she created those boxes: child stardom, tragic life, big showtunes, drag-friendly stage persona, addictions, comebacks, having sung Over the Rainbow. Not to mention her unfortunate habit of marrying men who turned out to prefer other men (weirdly, her daughter Liza Minnelli did the same). But as that scene in Judy underscores, it was a different era.

Even in her lifetime, Garland’s gay following was remarked upon, often in sneering and homophobic ways. “She has the power that homosexuals would like to have, and they attempt to attain it by idolising her,” a psychiatrist helpfully explained in a Time magazine article in 1967, which observed how many of Garland’s fans were “boys in tight trousers”. When a TV interviewer later brought up the article, Garland defended her fans: “I’ve been misquoted and rather brutally treated by the press but I’ll be damned if I like to have my audience mistreated.”

Has it become easier to attain gay icon status today? Maybe you only need to tick a few of those boxes, rather than going the full Garland. Cultivating a gay fanbase can be a shrewd career move for a straight performer: just ask Kylie, or Taylor Swift. Or Renée Zellweger, who attended this July’s Pride parade in London, where she unveiled a new trailer for Judy. Is that solidarity or opportunism?

One key difference, perhaps, is that it is now possible to have gay icons who are actually gay themselves. But while we reward actors (often straight ones) for portraying gay icons on the screen, LGBTQ performers are still punished for their sexuality by the industry. Just this month we have had Cara Delevingne revealing that Harvey Weinstein once told her: “You will never make it in this industry as a gay woman – get a beard.” And Kristen Stewart saying she was told she might get a Marvel movie if she didn’t hold hands publicly with her girlfriend so much. Many a modern LGBTQ actor has told a similar story: Ellen Page, Rupert Everett, Ezra Miller and Sarah Paulson to name a few.

As with Judy Garland, that cherished “icon” status is often bound up with suffering. It is recognition not just for being fabulous, but for having paid a price. We’re not over that rainbow yet.