From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Lesbianism, or the suggestion of it, began early in filmmaking. The same constructs of how lesbians were portrayed—or for what reasons—as what had appeared in literature were placed on women in the movies. Women challenging their feminine roles was a device more easily accepted than men challenging masculine ones. Actresses appeared as men in male roles due to plot devices as early as 1914 in A Florida Enchantment featuring Edith Storey, in Morocco (1930) Marlene Dietrich kisses another woman on the lips, and Katherine Hepburn plays a man in Christopher Strong in 1933 and again in Sylvia Scarlett (1936). Hollywood films followed the same trend set by audiences who flocked to Harlem to see edgy shows that suggested bisexuality. Overt female homosexuality was introduced in 1929's Pandora's Box between Louise Brooks and Alice Roberts. However, the development of the Hays Code in 1930 censored most references to homosexuality from film under the umbrella term "sex perversion". German films depicted homosexuality and were distributed throughout Europe, but 1931's Mädchen in Uniform was not distributed in the U.S. due to the depiction of an adolescent's love for a female teacher in boarding school.
Because of the Hays Code, lesbianism after 1930 was absent from most films, even those adapted with overt lesbian characters or plot devices. Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour was converted into a heterosexual love triangle and retitled These Three. Biopic Queen Christina in 1933, starring Greta Garbo veiled most of the speculation about Christina of Sweden's affairs with women. Homosexuality or lesbianism was never mentioned outright in the movies while the Hays Code was enforced. The reason censors stated for removing a lesbian scene in 1954's The Pit of Loneliness was that it was, "Immoral, would tend to corrupt morals". The code was relaxed somewhat after 1961, and the next year William Wyler remade The Children's Hour with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. After MacLaine's character admits her love for Hepburn's, she hangs herself; this set a precedent for miserable endings in films addressing homosexuality. Gay characters also were often killed off at the end, such as the death of Sandy Dennis' character at the end of The Fox in 1968. If not victims, lesbians were depicted as villains or morally corrupt, such as portrayals of brothel madames by Barbara Stanwyck in A Walk on the Wild Side from 1962 and Shelley Winters in The Balcony in 1963, or predators such as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940), women's prison films like Caged (1950), or Rosa Klebb in From Russia, With Love (1963). Lesbian vampire themes have reappeared in Dracula's Daughter (1936), Blood and Roses (1960), and The Hunger (1983). Basic Instinct (1991) featured a bisexual murderer played by Sharon Stone; it was one of several films that set off a storm of protests about the depiction of gays as predators.
The first film to address lesbianism with significant depth was The Killing of Sister George in 1968, which was filmed in The Gateways Club, a longstanding lesbian pub in London. It is the first to claim a film character who identifies as a lesbian, and film historian Vito Russo considers the film a complex treatment of a multifaceted character who is forced into silence about her openness by other lesbians. Personal Best in 1982, and Lianna in 1983 treat the lesbian relationships more sympathetically and show lesbian sex scenes, though in neither film are the relationships happy ones. Personal Best was criticized for engaging in the cliched plot device of one woman returning to a relationship with a man, implying that lesbianism is a phase, as well as treating the lesbian relationship with "undisguised voyeurism". More ambiguous portrayals of lesbian characters were seen in Silkwood (1983), The Color Purple (1985), and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), despite explicit lesbianism in the source material.
An era of independent filmmaking brought different stories, writers, and directors to movies. Desert Hearts arrived in 1985, during a surge in independent gay and lesbian filmmaking to be one of the most successful. Directed by lesbian Donna Deitch, it is loosely based on Jane Rule's novel Desert of the Heart. It received mixed critical reviews, but earned positive reviews from the gay press. The late 1980s and early 1990s ushered in a series of films treating gay and lesbian issues seriously, made by gays and lesbians, nicknamed New Queer Cinema. Films using lesbians as a subject included Rose Troche's avant garde romantic comedy Go Fish (1994) and the first film about African American lesbians, Cheryl Dunye's The Watermelon Woman, in 1995. Realism in films depicting lesbians developed further to include romance stories such as The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love and When Night is Falling, both in 1995, Better Than Chocolate (1999), and the social satire But I'm A Cheerleader in 2001. A twist on the lesbian-as-predator theme was the added complexity of motivations of some lesbian characters in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994), the Oscar-winning biopic of Aileen Wuornos, Monster (2003), and the exploration of fluent sexuality and gender in Chasing Amy (1997), Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), and Boys Don't Cry (1999).