A Queer Slate, In Focus

The studio that brought us ‘Brokeback Mountain’ turns 20.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in "Brokeback Mountain." Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

For 20 years now, Focus Features has been distributing and funding queer-focused movies, marketing them successfully to a wide audience even early on. As a specialty distribution and production company responsible for works as disparate as “Beginners,” “Pariah” and “Brokeback Mountain,” Focus has always occupied a unique place in the pre-streaming landscape. Able to bring both star-driven and smaller works to arthouse and multiplex audiences alike, it’s played a key role in pushing queer works (just a portion of its output) into the center of both film and popular culture.

Led in its first decade by co-founder and influential LGBTQ+ ally James Schamus, who departed the company in 2011, Focus owes much of its success to the groundwork he laid prior, and often with frequent collaborator and “Brokeback Mountain” director Ang Lee. Schamus, whose producing and writing credits stretch back to 1990 (and included biting queer works lke Todd Haynes’ “Safe and Poison,” along with Tom Kalin’s “Swoon”), managed to feature and elevate queer characters and creators early on. But Focus’ brand under his stewardship and after has long skewed less abrasive, closer to the mold of works like his and Lee’s 1993 film “The Wedding Banquet”: a bright comedy of manners about a gay Taiwanese immigrant (Winston Chao) struggling to conceal his identity and relationship from his visiting parents.

By situating queer characters in polished movies like “The Wedding Banquet,” rooted in more familiar film forms, Focus’ output found new ways of making and marketing queer-centric and even queer-adjacent works inviting to a broader audience. Rarely positioning queer people as rebels, deviants or outsiders — as had so often been done before — Focus’ material instead spotlighted what they gave to culture, upending the narratives in which they’ve fought to play a part.

Throughout its life, Focus has proved a welcoming environment for so many queer films, with a body of work reflecting shifts in attitudes and concerns. In light of this impact during their 20th anniversary, what follows is a consideration of a portion of their queer-related works.

‘Far From Heaven’ (2002)

Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid in “Far From Heaven.” Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

Reuniting Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore after their stirring work in “Safe,” “Far” made explicit both the critical and nostalgic 1950s references that colored a wave of works then in both the arthouse and mainstream around its time. But instead of treating them gravely (as in “American Beauty”) or comically (see “Blast from the Past”) — and in both cases from a kind of distance — Haynes raced directly to the waters of one of the period’s deepest wells in his treatments of societally forbidden queer and interracial romance. Embracing both the vibrant, suggestive colors and the accompanying seasonality of Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows,” “Far” is a melodrama like Sirk’s — but one whose acting timbre skewed just slightly more contemporary, giving it a separate sort of bite. But the mode for Haynes offers more than just décor, allowing for both an enduring social portrait and a way of reflecting on the senseless intractability of social ills that’s lost none of its sting now. With Dennis Quaid starring opposite Moore as her repressed-but-caught-cruising husband, he offsets any air of victimhood on her part for the ways he’s convinced himself he’s sick — a Haynes standby if there ever was one.

‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005)

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Brokeback Mountain.” Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

Few queer works seem to have made so broad an impression on audiences as “Brokeback,” which seems to have been the point. “We really wanted to make a big, gooey, epic love story, Schamus told the Harvard Crimson in 2005, going on to describe its “hot, man-on-man action” as “a slight twist,” even calling the film “conservative.” And in a way he’s right, considering the reassurances it offers viewers through the shape of its two leads. By centering Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger’s fraught gay romance around cowboys in figure if not fact (technically they tend sheep), the film offers playful reassurances of their manhood in a way that mirrored the positioning of Eric McCormack’s title character in “Will & Grace.” By assuring audiences that its cis gay characters could still present as masculine, and even marry women well, it lampoons the “real men” notion of performative manhood even as it invites viewers in with it — quietly underlining that no activity, affiliation, or mode of presentation prevents a person from being gay. Thanks to this odd seduction, the most skeptical and queer-resistant viewers might be likeliest of all to mourn the unfairness of its end.

‘Milk’ (2008)

Sean Penn as Milk in “Milk.” Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

“In front of a hostile audience or a mostly straight one, I might break the tension with a joke,” says Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk in an onscreen speech. The line’s a pun itself, playing on not only Milk’s candidacy — to be the first gay American man to hold public office — but on the film’s uneasy courtship of mainstream and awards season viewers. Van Sant presents Milk in his 40s as an underdog, rookie politician; Penn answers with quips and what we’re to take for sparkling wit, sprightly and eager to please. Executed years after “Good Will Hunting,” Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black color largely within the lines here — many drawn by Rob Epstein’s 1984 nonfiction work “The Times of Harvey Milk.” Despite this basis, the “Milk” script feels lacking and oddly shapeless, rarely so clever as its actors or its crew. Somewhere in it there’s a story focused on the rituals of underdog queer performance in a field of American competition — but maybe that’s how its makers saw the movie itself. As it stands, its best features live in its margins. Pete Buttigieg surely took some notes.

‘The Kids Are All Right’ (2010)

Annette Bening (left), Julianne Moore (center) and Mia Wasikowska (right) in The Kids Are All Right. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

“Usually in these movies, they hire two straight women to pretend and the inauthenticity is just unbearable,” says Julianne Moore’s Jules when her daughter asks about the man-on-man porn she’s watching: perhaps a queasy form of comment on its two leads. Starring opposite Moore is Annette Bening as Nic, making for a picturesque if somewhat stereotypic lesbian pair for the time. Their nuclear family life’s stirred up early by the entrance of interloper Paul (Mark Ruffalo), the rakish bachelor sperm donor who (biologically) fathered their two children some 18 years back — and who, with growing determination, seeks to become a fixture in their lives. Comically treating the question of whether he has anything to offer them, the film feels uneasily responsive to skeptics of lesbian child-rearing (director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko herself became pregnant via a donor during the film’s development) while offering a depiction of queer parenthood rarer at its release than now. The result remains an answer to something that shouldn’t be a question, and a work that feels today like an issue film meant for its own time.

‘Beginners’ (2011)

Goran Visnjic (left) and Academy Award nominee Christopher Plummer (right) star in writer/director Mike Mills’ BEGINNERS. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

With this coming-out movie working outside the usual mode, Mike Mills offered a largely autobiographical take on queer life that still feels refreshing for its lack of prescriptions. Mills treats hisqueer characters from a close distance as an adult son, Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor), observes his widowed father, Hal (Christopher Plummer), coming out near the end of his life. What’s done here feels remarkably settled and peaceful considering the potential drama in play. Never treating Hal’s identity as a problem for Oliver to solve, the film acknowledges the tensions and small ironies in supporting Hal through periods of adjustment — both to terminal sickness and to queer life. Premised on calm acceptance and allowing for occasional bemusement, “Beginners” avoids cloying, performative or histrionic treatments by remaining low-key, honest and fair.

‘Pariah’ (2011)

Aasha Davis as Bina (left) and Adepero Oduye as Alike (right) in writer/director Dee Rees’ “Pariah.” Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Less about self-acceptance than self-discovery — and then negotiating one’s identity with those nearby — “Pariah” feels less frothy than many coming-out tales about young people. Finding Lee (played by Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old Black teen, caught between the often practically minded, sometimes faltering companionship of a few close peers and the eerie mind games pressed by her suspecting, conservative-minded parents, it’s distinct from many such works in that she faces a credible threat of reprisal for acknowledging who she is. As such, “Pariah” finds her negotiating with her surroundings in small, bold steps, and even steps backward. With writer-director Dee Rees’ and cinematographer Bradford Young’s shared eye for detail and a buoyant range of supporting characters they reliably treat humanely, “Pariah” bubbles with an energy that suggests an autobiographically informed, stubborn core of optimism about Black queer life.

‘The Danish Girl’ (2015)

Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

After limping through development for over 10 years (not uncommon), “The Danish Girl” arrived as an ill-formed work. With a flat depiction of its transgender leading character, director Tom Hooper (coming off Best Picture winner “The King’s Speech”) dramatizes Danish painter Lili Elbe’s pioneering medical transition as a grandly tragic Icarian act, implying that it’s necessarily self-destructive for her to affirm herself as the person she is. With this well-meaning valorization, Hooper combs through history to find and treat Lili (played by Eddie Redmayne) as a kind of doomed angel with her identity as basically her sole trait: a well-weathered, nervously supportive trope of queer representation. While its casting of a cis actor has done it no favors (even according to Redmayne), “The Danish Girl” could probably have never escaped Hooper’s coy stagings or Lucinda Coxon’s poor script. Well-meaning as it surely is, this should have been left in better hands.

‘Tully’ (2018)

Mackenzie Davis as Tully and Charlize Theron as Marlo star in Jason Reitman’s “Tully.” Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

Queerness is mostly a background detail in “Tully” but provides an important framework. Diablo Cody (“Juno,” “Jennifer’s Body”) slips the fact in early that Marlo (Charlize Theron), a pregnant mother expecting her third child, is bisexual and has had relationships to women before her current marriage to a negligent man. This detail calls her current situation — and the postpartum depression from which she suffers — into deeper question, and one that deepens further with the arrival of Tully (Mackenzie Davis). With Davis playing a night nurse meant to relieve Marlo’s pressures in caring for her newborn, the bond between them proves more homosocial than homoerotic but is suggestive all the same. By providing an uncanny window into Malo’s past through a figure reminiscent of herself at a prior time, Tully’s presence serves as a reminder of the freedoms she had and might have kept. Framing queer ways of living as a freeing opportunity, the film’s peripheral introduction of queerness as a lens proves reliably enriching, and easily one of its best parts.

‘Dark Waters’ (2019)

Mark Ruffalo in Dark Waters (2019). Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

Absent any explicit allusion to queerness in its characters, the perspective of “Waters” is present solely through its style and thematic concerns. With a legal thriller examining the long-running legal battles over a toxic family of chemicals, director Todd Haynes and cinematographer Ed Lachman present a fearful vision of isolated paranoia fueled by corporate profiteering and governmental neglect. Reflecting a fierce and justified skepticism of institutional actors that many queer works could now use more of, it’s a film that holds fast to the lessons of the AIDS crisis. With queerness and its history coloring a justly critical lens, the film’s heat comes from precisely that: a perspective accustomed to vulnerability, and a position familiar with being trapped or left outside.

George Elkind is a writer and media critic.