Until 1949, having gay sex was a hanging offence in Victoria. Then the authorities came to their senses and ruled that instead, it merited a mere 20 years in jail – double the maximum sentence for statutory rape.
It’s staggering that homosexual acts between men were only made legal throughout Australia in 1994, the same year The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of the Desert exploded joyfully into cinemas the world over. Even then, the stubborn pollies in Tasmania made sure it was still a crime there until 1997. (Lesbian sex, meanwhile, has never been illegal.)
With such a hateful swamp of conservative legislators, it was left to the movie industry to fight for equal rights in love, marriage and child custody law, hence why, in nearly all of the movies here, the gay relationship is a ‘problem’ for wider society and the participants endure abuse, violence or hate. Big screen gay love stories rarely seem to end happily.
Here are 15 of the greatest Aussie LGBTQI flicks to watch:
1. The Set (1970)
Director: Frank Brittain
This was the first Australian film that dared to feature an actual gay romance as its main theme. Though very dated, it’s still an important landmark, released when consenting sex between two adults was viewed as worse than armed robbery.
Wannabe art student Paul (Sean McEuan) becomes the muse of a clothes designer and is soon entangled in ‘The Set’, the seedy and bohemian Sydney fashion world where he falls for Tony (Rod Mullinar).
Bizarrely, the film’s trailer seems to take a stand against homosexuality, the narrator proclaiming that Tony is trying “to escape from tangled, unnatural passions” and that “his relationship is acceptable in this age when moral standards are confused”.
2. The Getting Of Wisdom (1977)
Director: Bruce Beresford
Hijinks and lesbian canoodling at a strict Presbyterian ladies college in the 1890s ensue when a gifted student with the Dr Seuss-like name Laura Tweedle Rambotham falls for an older girl soon after lying to her friends about an affair with the school’s minister.
Look out for Barry Humphries as a straight-laced vicar in this sweet, affecting coming-of-age drama that was considered risqué at the time, but really isn’t. The Getting Of Wisdom was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 and gave Beresford his big break in Hollywood, where he went on to direct hits including Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy and Mao’s Last Dancer.
3. The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994)
Director: Stephan Elliott
It’s confronting to think of how Australia fell in love with a trio of outrageous drag queens prancing their glorious way across the outback, parts of the country that had the world’s toughest penalties for gay sex. One Tassie politician from the time, Robert Archer, even called for homosexuals to be “tracked down and wiped out” by police.
The movie became a cultural juggernaut around the globe, and together with Muriel’s Wedding and Strictly Ballroom, cemented Australia’s reputation for counter culture flamboyance and chutzpah. LGBTQI culture had well and truly entered the mainstream.
4. The Sum Of Us (1994)
Director: Geoff Burton, Kevin Dowling
The legendary Jack Thompson and the soon-to-be-legendary Russell Crowe play a father and son both looking for love in this big-hearted dark comedy. Crowe is the macho but vulnerable gay plumber wary of being hurt and coping with his overbearing widower dad.
What’s refreshing about The Sum Of Us is how it doesn’t hammer home an issue or labour to make a social comment. The old dad completely accepts his son’s sexuality, so we focus on the heartbreak in their relationship rather than his victimisation.
5. Love And Other Catastrophes (1996)
Director: Emma-Kate Croghan
There haven’t been too many Aussie screwball campus comedies aimed at the multiplex 20-somethings, so this is a nice change of pace from the numerous cerebral and quirky offerings.
It’s just a day in the life of a bunch of flustered Melbourne University film students as they argue over roommates, an unhealthy obsession with a lecturer, the merits of a slimy part-time gigolo and unpaid library fines.
The lesbian relationship at the heart of the story is the only hookup that seems normal. It’s frothy and insubstantial, but the self-absorbed characters provoke enough laughs for 80 minutes.
6. Head On (1998)
Director: Ana Kokkinos
One of the most explicit Aussie films to gain a mainstream release, this sexual melodrama starring Alex Dimitriades as Ari, a gay Greek Australian teenager in Melbourne, pulled no punches when it came to nudity, violence and culture clashes.
The action takes place over 24 hours as the tormented and disaffected Ari has a series of liaisons that he has to keep secret from his orthodox parents. He searches desperately for ways to express his anger and resentment, at one point of self-destruction screaming ethnic abuse in an Asian neighbourhood.
The movie, powered entirely by Dimitriades’ angsty and intense performance, won one of its nine nominations at the Australian Film Institute awards and got a limited run in the States.
7. Newcastle (2008)
Director: Dan Castle
Three brothers embark on a surfing trip with mates near the NSW city, but sibling rivalry amid the breakers leads to tragedy and recriminations in this low-budget teen drama. The young actors are all easy on the eye, the surfing photography is breathless and the punk-singed soundtrack featuring Bobnoxious, The Lemurs and Transport is outstanding. They all combine to make a fresh, spunky stoner that’s an ode to being young and reckless forever.
- READ MORE: The best Australian movies of the 1990s
8. Walk Like A Man: A Real Life Drama About Blood, Sweat And Queers (2008)
Directors: Patricia Zagarella and Jim Morgison
An inspiring doco about the 2006 World Cup of Gay Rugby final between the San Francisco Fog and the Sydney Convicts, narrated by former NRL great Ian Roberts, one of the few Aussie field sportsmen to have come out. The tournament is called The Bingham Cup after Mark Bingham, a gay rugby player who died a hero after helping to storm the cockpit of United 93 on 9/11, preventing the plane from becoming a terrorists’ weapon.
Amid the scrums and line outs are some deeply poignant human stories of learning how to be comfortable in your skin and challenging rugby’s red-blooded machismo.
9. Dead Europe (2012)
Director: Tony Krawitz
A gay Greek Australian photographer (Ewen Leslie) journeys to Europe to scatter his dad’s ashes, but uncovers a sinister family curse which leads him to the seediest backwaters in Greece, Paris and Budapest. At every gloomy turn he encounters anti-Semitism, racism and an eerie supernatural presence linked to his father’s past deeds.
Adapted from the novel by Christos Tsiolkas, this is an intense, claustrophobic 85-minute nerve-jangler – not exactly a date night flick. At times the sheer weirdness makes it difficult to piece together what on earth is going on, but it’s well worth persevering for Leslie’s pitch-perfect performance and an unexpected denouement. I didn’t check, but I doubt there’s a gag reel.
10. Monster Pies (2013)
Director: Lee Galea
There have been plenty of high school coming-out films, but none as raw or emotionally-charged as this (very) low-budget ’90s tale of two awkward teenagers clumsily working out their feelings for each other and coping with their (very) dysfunctional families and latent homophobia.
If you can cope with the (very) poor production values and camera work, there’s a lot to admire here. Tristan Barr and Lucas Linehan deliver nuanced, subtle performances and Galea steers clear of the usual clichés to conjure an authentic feel that sets up an unbearably emotional last act.
11. Holding The Man (2014)
Director: Neil Armfield
Adapted from the memoir young Melbourne actor Timothy Conigrave completed shortly before his death from AIDS in 1995, this is the story of his 15-year love affair with fellow Xavier College student and AFL captain John Caleo, and serves as an indictment of society’s heartless reaction to the new phenomenon of HIV. Viewing it today during another viral pandemic brings home how cruel some politicians at the time were for blaming the homosexual community for the so-called ‘gay plague’.
The chemistry between the two leads, Ryan Corr and Craig Stott, is joyful, and, amid the tragedy, the message is the sheer power and resilience of true love.
12. Cut Snake (2014)
Director: Tony Ayres
In 1970s suburban Melbourne, young couple Merv and Paula are thrown into turmoil when his “mad as a cut snake” former cellmate James turns up out of the blue, wanting to drag him back into a life of crime. Paula is a bit shocked as she had no idea dreamy Merv had done time for armed robbery, but she’s very shocked when it dawns on her that he and the muscly, hirsute James had mated in their cell.
It’s a nice riff on the standard noirish gangland thriller, with the love triangle creating an unexpected dynamic amid the descent into madness and bloodshed.
13. Downriver (2015)
Director: Grant Scicluna
After eight years in youth detention, a teenager returns to the caravan park north of Melbourne where he drowned a younger boy when he was a 10-year-old. Now almost a decade later, he’s determined to find the body and return it to the family. He soon befriends another outcast lad, but they’re both shaken up when a witness to the crime reappears and seduces one of them to hide the sinister secrets he doesn’t want exposed.
It’s a bold, unflinching story that throws up some uncomfortable questions: Should you forgive a killer who was a child themselves? Does evil lurk within someone for life? What are the limits of redemption? The answers are unsettling as the search for the body intensifies and loyalties switch.
14. Gayby Baby (2015)
Director: Maya Newell
Portraying the lives of four kids with same-sex parents so outraged the barmy right wing of the Liberal party that they had this gentle, harmless doco banned in every school in NSW. Impressionable children were spared the horror of seeing that life for such families is as normal and healthy as anyone else’s.
In the divisive run-up to the marriage quality referendum in 2016, Newell realised that no one was talking to the actual kids involved. She saw her fly-on-the-wall feature as a useful resource for teachers, but when a Presbyterian minister started frothing about a screening in a Sydney girls school, the state’s education minister, who hadn’t actually seen it, intervened even though not a single parent had complained. It really wasn’t hard to work out the biggest problem same-sex families faced.
15. Boy Erased (2018)
Director: Joel Edgerton
Though technically made in the States, we’re claiming this as our own as it was written and directed by Edgerton, who stars in the film alongside Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe (who’s nearly Aussie) and Troye Sivan.
It follows the true story of Gerrard Conley (Lucas Hedges), who was forced by his parents to enrol in a gay conversion course run by a sadistic therapist (Edgerton). The pseudoscience nonsense involved has been linked to a mental health epidemic in the States. A study in 2019 found that 42 per cent of LGBTQI youth who underwent such treatment had attempted suicide. Incredibly, it’s still legal in Australia and practised by several church groups.