“Call Me By Your Name” is undeniably good. With a score of 93 on Metacritic (second among current releases, behind “Ladybird”), it has been critically lauded.
“Each element is carefully calibrated, but deployed with consummate grace — this is a film to rush to, and to then savor every minute of,” urges David Sims in The Atlantic. “This is the kind of movie you live in as much as watch. Some of its images… stay with you afterward like memories of your own half-remembered romance,” muses Dana Stevens in Slate.
With such excitement around an ostensibly queer film that centers around a gay romance, some have called it “almost revolutionary” and “the movie generations of gay men have been waiting for.” Among the films nominated for Best Picture in the Academy Awards, it is the only film to feature a queer storyline, making it the de facto Oscar darling of the LGBT community.
But, a number of factors make the prospect of a big “Call Me By Your Name” win less than revolutionary for the LGBT community. Some would say it’s a wolf in a gay sheep’s clothing.
Not Another Gay Movie That Lacks Representation
“Call Me By Your Name” tells a story of gay love, but an Oscar win will hardly be a windfall for LGBT representation on camera. An out and gay man has never won the Best Actor category or served as leading man for a Best Picture winner. The two leading men in “Call Me By Your Name,” Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, have both said that they are straight.
The nomination, and potential win, are yet another instance of contemporary Hollywood celebrating gay stories portrayed by straight actors. The trend is a concerning look into discrimination and appropriation in the entertainment industry. Just last year, “Moonlight” won Best Picture while using no gay stars and a straight director. The movies “Milk” (2008) and “Brokeback Mountain” also found critical praise and recognition at the Academy Awards using gay stories that don’t feature gay actors.
While “Call Me By Your Name” was at least directed by Luca Guadagnino, an out gay man, he has explicitly spoken out against trying to cast gay men in his films, and of course, ultimately cast straight men in his gay roles.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Guadagnino responded to a question about why he didn’t cast gay actors by saying ” I couldn’t have ever thought of casting with any sort of gender agenda. I think people are so beautiful and complex as creatures that as much as I am fascinated with gender theory… I prefer much more never to investigate or label my performers in any way.” Guadagnino’s attempt to portray queer casting that aligns with his roles as part of “an agenda” suggests that he’s perfectly fine with the status quo that overwhelmingly favors straight actors.
Straight Stars Profiting Off Of Gay Desire
While spotlighting straight actors in gay movies isn’t new or any more harmful than in any other queer films from the last 20 years, the straight actors of “Call Me By Your Name” have stoked mania and gained attention by queerbaiting gay and straight fans with nods to a playful an ambiguous and playful real-life relationship — encouraging the internet’s unhealthy recent tendency to project queer erotic and romantic energy onto straight men, through “shipping” fandoms, perpetuating the straight fame cycle that pushes down gay actors.
In multiple interviews, as Slate’s Miz Cracker points out, the stars have repeatedly and playfully talked about how comfortable they are with each other and described off-camera tomfoolery. In an interview with The New York Times, Hammer first described “a sense of safety” he had while making gay love scenes, before telling the interviewer that Chalamet “grabs my crotch all the time.”
On Ellen, the pair eagerly told the story of their first rehearsal, where they supposedly got so lost in a make-out session that the director walked away to let them be alone. Chalamet then made a playful joke about razor bun before stroking Hammer’s chin. Media ate the story up.
It’s Gay, But Not Gay
While “Call Me By Your Name” undoubtedly portrays a gay relationship, it pushes much of the realities of gay life back into to closet, presenting what is ultimately a sanitized and made-for-general-viewing version of gay love.
In that Hollywood Reporter interview, the director explains that he wanted to present gay love in a vacuum, away from its societal implications, when asked about why he didn’t include explicit gay sex: “I wanted the audience to completely rely on the emotional travel of these people and feel first love. I didn’t want the audience to find any difference or discrimination toward these characters. It was important to me to create this powerful universality, because the whole idea of the movie is that the other person makes you beautiful — enlightens you, elevates you.”
The problem is, of course, that gay people have faced discrimination particularly because straight audiences haven’t been exposed to the intricacies of gay lives as if they’re equal, and have repeatedly heard that gay sex is wrong and disgusting. As Garrett Schlichte writes in The Washington Post, “If the mainstream, the majority, is to learn to accept queer narratives, it must be able to see them in unfiltered, honest ways, even if that means working through initial discomfort.”
Aside from sex, “Call Me By Your Name” ignores gay culture, instead surrounding the romance of Oliver and Elio with the world of academia. Their conversations exist almost completely in a register of heterosexuality, barely talking about their relationship. As writer Ben Ratskoff writes in The Advocate “Oliver and Elio debate Bach and Liszt, but certainly not Bette and Joan.”
While of course, a gay romance could develop in such a context, the portrayal begs the question of why the entertainment industry has struggled to reward and highlight work that portrays a gay people in a specifically gay culture and instead relies on placing gay characters played by straight men in traditionally straight, masculine contexts.