NEW YORK (AP) — Ellen Page was first approached about the true-life gay rights drama “Freeheld” when she was 21, just coming off her breakthrough in “Juno.” It was seven years before the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a right, and six before Page, herself, came out.
“It really did align with an internal process I was going through with my own identity, with my own struggles of being closeted,” says Page of “Freeheld.” ”It’s lovely to be part of a film that’s reflecting upon why we need the Supreme Court ruling and why we need to continue to strive to equality. I think the film is reflecting a time when that change is happening.”
As much as change is in the air in 2015, it’s also on the screen. Though Hollywood’s track record when it comes to telling the stories of LGBT lives is far from gleaming, this fall season boasts one of the richest and most varied batch of films yet to dramatize the struggles of gay and transgendered people.
“Freeheld” (in theaters Oct. 2) is about Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and her domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Page). When Hester, an Ocean County, N.J. police officer, began dying of terminal lung cancer in 2005, she appealed to the county Board of Freeholders to allow her pension to go to Andree. Though it would have been automatic for a married couple, the board initially refused.
Eight years after a documentary short on Hester won an Oscar, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (“Philadelphia”) has penned the dramatization, directed by Peter Sollett and co-starring Steve Carell and Michael Shannon.
Todd Haynes’ “Carol” (out Nov. 20), based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, is about the illicit love affair between two women (Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara) in the conservative 1950s. A lushly detailed period film, thick with an atmosphere of socially enforced repression, the film rides a wave of praise from the Cannes Film Festival, where Mara shared in the best actress award.
Blanchett, in an interview at Cannes, said that while love between two lesbians is of course central to “Carol,” it’s ultimately about love, regardless of gender.
“There’s something ‘Romeo and Juliet’-esque about it,” Blanchett said. “There’s a universality to the love story that moves it out of the niche. It’s about the perspective or the feeling of being in love for the first time. And, yes, it’s not immaterial that there are two women at the center of it. But at certain moments, it kind of is.”
Also in November is “The Danish Girl,” directed by Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”). Based on the 1920s Copenhagen novel by David Ebershoff and starring Eddie Redmayne, it’s a fictionalized account of Lili Elbe, among the first to undergo sex reassignment surgery.
While that trio of films is expected to play major roles in awards season, there are others in the mix, too.
Roland Emmerich, taking a break from the disaster spectacles like “White House Down” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” depicts one of the most pivotal moments in the gay rights movement in “Stonewall” (Sept. 25), a drama set around the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots in New York’s Greenwich Village.
And months after the celebrated transformation of Caitlyn Jenner, “About Ray” (Sept. 18) is about a teenager’s (Elle Fanning) transition from female to male, and how her family reacts.
It can be overly optimistic to take any seasonal trend as a sign of wider industry progress. Studies have confirmed that Hollywood continues to lag in representing the diversity of its audiences. Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg school recently found that among the 4,610 speaking characters in the 100 top-grossing films in 2014, only 19 were lesbian, gay or bisexual. None were transgender.
Many of these films also struggled to make it to the big screen. It took “Carol” almost two decades to finally get made; screenwriter Phyllis Nagy wrote her first draft in 1996.
Equality for LGBT people also, of course, continues to be a divisive issue for some across the country. Page recently confronted presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz at the Iowa State Fair on his views on gay rights.
But in a year marked by significant advancement for gay rights, many, like Page, are buoyed by the upswing in this fall’s films — a crop of movies that add more lesbian and transgender stories to the indelible, but largely male movies (“Philadelphia,” ”Milk,” ”Brokeback Mountain”) that have come before.
“I wish there were more gay stories and I do think that that’s happening,” she says. “That does seem like something that’s getting a lot stronger, thankfully — a voice that’s getting stronger, a community that’s getting stronger.”