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All 22 Queer Oscar-Nominated Performances By Women Ranked

All 22 Queer Oscar-Nominated Performances By Women Ranked

All 22 Queer Oscar-Nominated Performances By Women Ranked

Who's your pick for best performance?


It’s time for Hollywood’s self-congratulatory schmooze fest and guilty pleasure -- The Academy Awards! 

While Oscar – or Hollywood as a whole – has rarely sought to represent queerness positively on film, there remain a handful of performances that, for good or bad, helped to bring visibility to lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people throughout the years. Since Hollywood has traditionally punished transgressive women, many of the queer characters portrayed by these master thespians in Oscar-nominated (or winning) roles, paid for their sins or died a gruesome death. Still, these performances are part of a collective history, and there's no denying the artistry behind the portrayals. 

Since there hasn’t been a nominated actress in a queer role since 2011 (unless you count a one-off kiss between Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle), we decided it’s time to pay homage to actresses in queer roles that Oscar recognized with a nomination, and the occasional win.

We’ve ranked all of the actresses nominated for queer roles since Oscar began, including a couple of gender-bending roles (like Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously) or ‘coded’ roles (like Judith Anderson in Rebecca).  We wholly admit we may have missed a role or two. If so, please tell us.

To determine the rankings of the actresses in these roles we polled the SheWired/Advocate offices and found little variation in opinion about the top performanes.  From there we whittled down the rankings in terms of impact and memorability. Feel feel free to let us know how you would have ranked them! 

Happy Oscars weekend!

Editor's note: We want to acknowledge that some performances by these women — particularly those where cisgender women portray transgender characters — have been fairly critiqued as problematic. The inclusion of these characters is intended to reflect what was, at the time of each film's release, considered groundbreaking and important in raising visibility for lesbian, bisexual, and gender-nonconforming people.


22. Vanessa Redgrave – The Bostonians, 1984

Acting royalty Vanessa Redgrave earned a nomination for portraying Olive Chancellor, a suffragette-era feminist who engages in an intense relationship with the young and fiery feminist Verena Tarrant in this Merchant/Ivory film based on Henry James' novel of the same name. Redgrave is superb in the film, but film has failed to resonate for LGBT audiences. 


21. Marlene Dietrich – Morocco, 1930

While her performance in Morocco was not lesbian or queer, Marlene Dietrich’s androgynous, coded Amy Jolly spoke to generations of budding lesbians at a time when gay women were literally absent on the silver screen. Dietrich's iconic look pretty much makes the film. 


20. Margaret Avery –The Color Purple, 1985

As juke joint and blues singer Shug Avery, who stole Whoopi Goldberg’s Celie’s heart in Steven Spielberg’s big screen adaptation of Alice Walker's novel, Margaret Avery was both sexy and nurturing. A pedagogue of sorts for Celie, Shug’s “Miss Celie's Blues” remains one of the greatest love songs ever performed in a big-time Hollywood epic.



19. Annette Bening - The Kids Are All Right, 2010

Bening played a sane, if not tightly wound, lesbian mom in Lisa Cholodenko's critically-acclaimed paean to family.  Her wine-swilling control freak Nic stands out in the film as the grounding center of a family torn asunder by infidelity and ennui. She actually made history playing a lesbian character who wasn't crazy, or criminal, and who didn't die a gruesome death in the final reel. The film is worth the price of admission alone for Bening’s heart-rending a capella interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s ‘All I Want.' 


18. Judi Dench – Iris, 2001

(Paired with below) Dame Judi Dench earned a nomination for her portrayal of Britain’s openly bisexual poet and writer Iris Murdoch. Kate Winslet played the younger Murdoch in the first half of the film. As heart-rending as Dench was playing the older Murdoch battling Alzheimer's, the film failed to make much of an impact beyond the art house crowd. 


17. Kate Winslet – Iris, 2001

(Paired with above) Previously nominated for Sense and Sensibility and Titanic, Kate Winslet scored her third Academy Award nom for playing the young, whipsmart writer Iris Murdoch. While she delivered a spot-on portrayal, the film has had little staying power with audiences. 


16. Nicole Kidman – The Hours, 2002

Much ado was made about Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf,  but in the end, Kidman won the day with her performance in Stephen Daldry’s film version of Michael Cunningham’s ode to the Woolf novel Mrs. Dalloway. The film did not play up Woolf’s real-life predilections toward women, but Kidman shared a kiss with Miranda Richardson, who played her sister. The portrayal of Woolf was also part of a continuum in the film that illustrated intense relationships between women including Julianne Moore’s depressed 50’s-era housewife and Meryl Streep’s straight-up lesbian character. Kidman disappeared into the role, but she actually garnered less screen time in the role than Moore (nominated for Best Supporting for the film) had in hers. 



15. Felicity Huffman – Transamerica, 2005

Best known at the time for playing Desperate Housewives' Lynnette Scalvo, Felicity Huffman demonstrated enormous range playing a trans woman who reunites with her long-lost son in this road trip of a movie. Huffman's performance was nuanced and thoughtful. She lost to Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line. 


14. Janet McTeer – Albert Nobbs, 2011

McTeer, mostly recognized for her TV roles and theater achievements, received her second Oscar nomination (the first was for 1999's Tumbleweeds) for her portrayal of Hubert Page, a woman living as a man.  A thoughtful, if not sexy portrayal in its own right, the mediocre film did not do her portrayal justice. 


13. Judi Dench – Notes on a Scandal, 2006

Dame Dench’s turn as a dangerously unbalanced and predatory lesbian stalking Cate Blanchett ruffled a few feathers within the LGBT community. Wasn't it time queer characters were no longer portrayed as predatory? But Dench's fierce performance delivered a very retro, Highsmithian vibe that was undeniably fascinating.  


12. Glenn Close – Albert Nobbs, 2011

Six-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close took decades to bring her passion project to fruition. She had longed to play Nobbs in the 19th century period drama about a woman, living as a man in Ireland in order to find employment, and by extension -- to survive. Close delivered a beautiful performance as the unassuming Nobbs, but as with McTeer, the less-than-stellar film did little to showcase her skill. 


11. Linda Hunt –The Year of Living Dangerously, 1983 

While her role as Billy Kwan in Peter Weir’s acclaimed film was not queer, per se, Linda Hunt made history as the first actress to take home gold for playing someone of the opposite sex. She's also one of just a few out actresses to win Oscar. 


10. Natalie Portman - Black Swan, 2010 

An actress who grew up in the limelight, beginning with her fierce film debut at age 13 in The Professional, Portman was nothing short of a tour de force in Darren Aronofsky’s fever dream. 

For Aronofsky’s visually stunning meditation of the ballet world that’s a mélange of horror, suspense and a psychological study Portman laid it all bare emotionally and physically, purportedly training for six hours a day for over a year. At a sinewy 20 pounds lighter than her standard weight, Portman’s Nina seems always on the verge of snapping – physically, mentally, emotionally. Her performance was a melding of physicality and craft that had scarcely been seen since Robert DeNiro's turn in Raging Bull.

But here’s why Portman makes the cut for this list… While Nina is rendered practically sexless due to her singular obsession with dance, she does engage in a thoughtful and sensual sex scene with one of her doppelgangers, the wildly sexual rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis). Much ado was made in the press about the ‘lesbian’ sex scene, and while the film generally explores Nina’s relationships with women - including her mother and Lily - in interesting and terrifying ways, it is noteworthy that 2010 marked the first year two women – Portman and Bening - were nominated for Best Actress for roles with either overt or subverted lesbian tendencies.


9. Cher – Silkwood, 1983

Best known to the world at the time as a pop star and fashion icon, Cher stripped off the glitz and bared her acting chops opposite Meryl Streep in Mike Nichols’ revelatory film about a whistle blower in a nuclear power plant. As Karen Silkwood’s lesbian best friend and roomie Dolly Peliker, Cher turned in a performance laden with humor and pathos that resonates to this day. 


8. Whoopi Goldberg –The Color Purple, 1985

While Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood-ized version of Alice Walker’s gritty novel played down the long-term lesbian relationship between Whoopi’s Celie and Margaret Avery’s Shug, Spielberg left in the heartrending bluesy love song “Miss Celie's Blues," which Shug sings to Celie. Best known at the time as a stand-up comic, Goldberg exhibited considerable range in her epic performance. Her portrayal of Celie awakening to the idea of love with Shug is particularly nuanced and tender. 


7. Penelope Cruz – Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 2009

Dripping with sensuality, wit, and neuroses, Cruz’s feral, sexy, bisexual artist Maria Elena straight-up steals the film. Cruz was both hilarious as the unchained artist screaming half in Spanish and half in English, and also, unreasonably smoldering while engaged in a love affair with Scarlett Johansson's American bohemian and Javier Bardem's lothario artist. 


6. Salma Hayek - Frida, 2002

Director Julie Taymor helped take Hayek's passion project to the big screen in a glorious film that reflected the subject's aesthetic, and Hayek was luminous in her portrayal of the bisexual painter. Her tango with Ashley Judd's character remains among the most steamy of any dance scene in cinematic history. 


5. Judith Anderson – Rebecca, 1940

One of the greatest supporting characters of all time, Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers, a housekeeper coded as lesbian, and obsessed with her employer’s first wife in Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the Daphne Du Maurier novel Rebecca, is the stuff of legend. As Susie Bright points out in The Celluloid Closet Mrs. Danvers "goes through the underwear drawer" of her former mistress. Anderson's singularly obsessed Mrs. Danvers resonates as one of Hitchcock's most fascinating characters. 


4. Julianne Moore – The Hours, 2002

Costar Nicole Kidman scored Best Actress gold for playing Virginia Woolf in the same film, but Moore’s 50’s housewife suffering from suburban ennui and near suicidal depression became the heart and soul of the film. Fulfilling a longing that was more fleshed out in Michael Cunningham’s novel than in the film, Moore’s Laura Brown kisses her neighbor played by Toni Collette. In the continuum of the film’s women-centered relationships, Moore’s Brown can be read as a repressed queer character. Moore, who was also nominated for Best Actress that year for Far From Heaven, lost in the supporting category to Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago, but she could have/should have won in both categories. 


3. Hilary Swank - Boys Don't Cry, 1999 

The Next Karate Kid was unrecognizable in her tour de force as transgender teen Brandon Teena in Kimberly Peirce's raw indie. Nebraskan native Teena was raped and murdered in 1993, and in the biopic based on the documentary The Brandon Teena Story, Swank proved her mettle as one of the greatest young actresses of her generation. She won the Academy Award for her visceral portrayal, and she scored her second gold man for Million Dollar Baby just five years later.


2. Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2011

Prior to being nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her compelling performance as bisexual hacker Lisbeth Salander, Mara was widely known for her appearances in the Oscar nominated drama The Social Network and the 2010 horror remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street. For David Fincher's American remake of the Swedish phenomenon, Mara had enormous shoes to fill taking on the role that Noomi Rapace had made iconic. And she achieved just that. Mara's Lisbeth was complicated, horrifying, and tender in her own right. While the film failed to make big box office numbers, Mara turned in a truly unique performance in a role everyone thought they knew. 


1. Charlize Theron – Monster, 2003 

Previously renowned mainly for her jarring beauty, Theron shed all traces of herself when she eerily climbed into the skin of serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Theron won the Oscar for her portrayal of he world’s most famous female serial killer, who happened to be in love with a woman, played by Christina Ricci in the film. Theron's Wuornos was, at turns, a walking horror show, sympathetic, and oddly charming. Who could forget the seduction scene between Theron and Ricci on roller skates with “Don’t Stop Believing" blaring in the background?


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Tracy E. Gilchrist

Tracy E. Gilchrist is the VP, Executive Producer of Entertainment for the Advocate Channel. A media veteran, she writes about the intersections of LGBTQ+ equality and pop culture. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of The Advocate and the first feminism editor for the 55-year-old brand. In 2017, she launched the company's first podcast, The Advocates. She is an experienced broadcast interviewer, panel moderator, and public speaker who has delivered her talk, "Pandora's Box to Pose: Game-changing Visibility in Film and TV," at universities throughout the country.

Tracy E. Gilchrist is the VP, Executive Producer of Entertainment for the Advocate Channel. A media veteran, she writes about the intersections of LGBTQ+ equality and pop culture. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of The Advocate and the first feminism editor for the 55-year-old brand. In 2017, she launched the company's first podcast, The Advocates. She is an experienced broadcast interviewer, panel moderator, and public speaker who has delivered her talk, "Pandora's Box to Pose: Game-changing Visibility in Film and TV," at universities throughout the country.