Top 10 LGBTQ+ Period Dramas of All Time



Top 10 LGBTQ+ Period Dramas of All Time

VOICE OVER: Kirsten Ria Squibb WRITTEN BY: Beau Kimpton
After that "SNL" sketch, we decided to binge our favorite LGBTQ+ period dramas. Our countdown includes "Carol," "Brokeback Mountain," "Gods and Monsters," and more!

Top 10 LGBTQ+ Period Dramas of All Time

Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 LGBTQ+ Period Dramas of All Time.

For this list, we’ll be looking at films set primarily before 1980 that examine - and invent - queer history.

Which of these flicks made you lose track of time? Let us know in the comments below!

#10: “Desert Hearts” (1985)

New Yorker Vivian meets carefree Cay, a lesbian artist, in 1959 at a Nevada ranch for women taking advantage of the state’s speedy divorce process. Vivian unexpectedly falls for her new friend - but will the relationship survive her impending return home? Helmed by lesbian director Donna Deitch, the film overcame fundraising difficulties to become a classic of LGBTQ+ cinema. It broke ground for its time period by refusing to make a gay love story tragic. If that weren’t enough, its release marked the first time a mainstream gay sex scene was directed by a lesbian. A classic love story with a twist, it opened doors for generations of filmmakers to come.

#9: “Heavenly Creatures” (1994)

Writing partners Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh based this psychological drama with horror and romantic elements on a real-life murder case in New Zealand. Set in the early 1950s, the film debuted Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as teenagers who develop an intense bond based around vivid fantasies. The girls stop at nothing to be together in their dreamlike world, with tragic consequences. With a deeply researched script that consulted the real girls’ former schoolmates, the film comments on class differences, medical homophobia, and fantasy as a coping mechanism. Its depiction of a twisted rebellion against 1950s repression makes it one of the genre’s most unforgettable flicks.

#8: “Bessie” (2015)

This biographical film stars Queen Latifah as blues icon Bessie Smith. It traces the singer’s legendary career arc, from securing a spot on Ma Rainey’s traveling tour to turbulent romances with both husband Jack and lover Lucille. With acclaimed performances by Latifah, Michael K. Williams and Mo’Nique, this musical biopic went on to become HBO’s most-watched original movie ever. It introduced a new generation to Smith’s genre-defining art, but also brought attention to an often ignored part of her legacy. For those interested in learning more about blues legends and queer pioneers alike, there’s no better history lesson.

#7: “Brokeback Mountain” (2005)

Spanning the years 1963 to 1983, Ang Lee’s sprawling romantic drama about a pair of star-crossed cowboys who just can’t quit each other is hailed by many as a landmark in queer cinema. A turning point not simply due to its critical and commercial success, but also because it helped push LGBTQ+ films into the mainstream; “Brokeback Mountain” features universal themes of loneliness, repression and intolerance. Although neither of its lead actors identified as queer, the chemistry between off-screen friends Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal is a highlight of this period drama.

#6: “Milk” (2008)

This biopic dives into the final decade of Harvey Milk’s life and his hard-fought battle to become California’s first openly gay elected official. Besides his legislative efforts to protect San Francisco’s LGBTQ communities throughout the 1970s, the film examines Milk’s romantic relationships and his conflicts with a conservative colleague. Not everyone agreed with Sean Penn’s casting as a gay icon, but the film honored its San Francisco setting, drawing on local archives and featuring landmarks like the Castro Theatre. Although the story is undeniably tragic, it’s a touching tribute to the city of the Golden Gate Bridge and the ways Milk transformed it.

#5: “Gods and Monsters” (1998)

Borrowing its title from a line in 1935’s “Bride of Frankenstein,” this semi-fictional biopic focuses on the life of that film’s out gay director James Whale. After being reportedly forced out of the industry due to his sexuality, Whale reflects on his legendary movie career and wartime trauma while taking an interest in his much younger gardener. Gay actor Sir Ian McKellen and his co-star Lynn Redgrave garnered acclaim for their portrayals of the artistic mastermind and his disapproving housemaid. Besides speculating on Whale’s final days as he deals with medical issues and a growing crush, the film spotlights the partially hidden gay circles of 1950s Hollywood.

#4: “Carol” (2015)

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s celebrated novel “The Price of Salt,” Todd Haynes’s film tells the story of a photographer who finds love in an unexpected place. While working as a department store clerk in 1950s Manhattan, Therese Belivet meets Carol, a mother whose soon-to-be ex-husband is seeking to obtain custody by exposing her sexuality. The film was nearly abandoned in development, partly due to its focus on two lesbian main characters, but received rave reviews upon release. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s electric chemistry even birthed a “Carol” fandom. The film’s depiction of how mid-century conformist attitudes and homophobia challenge a budding romance makes it one of the genre’s most bittersweet outings.

#3: “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019)

This film from French director Céline Sciamma was the first helmed by a woman to win the Queer Palm at Cannes Film Festival. Set in the late 1700s, it flashes back to painter Marianne’s affair with the subject of her most prized painting, a young noblewoman reluctant to marry. As Marianne falls in love, her muse’s betrothal to an Italian aristocrat threatens their future. Amidst gorgeous coastal scenery, this cerebral film explores the visual sense and how looking can become loving. Although impossible love is a well-worn trope in queer film, this touching drama is a must-see entry in the canon.

#2: “Olivia” (1951)

One of the most controversial releases of its kind during its time, this French film adapted a novel that was published anonymously due to lesbian content. Set at a boarding school for girls in the late 1800s, it introduces new student Olivia to a female-driven world filled with jealousy and affection. From the ambiguous history between the school’s headmistresses to the protagonist’s growing obsession with her superior, it’s one of the earliest films with substantial lesbian representation. Its romantic plotline between student and teacher might not fly today, but considering its release date, “Olivia” is an incredible document of queer love.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

“Farewell, My Queen” (2012)
Léa Seydoux Shines as a Servant Crushing on Marie Antoinette

“Orlando” (1992)
A Gender-Bending, Centuries-Spanning Tale Based on Virginia Woolf’s Novel

“A Love to Hide” (2005)
A Tragic Love Story Set in Nazi-Occupied France

“The Favourite” (2018)
A Black Comedy Subverting the Gendered Tropes of Many Period Films

#1: “The Handmaiden” (2016)

The BBC first dramatized Sarah Waters’s novel “Fingersmith” in its miniseries of the same name. But Park Chan-wook’s adaptation takes its source material to new heights, transplanting the characters from 19th-century England to 1930s Korea under Japanese occupation. A con man disguises Sook-hee, a girl from a poor Korean family, as a handmaiden to help swindle a Japanese heiress out of her fortune. Little does Sook-hee know, she and her mistress will develop a mutual attraction. The film is a visual spectacle, but its real draw is a tight narrative that unfolds over three epic parts. “The Handmaiden” boasts the best features of its genre, exploring the sexual and gender politics of its time period while delivering thrilling narrative twists.