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12 Best Gay Male Characters in Cinema History

From Bond girls to beach-blanket babes, pretty young actresses have a long history getting roles in which their lines were less important than their looks. But as the aughts draw to a close, we can now recognize another entrenched phenomenon, in both mainstream and indie film: gay male characters as proof of another gay character’s good luck or sexual prowess — easy-on-the-eyes fantasy material for gay male, and straight female, viewers. Today, in honor of Tom Ford’s directorial debut, A Single Man — in which the handsome Matthew Goode appears only briefly beside Colin Firth — we look back at the (surprisingly long) history of this now-familiar supporting-character type: the gay arm candy.

For the hottest gay arm candy in film history, look no further than this 1941 classic, which is littered with villainous homosexuals who had to be cleverly disguised to skirt the Hays Code. The word “gunsel,” street slang for a young gay hustler — which Humphrey Bogart uses to suggest that sugar daddy Sydney Greenstreet give up his young ward, Wilmer, as a fall guy — snuck by censors. Wilmer stands beside his older patrons (played by Greenstreet and Peter Lorre) looking pretty, speaking softly, and doing their bidding. Assets: A clean-shaven mug, and it takes punches.
The poster child for mentally unstable, transgender people of the early-to-mid seventies (the movie’s from 1975), Sarandon portrays Leon, the effeminate, New York-accented, collar-clutching boyfriend of bank robber Al Pacino — who only commits the crime to get Leon a sex-change operation. For his brief bits of screen time (including this monologue), Sarandon got an Oscar nod, brought transgenderism into the national dialogue, and probably pushed more than few gay men back into the closet. Assets: Kissable lips, and the kind of bedhead people now pay good money for.
In this seminal early (1990) elegy for AIDS, Mulroney plays the hot, fun character who dies first. He only gets a few quick scenes before landing in the hospital, and when the movie reaches its denouement — a fantasy in which the characters imagine the day the disease is cured and everyone comes back to life to party on the beach at Fire Island — it’s John’s sudden reappearance, healthy and alive, that provides the final, pathos-laden vision for Campbell Scott. Assets: Looks great in — and out — of his teal tank top.
Who can forget Philadelphia, that 1993 tearjerker that gave a respectable Hollywood face and a Bruce Springsteen soundtrack to AIDS, or Tom Hanks winning his first of two Oscars, and outing his teacher in his blubbering acceptance speech? But do you recall the handful of scenes in which Banderas plays the devoted, handsome butch lover to Hanks’ opera-loving, slightly fey lawyer? How about when he deftly hurdles a courtroom banister to save Hanks after he tumbles out of his chair? Assets: His Spanish passion — and his Spanish accent.
It’s Michael T. Weiss who plays the impossibly hot, gym-buff crush to the infuriatingly sex-averse Jeffrey (Steven Weber), but Bryan Batt (Salvatore on Mad Men!) performs true arm-candy duty in this 1995 gay comedy written by Paul Rudnick. With Weiss’s masculine, Chelsea-boy charm, it’s Batt who represents for the limp-wristed chorus boys and dancers of the world who are just cute and clever enough to land sugar daddies (in this case Patrick Stewart) and a plum role in Cats. Assets: His behind looks pretty good in a leotard.
We think we speak for many gay men when we say this role is one of the more memorable cameos in gay cinema. Judson Mills rises slowly out of a swimming pool in a flashback to a group skinny-dipping sequence; there’s a brief moment of full frontal as he beckons aging director James Whale (Ian McKellan) to come join the fun. Not only does Judson give us a glimpse of secret gay life in fifties Hollywood (and indeed, secret gay life in Hollywood today), but he also provides a flash of the family jewels that was, up to that point — even in the indie cinema of 1998 — a rarity. Assets: His smile, of course.
Next to Jay Mohr’s Zack — another character in this 1999 movie — Scott Wolf’s Adam is indie cinema’s butchest semi-closeted gay soap actor ever to get caught up in an ecstasy sting operation. Scott’s clearly meant to be the cute one — William Fichtner’s character takes great pleasure in rigging the wire to his fit body — and as far as nineties teen heartthrobs go, we can’t think of another we’d rather imagine receiving oral from a creepy make-up artist named Jimmy. Assets: Nice arms, and boy-next-door dimples.
In this little-seen 2007 indie, Run Lola Run’s Bleibtreu plays the loyal, artistic, German-Turkish boyfriend of Woody Harrelson’s well-connected gigolo, Carter. When Carter gets wrapped up in a scandal his wealthy female friends want him to take the fall for, it’s Emek who brings his heavily accented English to several harangues meant to convince Carter to look out for himself. Assets: Angry pout, Mediterranean swarthiness.
Chase (who was once rumored, vaguely, to be dating Anderson Cooper) was cast as “the hot one” in 2007’s raunchy, Uber-gay answer to mainstream teen sex comedies. Indeed, his body is just about perfect. Jarod ends up falling for his friend Griff (Mitch Morris), and the two have lots of comical sex. Chase was too big (in his agent’s mind) to appear in the second installment, Another Gay Sequel, but we’re hoping he gets up to bigger and equally shirtless things soon. Assets: Abs, butt, chest, facial features …
This former student and lover of Proust scholar Frank (Steve Carrell), who leaves him to be with Larry Sugarman, “the second most highly regarded Proust scholar in the U.S.,” only appears in a single scene, improbably running into Frank at a gas-station convenience store, in this 2008 Oscar fave. Apart from his spot-on preppy-academic delivery, Justin shows us that Frank did in fact score a fine piece of twentysomething ass once, and yes, he should probably be sad that it’s gone. Assets: Broad smile, half-popped collar.
By all accounts, the real-life Scott Smith was cute, and in the mid-seventies he grew a porn-star mustache just like every other gay man in San Francisco. But casting James Franco in this 2008 biopic of Harvey Milk, director Gus Van Sant added a more studly allure to Scott, who died in 1994. He wins donations to Harvey’s campaign by skinny dipping in a gay donor’s pool. Assets: Broad chest, wounded demeanor, and his (fictionally, at least) above-average member (a prosthetic was allegedly used for filming the skinny-dipping scene, but never made the final cut).
As the recently dead younger lover of the main character, George (Colin Firth), this dashing young Brit appears only in a couple of flashbacks in Tom Ford’s new ode to mid-century furniture and tailored suits. In one shirtless memory, he proves so beautiful that George all but gives up on gay love and practically falls in bed with his big-haired, British BFF, played by Julianne Moore. Assets: Angular jaw, smooth chest.
12 Best Gay Male Characters in Cinema History