Rotten Tomatoes is celebrating Pride with our new section, Rainbow Tomatoes, where you can find guides to the best and most groundbreaking LGBTQ movies and shows to stream. As part of the celebration, we’re spotlighting some of the work our archival team has been doing in bringing more LGBTQ publications into the Tomatometer.
The Rotten Tomatoes Curation team – the team that works on gathering the movie and TV reviews that form Tomatometer scores, and which vets and approves the critics and publications that contribute to those scores – spends a lot of time digging through history to find publications and outlets to potentially add to our list of Tomatometer-approved sources. You can read a little about the project in a New Yorker article from Richard Brody published earlier this year; and check out the criteria by which we vet publications here. For Pride, we’re shining a spotlight on seven publications that recently became Tomatometer-approved through this archival research. Among them are some of the earliest LGBTQ publications in America, and some of the longest-running, and a handful of short-lived titles that shook up the media scene and pushed the LGBTQ movement forward. Crucially, each saw film, TV, and criticism as vital to its coverage and engaged with Hollywood’s representation of the LGBTQ experience – or its lack thereof – with sharp and honest insight.
Below, you can read up on these pioneering titles and then read reviews published in their pages, many of which give a fascinating, of-the-moment account of how LGBTQ writers and thinkers responded to some of the most seminal LGBTQ films of the last 50 years.
ONE Magazine was born in the early 1950s from discussions that began among members of the pioneering Mattachine Society, many of whom would branch off to form the gay rights organization ONE, Inc. It was a simple idea, but a revolutionary one: to produce and distribute a pro-gay magazine that represented the interests, concerns, and challenges of the community. Launched in January 1953 and sold on the streets of L.A. for 25 cents, ONE is widely considered one of the first publications for the LGBTQ community in the U.S.A. (There were some short-lived predecessors, such as Vice Versa and Friendship and Freedom.) As such, it inevitably suffered raids of its offices and bans from the U.S. Post Office over issues deemed “obscene.” (The challenge to that ban led to a Supreme Court ruling that would become one of the gay rights movement’s most significant early victories.) Within ONE‘s striking, often abstract covers, readers found news, essays, fiction, letters to the editor, and reviews that are notable for the incisive ways they grappled with the portrayal of the gay experience on screen. “The important thing is that presumably Mr. and Mrs. Average will not see the bad points,” Don Slater wrote in his review of the British noir thriller, Victim, a landmark of gay cinema that the magazine concedes was not tailored to the gay audience. “Here lies the major contribution of Victim: that it appears possible the picture may reach and influence for the better thousands of people which ONE has not been able to, at least so far.”
Victim (1961) 100%
Fresh: “With typically British genius for compromise, the motion picture Victim which treats the subject of homosexuality almost fairly, if not squarely, also is a jolly good thriller.” – Don Slater, May 1962
The Children's Hour (1961) 88%
Fresh: “The beautiful black-and-white photography, the score, the impeccable acting and, above all… that master director, William Wyler — all combine to make a film classic. And when you’ve seen it, you’ve seen a landmark in homophile history.” – Alison Hunter, June 1962
Third Sex (1959)
Rotten: “To encompass the entire homosexual question in a single film is impossible… This insipid film makes a brave attempt which is the nicest thing one can say about it.” – Leslie de Noronha, October 1959
The Lesbian Tide was, for its almost decade-long existence, marked by the renegade streak from which it was conceived. The publication was launched after the young, radical group running the newsletter for the L.A. branch of lesbian civil rights organization the Daughters of Bilitis – who had been ruffling the feathers of older, less radical members – decided to split off and create their own magazine in 1972. They were led by the The Lesbian Tide’s founder Jeanne Córdova, who told Long Beach newspaper The Press-Telegram in 2012: “At the time, there were no national lesbian newspapers. I wanted to reach lesbians in Tennessee, Florida and across the nation, not just Los Angeles. The guys had their paper, The Advocate. Why couldn’t lesbians have one? I wanted to be the lesbian Newsweek.” The founder also brought a ton of insight and plenty of personality to the magazine’s film reviews. Witness the opening to Córdova’s review of Cleopatra Jones: “I walked up to the box office on Hollywood Blvd. and asked, ‘Do you have a press ticket for Jeanne Cordova from The Lesbian Tide?’ ‘Wh…what newspaper was that, lady?’ ‘The Lesbian Tide. We heard there was a dyke in the film. There should be a ticket for me. Would you look please.’ That’s how I bluffed my way in to see Cleopatra Jones.” Córdova, who died in 2016, may not have reached her Newsweek ambitions, but Tide was a landmark publication: it became the first lesbian publication to reach a national audience, as well as the first to use “lesbian” in the title. (Though, for a period, the team experimented with just The Tide to see if circulation would increase with the safer name. It did not.)
Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977) 100%
Fresh: “The film makers let the 26 individuals be themselves and in so doing they paint a realistic picture of what it means to be gay within this society.” – Bridget Overton, July/August 1978
Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant) (1972) 88%
Fresh: “The best movie on role playing, power, and human suffering that I have seen in a long time.” – Karla Jay, April 1974
Cleopatra Jones (1973) 79%
Rotten: “Take your $3.00 and go buy some sticks and poster board and stand outside and picket. That’s the only potentially feminist contribution of Cleopatra Jones.” – Jeanne Córdova, September 1973
The Bay Area Reporter has been serving the queer community of San Francisco and its surrounds for almost 50 years and boasts of being the country’s longest continuously published – and highest circulation – LGBTQ newspaper. Its longevity and its location mean its pages have covered and influenced some of the biggest moments and figures in modern LGBTQ history. Harvey Milk wrote a column for the paper, the Milk Forum, in which he singled out political candidates worthy of the community’s support and pushed for readers to register to vote; in 1989, at the height of the AIDS crisis, the paper published an eight-page section with names and pictures of more than 500 people who had died of the virus that year. The paper was founded in 1971 by Bob Ross and Paul Bentley, who in those early days used a mimeograph to produce pamphlets dedicated to listing events, drag contests, parties, and drink specials, and even as it grew in size, influence, and ambition, the paper continued its dedication to live events and culture. That included insightful film reviews through the lens of the LGBTQ community, which it continues to publish to this day.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) 79%
Fresh: “For the most part it moves spiritedly along and the whole thing is a giant giggle. It’s all so blatantly outrageous it can only be taken in the spirit of campy fun; this is one time a stage production has been enhanced by the film version.” – Donald McLean, December 11, 1975
Paris Is Burning (1991) 98%
Fresh: “Not since Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls have I been so taken and fascinated by such a gallery of real-life, stunningly etched characters.” – Warren Sonbert, August 8, 1991
Cruising (1980) 49%
Rotten: “This is a malicious movie from the grim voyeurism of the ungraphically depicted sex to the nauseating and unnecessarily explicit scenes of violence.” – Michael Lasky, February 28, 1980
Big Mama Rag was the feminist newspaper of Big Mama Rag, Inc., a Denver-based women’s rights organization that proudly wore the label of “radical.” Released monthly, the magazine was produced by a group of volunteers who wrote and edited news items and features on abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, lesbianism, new legislation, and more; the editorial mission was to cover those things that would advance the cause of the women’s movement – and cover nothing that would damage the cause. Culture was important in the mix, especially film, and the paper’s writers brought a distinctly feminist queer perspective to some of the most groundbreaking cinema of the 1970s and ’80s. Consider Janet Singleton’s writing on Personal Best, the seminal lesbian sports drama starring Mariel Hemingway: “How this film sees a woman’s body is, for American cinema, revolutionary. It is not a man’s body in either sense of the term, neither as imitator or property. Sensuality and beauty do not preclude strength and health. Pleasure is as much for the taking as the giving.” Big Mama Rag was part of the larger, growing ecosystem of feminist publications of its time, sharing exchange subscriptions with similar publications across the country and itself utilizing the progressive Liberation News Service. “We were part of a network, we felt, part of a growing movement that could make a difference,” wrote Kathy Riley, who worked on Big Mama Rag, in a recent blog post reflecting on her time volunteering for the paper.
Harlan County, U.S.A. (1977) 100%
Fresh: “Barbara Kopple, producer-director… got into the meat of her subject right off the bat, and still was very careful to give her audience a taste of every aspect of the Harlan County miners and their families.” – Marquitta Mayes, June, 1977
Swept Away (Travolti da un Insolito Destino nell'Azzurro Mare d'Agosto) (1975) 63%
Rotten: “This film is nothing less than anti-woman. That the director and producer was a woman is irrelevant.” – Eileen Bresnahan, Kate Sharp, Terra, and Woodwoman, February 1976
With its plumb-colored vending boxes all across the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia Gay News is, for many Philadelphians, as much a symbol of their hometown as the Liberty Bell or the Eagles. And yet the story of this Philly institution – one of the longest-running and most popular LGBTQ publications in the country – actually has its origins about an hour and a half north, in New York City, where founder and publisher Mark Segal had an activist awakening. Like many young LGBTQ people in the 1960s, Segal had beelined for New York as soon as he was old enough, seeking a sense of community and a place to be himself; he found both, but he also witnessed the brutality with which his community was being targeted. It was on the night of the Stonewall riots, which he witnessed, that he remembered the spirit of his grandmother – who had been a young suffragette, and whose family had escaped the pogroms in Russia – and felt a newfound sense of mission. “The riot’s happening, and sometime during that night, I was standing across the street, and something in my head clicked,” Segal said in an interview on Philadelphia radio station WHYY. “I thought about what my grandmother said, and I realized: Blacks are fighting for their rights. Women are fighting for their rights. Latinos are fighting for their rights. What about our community? Or, what about me? And I decided right then and there that’s what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
Making Love (1982) 39%
Fresh: “Making Love defies convention. Here is a movie about a man’s coming to terms with his gayness that is intelligently written, honestly performed and entertaining to watch.” – Larry Vitacco, February 5-18, 1982
Valentino (1977) 40%
Rotten: “One of the most publicized films of the year has arrived, and believe me, it needs all the publicity it can get, for critical acclaim and public reception is beyond its limited reach.” – David MacDonald, November 1977
The groundbreaking Transgender Tapestry began life as The TV-TS Tapestry, before eventually settling on its name and a quarterly publication schedule by transgender advocacy group, The International Foundation for Gender Education. Its beginnings were humble – IFGE founder Merissa Sherill Lynn launched it as a typewritten newsletter – but it grew into a glossy, professionally produced magazine that was sold at stores as mainstream as Borders and Barnes & Noble, albeit behind the counter. In a pre-Internet age, Transgender Tapestry provided many in the trans community with news and information about identity, health care, political advances – and challenges – as well as insightful cultural coverage from a perspective largely unrepresented in the space. That perspective was crucial at a time when more and more trans characters were beginning to appear on screen; as writer Haley Tiresius noted in one 1984 essay considering Dressed to Kill, Tootsie, and other films, “The drag queen and the transsexual – the ‘she-male’ – have become good box office.” Here is Tiresius’s take on John Lithgow’s performance as a trans character in The World According to Garp: “There are lines that suggested to me that the screenwriter – maybe Irving himself – was aware of some of the more subtle aspects of the transsexual experience… At one point, Garp asks Roberta how things are going with a man she has been seeing in New York City. ‘It’s over,’ Roberta reports with a shrug, ‘he says I make him feel sexually ambiguous.’ There were chuckles in the theatre on this one, bit I think I was the only one in the audience who burst out laughing. I too, have heard that line before – too often now to accept it other than stoically – and to be able to laugh to hear such an ‘inconsciousness’ line rattled from the screen.” Not something you were going to read in the Times.
The Birdcage (1996) 80%
Fresh: “If you haven’t seen Birdcage, check it out on video, or better yet, get gussied up and see it in a theater. Either way, realize and appreciate the very symbolic general public acceptance of the transgender phenomenon (and YOU) this film represents.” – Allyson Ann Allante, Fall 1996
Dressed to Kill (1980) 81%
Rotten: “From my point of view, Dressed To Kill is not only a generally pernicious film, it is also a film which presents a serious threat to an already misunderstood minority.” – Haley Tiresius, 1984
OutWeek, the rabble-rousing gay and lesbian magazine that rocked New York media at the height of the AIDS crisis, lived a short life but had a long-running impact. Co-founded by Gabriel Rotello and Kendall Morrison – both members of activist group ACT UP – the magazine brought a politically charged, aggressively activist bent to the LGBTQ media scene. OutWeek made headlines with its enterprise reporting – in January 1990, the magazine published an exclusive interview with the main accuser in the sexual assault allegations against Covenant House founder Father Bruce Ritter – as well as its bold, agitating covers (their famous “I Hate Straights” cover got the mainstream media clutching its pearls). Controversially, OutWeek also pioneered, pre-Internet, the journalistic practice of “outing” closeted celebrities, including most famously in its cover story on Malcolm Forbes. Regardless of how you felt about that tactic, the magazine established a tone and approach to alternative media that would influence publications in the space for decades to come. Its arts coverage was no less direct and insightful than its investigative reporting and political editorials. Led by Arts Editor Sarah Pettit – who would go on to co-found Out in 1992, and who died tragically young in 2003 – the film, music, and other culture pages of OutWeek were a space for sharp bursts of honesty, frank takedowns, and joyful discoveries.
Maurice (1987) 88%
Fresh: “The most stunning example of such a persistently ambiguous vision, which is often about the inability to express or even know one’s desire, is Maurice… If the film is slow and confusing, its confusion is inherent in attempts to represent gay sexuality.” – Peter Bowen, February 25, 1990
Do the Right Thing (1989) 92%
Fresh: “If you think Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing is dangerous, let me ask you: Aren’t the problems he addresses, and our silent neglect of them, far more dangerous?” – Eva Yaa Asantewaa, July 31, 1989
Switch (1991) 32% Switch
Rotten: “From the Lite FM version of ‘Both Sides Now’ that accompanies the opening credits to the absolutely hellish heterosexual closure, the movie rejects any possibility of taking its own risks in order to comfortably remain within Hollywood conventions.” – Monica Dorenkamp, May 22, 1991
Enjoyed this journey into the archives? Check out our story about Cine-Mundial, the magazine that brought Hollywood to Spanish-speakers, and 17 Trailblazing Women Critics Who Changed the Way We Talk Film and TV.
Additional research for this story by Sara Ataiiyan, Steven Louis, and Tim Ryan.