They say good things come to those who wait. So, it only follows that lesbian and bisexual audiences are expecting very good things from “Freeheld” after almost seven long years for the film to come to fruition.
The movie has been a passion project for its star, Ellen Page, since 2008. Late last week it was announced that the film would finally be released in limited release on October 2 and go wider on October 16. The feature is based on the Oscar-winning short documentary of the same name by Cynthia Wade about a real-life lesbian couple fighting to have one of the partner’s pension benefits transferred to the other.
"Freeheld" stars newly minted Academy Award winner Julianne Moore as New Jersey police detective Laurel Hester, with Page as her domestic partner, car mechanic Stacie Andree. When Hester becomes terminally ill with cancer, the pair petition the police department and then the county government (called freeholders — hence the movie’s title) to have her benefits transferred to Andree.
Given the nation’s continued grappling with the issue of marriage equality and an expected ruling by the Supreme Court this summer, the subject could not be more timely. But beyond its ripped-from-the-headlines appeal is a simple yet profound hope for lesbian and bisexual viewers.
Could this be the one? Could this be the truly great, truly beloved lesbian crossover movie we’ve all been waiting for?
Given its high-profile cast (joining Page and Moore are Steve Carell, Michael Shannon and Luke Grimes) and the bidding war it sparked at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year (Lionsgate eventually won out), the movie certainly has the potential to reach a wide audience.
It also marks one of the first times an out lesbian actress has starred in a lesbian film from a major studio. (Yes, we could quibble about whether Lionsgate is a true major, but they gave us the “The Hunger Games” franchise, so they’re clearly no small potatoes).
This, quite simply, matters. It matters because lesbian and bisexual women have not truly had the equivalent of “Philadelphia” or “Brokeback Mountain” at the cineplex. We have not seen a powerful film about gay women that has reached a mainstream audience and also changed hearts and minds on LGBT issues.
While there are a handful of very beloved and even very good lesbian films, most of those were independent releases and for the most part remain known only to gay women and their like-minded friends.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: What about “The Kids Are All Right?” Wasn’t that your “Philadelphia?” Wasn’t that your “Brokeback Mountain?” While the 2010 film was clearly a breakthrough, connecting with crowds and earning accolades, it was also divisive among lesbian viewers.
While straight critics universally adored and praised the film, it created consternation among some very vocal critics in the lesbian and bisexual community. In fact, its out director Lisa Cholodenko was decried by some for perpetuating the lesbians-sleeping-with-men trope that is so rife in popular culture.
You think I’m kidding? Check out the comments section of the film on almost any gay women’s website. Bring a flak jacket.
An argument could also be made for Great Lesbian Movie status for 2013’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” But, let’s be honest, that was a niche French film which — while beautifully, heart-wrenchingly acted — also spawned a million scissoring jokes. Also, for gay women, it was impossible to escape the omniscient male gaze of its director Abdellatif Kechiche, particularly in the film’s extremely extended sex scenes.
So now we pin our hopes and dreams on “Freeheld.” While the film also has a male director (“Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist” director Peter Sollett) and male screenwriter (actual “Philadelphia” scribe Ron Nyswaner), Page herself serves as one of the producers.
While some may say that the film’s topic is almost outdated, as more than half of states now allow same-sex marriage and a Supreme Court ruling that would settle the rest pending, this story could still have real power. The reasons the LGBT community fights for marriage rights and pension rights and all basic civil rights is to confirm our shared humanity.
So it’s important to look back at the struggles of Hester and Andree, who, with so many other couples and individuals, helped to pave the road to what will hopefully be full marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples in the very near future. It’s also a reminder of the speed at which a determined and dedicated group of people can enact change. Hester began her fight with her New Jersey county’s freeholders (county supervisors elsewhere) in November 2005. That’s just a decade ago.
So then those seven years it took to make what we hope will be a great lesbian movie? That seems well worth the wait.