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Mädchen in Uniform (1931)
Yes, we’re starting this list all the way back in 1931, with this underrated but revolutionary German movie about a schoolgirl who falls in love with her teacher. The Nazis banned it in Germany, and it did not screen in the U.S. until Eleanor Roosevelt lifted the bans.
When the film opened in 1932 in New York, The New York Times’s Mordaunt Hall wrote that “The New York State Board of Censors at first frowned upon the suggestion in this film of the ‘Captive' theme, but recently they reconsidered their refusal to grant it a license.” (The Captive was a lesbian-themed play that was on Broadway in 1926.)
The Children’s Hour (1961)
In the 1930s in the U.S., the restrictive Hays Code was in effect, so when Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children's Hour was first adapted into a film (directed by William Wyler), the lesbian themes were scrapped. But in 1961, Wyler took another stab at the material and directed a second film version of the play, in which the true plot was reinstated. Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine star as schoolteachers accused of having an affair.
The Fox (1967)
Based on a D.H. Lawrence novel, The Fox stars Anne Heywood and Sandy Dennis as Ellen and Jill, two women living alone on a chicken farm. A man named Paul (Keir Dullea) disturbs their peace and romances Ellen. Jill ends up dying, and Ellen goes off with Paul. “The fox, which Lawrence intended as a male symbol in the book, seems to represent lesbianism in the movie,” Renata Adler wrote in the New York Times in 1968. “Since Paul kills it — by my count, two chickens and the fox died for this film — it seems to make more sense.” Writing for the site AfterEllen, Jenni Olson called the movie the “ultra example of homophobic lesbian movies — and in that sense a great vintage landmark to show how far we really have come.”
Personal Best (1982)
Personal Best is about two female track-and-field stars who become romantically involved. However, the book In the Company of Women: Contemporary Female Friendship Films argues that the movie “ends by exalting female friendship at the expense of lesbianism.” Complex wrote that it has one of the “most gratuitous girl-on-girl scenes in movies,” but AfterEllen disagreed, noting that "for audiences hungry for well-produced, big-budget depictions of non-allegorical lesbian lovemaking, Personal Best was a first."
Desert Hearts (1985)
Desert Hearts is considered a groundbreaking film and has been deemed the first mainstream movie focusing on a lesbian relationship and also directed by a lesbian (Donna Deitch). In the movie, a professor, Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), moves to Reno in the 1950s to get a divorce. There, she meets a young woman on the ranch where she's staying.
As the executive editor of DAME Magazine, Kera Bolonik, recently told New York magazine when she cited Desert Hearts as an important “lesbian-culture artefact,” for her, the film has “a lesbian-positive ending — which is to say neither woman died or went crazy or got punished or returned to men.”