Forgotten Films — ‘Beginners’

An inspirational film for National Coming Out Day

Courtesy of Olympus Pictures

Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day — a day that has been celebrated since 1987, when activists conducted the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Since its inception, the celebration promotes a safe society for LGBTQ individuals to live truthfully and openly within their own communities.

LGBTQ film representation has been quite successful in 2018. “Love, Simon” garnered rave reviews and was a standout as one of the most heartfelt films to depict a gay character. We have yet to see “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Boy Erased,” but both seem to promise complex and moving stories of gay culture. Before this, there have been few standout films that have represented LGBTQ characters respectfully and honestly. 

One film that did this in an unconventional fashion was the 2010 film “Beginners.” It is directed by Mike Mills and stars Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Melanie Laurent. Oliver Fields, played by McGregor, is a man who is learning to live with the hardship, shock and complexity of two life-altering announcements made by his father, played by Plummer. Plummer became the oldest person to win the Academy Award for Supporting Actor for his role. 

Hal Fields, Plummer’s character, is nearing the end of his life, but five years before his death, announces to his son and the world that he is gay. He also adds that he has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The audience hears this story through selected flashbacks as this will be old news to the characters we see throughout the film.

This film is sad, heartfelt, funny, respectable and most importantly — real. When people think of the gay man’s experience, they see young people in their teens and 20s being shown as struggling with their sexuality before coming out. This challenges that assumption and shows the lesser-known instance of someone coming out in their 70s after having spent almost their entire life married to a woman.

You will dislike Hal at first, especially when the film shows the measures of what his marriage looked like and how it affected the happiness of his son and wife — but you quickly will come to love his character as you see his progression in the last five years of his life. Then you will weep for this character you have come to love and appreciate what he has been through being closeted for almost the entirety of his life. 

“Beginners” will tell you all of this through the eyes of Hal’s son. Oliver leads a drifting life without his father and what has become of his relationships. He questions what love is and how to know what is the right thing after he watched his father live such a silent life, then live life to the fullest for a small portion. 

At the time of the film’s release, Barack Obama was still “evolving” on his ideas about gay marriage and would not fully support it until May 2012. Only five states had legal gay marriage — Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut. And finally, within the movie industry, there were only a handful of major films where the characters were out or expressing homosexuality — including 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain” and 1993’s “Philadelphia.”

If you need a film that would convince you as to how hard it is to come out to the world and how hard it is to live a life in the closet — “Beginners” is a film worth watching. More importantly, it shows you the toll of keeping a secret that long inside yourself and how a different generation copes with being LGBTQ. 

Personally, this film is one of the reasons that made me decide to come out this year. You can not imagine a life that Hal Fields lived and see that as a reasonable alternative to being free with yourself and everyone around you. Not everyone knows about me, but they soon will, and it’s more freeing to myself if I don’t have to pretend or keep something a secret from the world. That is what “Beginners” is about. 

Despite all of the negative possibilities, the politics, the resentment from family, the dangers of being out to the world, “Beginners” wants you to be true to yourself and to others. You don’t want the life that Hal Fields had before — you want the life that Hal Fields had during his final years. He might have been dying, but he was dying as a free spirit.

Forgotten Films is part of a series in which the author breaks down films that have lost significance in the pop culture landscape, but still deserve attention due to their history, impact and lasting importance. This biweekly column is spoiler-free.

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