When May December, the latest from celebrated filmmaker Todd Haynes, hit Netflix last week, it was basically a gay holiday.
Back in the ’90s, the out filmmaker was one of the leading voices in the New Queer Cinema movement, and basically every time he releases a new film—from glam-rock saga Velvet Goldmine to sapphic romance Carol—it’s an event.
The fact that this one happened to promise a showdown, of sorts, between high-caliber actresses Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman, plus a showcase for the breathtakingly hunky Charles Melton, brought our excitement to a fever pitch.
Of course, on the surface, there’s not much that’s textually “queer” about May December and its story of an actress (Portman) observing the life of Gracie (Moore), a woman she’ll be playing in her next film role—a woman who, years earlier, went to prison for her relationship with a minor and then had his baby, a la real-life tabloid subject Mary Kay Letourneau.
But gay viewers were pretty immediately drawn to one character in particular: Gracie’s son Georgie, from her marriage prior to the scandal. Clearly still hurting from his mom’s actions, he’s something of a “chaos agent” in just a few short but memorable scenes—and while it’s not plainly stated that Georgie is queer, he does reference giving his friend a h*nd j*b, so…
In any event, Georgie is played by out actor Cory Michael Smith, perhaps best known for playing Edward Nygma, a.k.a. “The Riddler” is Fox’s Batman universe drama, Gotham, though he’s also appeared on Broadway in Breakfast At Tiffany’s and has had supporting turns in projects like the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge and two other Haynes films: Wonderstruck and the aforementioned Carol.
Despite the eclectic list of credits, not everyone was aware of Smith’s work when he caught their attention in May December—though they sure are paying attention now!
Cory Michael Smith shines in 1985
If May December‘s now got you on the Cory Michael Smith train like the rest of us—welcome aboard!—we’ve got a recommendation for your watch lists that highlights the depth of his talent. And it just so happens to be a queer Christmas tale; although don’t go in expecting one of those cheery Hallmark holiday rom-com….
Smith takes an all-too-rare leading role in 2018’s 1985, a black-and-white arthouse indie gem from gay-writer director Yen Tan, also starring Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis, and Jamie Chung.
A period piece set in the titular year, the film finds Smith playing Adrian, a young gay New Yorker who returns to his Texas hometown for the holidays. But he’s not there to celebrate. Dying of AIDS and not out to his family, Adrian struggles with how to say goodbye.
Again, 1985 isn’t what you think of when you hear the term “LGBTQ+ holiday movie”—rather’s it’s a very personal and moving story that uses the Christmastime homecoming that many of us are familiar with as a backdrop for exploring loneliness and loss through a uniquely queer lens.
And Smith is just astounding in the role, carrying every frame of the film, equally magnetic and devastating. He has said the story really resonated with him, especially as a queer man originally from “Middle America.”:
“I’m from Ohio,” he told The Daily Beast in 2018. “I’ve been living [in New York City] for a while, and there are stretches when I don’t see my family often. Going home and that whole charade is very familiar. The first family dinner after a while. Coming out to a family, the fear of that.”
“This story, a story about AIDS and stripping away politics, stripping away activism, stripping away the medical drama of it, what you’re left with is something so personal about family and connecting with family and keeping secrets with family. It just overwhelmed me.”
It may not fit the typical mold of “good tidings and cheer,” but 1985 is well worth a watch this holiday season, especially if you’ve just seen May December and are eager for more from this underrated actor.
Catch Cory Michael Smith in 1985, streaming now on Peacock, Tubi, and Kanopy.