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ABOVE (left): Daniel Craig as Detective Blanc in Knives Out / (right): Natasha Lyonne as Charlie in Poker Face

The Queer Icons Of The Rian Johnson Universe

We celebrate the director’s contribution to the arts by highlighting the various queer icons he has placed centre stage in his blockbuster projects…

By Matthew Creith

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what makes a queer icon. Sometimes it can be a mix of camp and ostentatious behaviour. Sometimes it comes in the form of authenticity and ego. Often a queer icon doesn’t have to acknowledge their place in the LGBTQ2A+ community. They are who they are, and they don’t apologize for it.

Certain helmers have made a point of casting queer icons in many of their films and television projects. John Waters, for example, is responsible for bringing Divine to the public’s attention. Christopher Guest has a history of employing Jennifer Coolidge and Parker Posey in many of his projects. Most notably, this sort of casting has come from producer Ryan Murphy, who recently thanked many of these icons in his lengthy speech at the Golden Globe Awards while accepting the Carol Burnett Award. 

But other filmmakers are also making their mark in cinema and television with staples of the queer icon kind. One of those is writer and director Rian Johnson, a man unafraid to put these excellent actors front and centre in many of his whodunit projects.

For those who don’t know Rian Johnson, he is responsible for mystery films like LooperKnives Out and 2022’s Glass Onion. In honour of his recently released television series Poker Face (available to stream on Citytv+), it’s time to celebrate Johnson’s contribution to the arts by highlighting the various queer icons he has placed centre stage in his blockbuster projects. 

The Knives Out Franchise

With the Knives Out franchise beginning in 2019, Rian Johnson created an Americanized version of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Knives Out is centred around a dysfunctional family whose wealthy patriarch is murdered, and detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives to solve the murder. 

Actor Jamie Lee Curtis plays Linda Drysdale, the eldest daughter of the bunch, who might have some secrets she wants to keep hidden. Curtis is the famed daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, two Hollywood icons in their own right. But Jamie Lee Curtis has toed the line between A-list star and queer icon for years, stemming from her days as a bona fide Scream Queen as part of the Halloween franchise. She has also been a decades-long activist for the LGBTQ2A+ community as an ally, even curtailing her character Principal Karen Lowry in 2015’s Spare Partsas a widowed lesbian. Curtis is married to director Christopher Guest, and the two share a trans child named Ruby. 

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery showcased talent across the board and has become an Academy Award-nominated film this year. In this stand-alone sequel to Knives Out, Benoit Blanc is tasked with solving yet another murder, this time involving a tech billionaire who is on a private island with all of his closest frenemies. 

Singer and actor Janelle Monáe plays a dual role in Glass Onion, a true tour-de-force undertaking among the likes of Kathryn Hahn, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista and Edward Norton. Monáe has publicly expressed her willingness to be open about being non-binary in real life. According to an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Monáe announced that her “pronouns are free-ass motherfucker – and they/them, her/she.” She has also acknowledged having polyamorous relationships in the past, and previously identified as bisexual and pansexual. 

Monáe continues to support the LGBTQ2A+ community. She recently appeared as a guest judge on the 15th season of RuPaul’s Drag Race and its spin-off series RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked.

Glass Onion is notable for a slew of cameos throughout the film. Still, some of the best laughs come from the pandemic-era scene where Benoit Blanc plays Among Us over Zoom with Natasha Lyonne, Stephen Sondheim and Angela Lansbury. Glass Onion carries some extra weight as the last film to feature Sondheim and Lansbury – both queer icons – before both legends passed. 

Stephen Sondheim is famous for his contributions as a composer and lyricist to the Broadway stage, with well-known entries like West Side StoryGypsyFolliesA Little Night MusicSweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Into the Woods. An introvert through much of his life, Sondheim was open about his sexuality and proud of being a gay man, which he acknowledged in public when he was nearly 40 years old.

Angela Lansbury was never shy about her place as a queer icon: she was a staunch supporter of gay rights, and became an ally in the fight against AIDS at the height of her career on Broadway, film and television. She raised money for AIDS-related charities and co-starred in Broadway productions like Gypsy and Sweeney Todd that catered to a gay audience. In the 1940s, she married a gay man named Richard Cromwell (the marriage lasted less than a year).

But the Knives Out franchise would be nothing if it weren’t for Benoit Blanc himself, Daniel Craig. The English actor who played James Bond on the big screen for five films might not be the obvious choice for this role, but Rian Johnson has made the dashing actor a queer icon as of late.

In Glass Onion, it is revealed that Benoit Blanc is gay and living with a man named Phillip (Hugh Grant). Johnson directs this reveal in a natural and unassuming way, leading the audience towards a main character who is comfortable in his own skin. When Blanc arrives at the elaborate Greek vacation sequence, he adopts a relaxed look with an ascot and striped bathing suit. It’s an homage to his character’s quirkiness but also a nod to Blanc’s queerness that cannot be denied.

Poker Face

Poker Face is Rian Johnson’s newest television series, which he developed for star Natasha Lyonne. A familiar face and real-life friend of Johnson’s, Lyonne plays casino employee Charlie Cale, who is on the run throughout the United States as a witness to a crime. In her travels, Charlie encounters numerous sketchy individuals, and she uses her abilities to sniff out liars in order to catch murderous strangers along the way.

Natasha Lyonne has been working in the entertainment industry since she was a child actor, even appearing as herself in a brief cameo in Glass Onion. However, she came to the attention of the LGBTQ2A+ community everywhere with her stellar performance opposite Clea DuVall in 1999’s But I’m a Cheerleader. Portraying a lesbian teenage character sent to a conversion therapy camp, Lyonne amassed a significant cult following in an independently made LGBTQ film. She followed up that performance with appearances in Orange is the New Blackand DuVall’s directorial effort The Intervention, which helped solidify Lyonne’s standing as an actor who has played a multitude of gay characters.

Poker Face has been devised to depict a new case for Charlie Cale to solve each episode. Every episode features a brand new storyline and a new set of characters, played by some well-known actors. Among this ensemble cast is a treasure trove of queer icons, including Judith Light, Clea DuVall, Stephanie Hsu, Cherry Jones and Jameela Jamil. 

Judith Light might best be known for her starring role as Angela Bower in Who’s the Boss?, but the working actor has portrayed many characters on screen that span hits like Transparent and Ugly Betty. She counts herself as one of the first major celebrities to advocate for LGBTQ2A+ people and others who have contracted AIDS. Light currently serves on the board of the Matthew Shepard Foundation and the Point Foundation, which supports students who are discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Clea DuVall, Stephanie Hsu, Cherry Jones and Jameela Jamil are all queer actors working successfully to embody talent and diversity within a growing entertainment environment. Jamil was a judge on the voguing reality competition show Legendary, while DuVall has steadily worked as a director, actor and writer for years, bringing LGBTQ2A+ stories directly to global audiences. Jones is a two-time Tony Award winner and three-time Emmy Award winner for her work on 24The Handmaid’s Tale and Succession. Hsu has seen her star on the rise in the past 12 months with her multi-layered performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once, for which she recently received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

As Poker Face releases new episodes weekly and the Knives Out series of films expands to another installment, Rian Johnson will surely introduce audiences to more queer icons in the near future.

MATTHEW CREITH is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. He is a member of GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and participates in the association’s Dorian Awards. You may also know him for his work on Matinee With Matt, Screen Rant, and Giant Freakin Robot. You can find him on Twitter: @matthew_creith or Instagram: matineewithmatt.

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