The Celluloid Closet

The Celluloid ClosetSynopsis: What That’s Entertainment did for movie musicals, The Celluloid Closet does for Hollywood homosexuality, as this exuberant, eye-opening movie serves up a dazzling hundred-year history of the role of gay men and lesbians on the silver screen.

Lily Tomlin narrates as Oscar®-winning moviemaker Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt) and Jeffrey Friedman assemble fabulous footage from 120 films showing the changing face of cinema sexuality, from cruel stereotypes to covert love to the activist triumphs of the 1990s. Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Curtis, Harvey Fierstein and Gore Vidal are just a few of the many actors, writers and commentators who provide funny and insightful anecdotes.

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The Celluloid Closet 7.5

eyelights: the many film clips used in evidence.
eyesores: the superficial treatment of the subject. the claims of subtext.

“Most expressions of homosexuality in most of movies are indirect. And what’s interesting about that is, of course, that is what it was like to express homosexuality in life – that we could only express ourselves indirectly, just as people on the screen could only express themselves indirectly. And the sense in which the characters are in the closet, the movie is in the closet and we are in the closet.” – Richard Dyer

‘The Celluloid Closet’ if a 1995 documentary about the way in which the LGBT community had, until then, for over a century, been portrayed in American cinema. It is based on the 1981 book by gay activist Vito Russo, which itself was based on a series of lectures that he gave for a decade prior.

Written and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the film version consists of interviews with a variety of male and female, straight and gay, industry players, and features tons of archival footage and movie clips beginning with Edison’s early test films all the way to 1995’s ‘Boys on the Side’.

As it attempts to map out the changing roles of gays and lesbians and the perceptions people had of them, it also takes a look at the shifting morals of North American society – especially focusing on the impact that the Motion Picture Production Code and the National Legion of Decency had in their day.

It’s an interesting documentary, but it felt a bit empty in some ways, giving a quick overview of what gay “looked like” on the screen, and the effect that this limited view had on some, but it doesn’t really delve into the politics of it or the strong emotions that this elicited. It’s very much a simplified version of what happened.

Still, it was fascinating to hear everyone’s perspectives on the subject. Some claimed that they didn’t care how gays were portrayed, so long as they were – because at least then they could see themselves reflected on screen. Others felt so desperate to find relatable characters that they would obsess on minor moments because they were loaded with significance for them.

Personally, I was surprised that some of the clips were considered noteworthy for one reason or another. The ones from ‘Ben-Hur’, ‘Rope’ and ‘Rebecca‘, for instance, seemed to me far too ambiguous to be considered anything deeper. Sometimes, to me they merely appeared to display strong bonds between people, not romantic affection.

But I suppose that we find meaning in things that aren’t always designed to be meaningful, sometimes frivolously, sometimes out of emotional or intellectual hunger, sometimes out of necessity. Case-in-point, my over-reaction to goth-influenced character in ‘The World’s End‘: it was important to me, and I made it so.

I don’t want to dismiss how deeply-affected some of these people were when they saw films that seemed to show gay and lesbians on the screen. Hardly. I just think that when we seek something to quench one’s thirst, sometimes we find relief in places and things never meant to offer such satisfaction. That’s all.

There was this brilliant moment with Tom Hanks, who had a lead role in the then-groundbreaking gay love story ‘Philadelphia’, when he says that he was the perfect person to play the part because his on-screen persona is the least threatening thing ever so, by playing the part, it made the gay character safe for the masses.

It’s awesome to see how self-aware he was of his role and impact in playing the part. Many other figures had no idea that they were playing parts that were either groundbreaking or at least important: Shirley MacLaine admitted as much during one interview and, let’s face it, Charlton Heston certainly had no clue.

I suspect that discussing the content of Hollywood’s closet would require much more time to expand on the subject than a mere 100-minute film could ever allow, but it’s a pretty decent start. And, for a film that took almost a decade to make (they couldn’t get the funding), and the era in which it was made, it does a good job of it.

‘The Celluloid Closet’ may not be comprehensive and totally objective, but it opens the door wide enough that we can all get a safe glimpse at a side of humanity, of ourselves, that we had ignored, if not outright repressed, for far too long. It was an excellent opportunity to start making amends, and our society has been all the better for it since.

Date of viewing: February 28, 2014

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