A documentary is on the plate for today’s entry, and it looks at the world of homosexuality in film. Like any minority group, the roles for homosexuals have been less than diverse and The Celluloid Closet, based on the book by Vito Russo, looks at the role of gay and lesbian characters in film and the uphill battle they’ve had to be represented. While it doesn’t explore some of the more key areas, namely the role of homosexual writers/directors/actors and AIDS, the documentary is a compelling look at how gay characters have been in film forever, yet most audiences don’t even realize.
The Celluloid Closet plots a chronological path through the roles of homosexuals in film. Starting with the early silent films that focused on two men dancing, the movie goes through the 30s, the Hays Code through to the 50s, 60s, and 70s when homosexuality in films was being more and more accepted. It goes up until about 1993-1994 so it’s fairly dated in the films. It’d be great to see this film updated to reflect the vast majority of homosexual films out there now and what that says about our society.
The sheer range of homosexual characters is what’s fascinating. The original use for gays was as comic relief with an early Charlie Chaplin film creating the role of the “swishy” or highly effeminate man who became known as the “sissy.” Harvey Fierstein is one of the commentators in the film and mentions he has a fond reverence for the “sissy” in films as it showcases gay visibility no matter what.
From the sissy the role of crossdressing is focused on and there’s an appropriate comment made that “when a man dresses as a woman, people laugh. When a woman dresses like a man, nobody laughs.” We get scenes of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot as well as Marlene Dietrich in a tux in Morocco. No matter what, the role of the crossdressing woman is almost always attractive, I mean look at Dietrich, she’s astounding! With the 1940s and 1950s and the iron-fist of the Hays Code, homosexuality was forced to be masked with particular vices like anti-Semitism or alcoholism (seen in Billy Wilder‘s The Lost Weekend). The 1950s horror films relied on homosexuals to be the villains as in a pretty crazy scene shown from Dracula’s Daughter.
That’s what I loved about this documentary, the sheer amount of clips used from films I’d either seen and never knew they hid gay subtext, or films I’d never heard of but now want to see and the commentators help by explaining their own conflicted views in first seeing these films. The film uses the hilarious Cary Grant clip from Bringing Up Baby:
and other scenes from films like Rope and Young Man with a Horn (which I now really want to see) and Rebel Without a Cause. I knew of some of the subtext like in the bodybuilder scenes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Rebel but some movies completely eluded me like a scene in Red River where the two men are getting a bit too much joy out of shooting their guns.
The film moves to the women in prison films which were meant to show a loss of femininity and the call to go back to the kitchen of the 1950s. On the other side you had 1950s films emphasizing masculinity which you totally see if you’ve watched Rebel Without a Cause. There’s a discussion of the irony in someone like Rock Hudson, who revealed himself as a gay man towards the end of his life, playing a straight man in his movies who pretended to be gay to seduce women. The move to the 1960s is where the movie showcases deleted scenes from certain films where the gay subtext was too much like Spartacus or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Tony Curtis, who it’s sad to see in this film as he’s no longer with us, has a hilarious moment of discussing his role in that film saying the character wanted to be wined and dined. Nice to know he was well aware of his characters sexuality unlike Charlton Heston who the screenwriter of that movie (who is interviewed in the film) states they had to lie to Heston about his character being gay as he wouldn’t have accepted it.
With the advent of the 1960s the film mentions the “fearless and voiceless” role of gays in film with every gay character having to die by the end of the film. There’s a poignant moment of contrasting a character’s death scene in Suddenly, Last Summer with Frankenstein’s monster being chased through the streets in the 1930s film, emphasizing how gay characters were still being persecuted. Various talking heads mention that the 1960s depicted an image of “angry, suicidal, desperate gay people.”
The 1970s section looks at the film The Boys in the Band which is the first honest gay movie where everyone lives. The movie doesn’t focus a lot on the 70s before jumping to the 80s and the rise of gay slurs in film. I immediately connected to this as I’ve argued this for several years with people. One commentator mentions specifically that slurs aimed at the black community are never uttered in films unless two African-American characters are saying it. The film then presents a montage of numerous movies where the word “fag” is used like “Hello.” It’s an unsettling trend that you still see in entertainment today. With the 1980s the gay community becomes a world of rapists and murderers (seen in films like Cruising and The Fan).
The documentary briefly closes out the film referencing how it’s okay for two women to have a love scene in a movie as opposed to two men (something that is still obvious in our films today) and Susan Sarandon expertly points out that Hollywood, being run by men, deems lesbianism “a phase” and that a good man could turn them around. If the movie had only showcased films from a few years later Chasing Amy scenes would have been used en mass.
The amount of commentators is diverse and insightful ranging from gay directors to screenwriters and actors who are heterosexual but have played gay characters. They all mention that the lack of gay characters, or any minority for that matter, creates a sense of isolation and movies have created this world of what a gay person looks like. I would have liked a bit more discussion on whether directors and screenwriters have met resistance in being gay themselves. I think it’s just as hard to be a gay director as to make a gay film and that isn’t touched on at all, probably to resist making the commentators uncomfortable (and there’s NEVER any mention of any actor other than the deceased Rock Hudson being gay) and most fall back on they “didn’t know” the true intentions of the characters until they were presented on-screen. The movie also never touches on the role AIDS played in the 80s-90s in film. Sure it mentions Philadelphia but it never brings up the lack of any type of affection between Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas as the leads (in fact some scenes of them being affectionate were removed) and certain tropes used in the 80s were meant to symbolize AIDS (vampires immediately comes to mind).
The Celluloid Closet is an important documentary if you’re a film fan. It looks at how gay characters continue to be marginalized in film, and how we’re hopefully trying to get better.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.