[box cover]

The Celluloid Closet: Special Edition

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

Narrated by Lily Tomlin

Featuring Tom Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg,
Quentin Crisp, Susan Sarandon, Harvey Fierstein,
Tony Curtis, Armistead Maupin, Antonio Banderas,
Gore Vidal, John Schlesinger, Sharon Stone,
Susie Bright, Paul Rudnick, and others

Narration written by Armistead Maupin
Based on the book by Vito Russo

Produced and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


I watched this DVD with a roomful of fags. A party of queers, dykes, homos, sissies, lesbos, light-in-the-loafers whoopsies, and "special girlfriends." Nature's mistakes. Funny limp-wristed swishers, purse-carrying killers doomed to a nasty end, and dangerous women who only need one time with a man to be set right, the way God intended.

According to 100 years of Hollywood cinema, that's what I did. And here I thought I was just inviting a bunch of friends over to watch a movie.

The event was the 2001 DVD release of The Celluloid Closet. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman took Vito Russo's 1981 book, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, and gave it this faithful screen treatment. Russo's premise was simple: Our perceptions of ourselves and others are influenced by what Hollywood puts on our screens. Russo's goal was not to cast Hollywood as the bad guy. Instead, he underlines the fact that movies, particularly in the generations before 100-channel cable TV, have been a barometer of what we think and feel about things, including people who may or may not be like ourselves. The film translates the book into the best possible medium to show how generations of gay movie-goers had to spot homosexual characters on the big screen only through the "gaydar" of narrative subtext and clever visual clues. The result is an eye-opening and entertaining documentary, a comprehensive survey of the depictions of gays and lesbians in mainstream motion pictures. (Before The Celluloid Closet, Epstein and Friedman won Oscars for two other gay-themed documentaries, The Life of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt.)

The Celluloid Closet debuted in 1995 at the Venice Film Festival. After a one-time HBO "sneak preview" broadcast in January 1996, Sony Pictures Classics released the film theatrically the following March. (Both helpfully and ironically, it opened at the same time as The Birdcage, a movie built on the "sissy" stereotype The Celluloid Closet was critiquing.) Thanks to positive press and active promotion from Sony, the movie did well in wide distribution, both domestic and internationally. On this DVD's commentary track, Epstein recalls seeing it in Istanbul and Turkey, then adds that it will soon play in Israel. It has won a Peabody and an Emmy.

This isn't one of those angry, bitter "We're here, we're queer, get used to it" tirades, is it?

Not at all. It's engrossing, brings a healthy sense of humor to the discussion, and enlightening without being bludgeoning. It both condemns the stereotypes and falsehoods represented for decades onscreen (and therefore in American society) and celebrates the progress that has been made. The 120 film clips draw in the audience, letting the absurdity — and sometimes the horror — of the images speak for themselves.

Along the way, narrator Lily Tomlin knits together insights and anecdotes from gay and straight commentators such as Antonio Banderas, Tom Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg, Armistead Maupin, John Schlesinger, Sharon Stone, Susan Sarandon (who comes across a tad sanctimonious, granted), and Harvey Fierstein. They fill in the history and context of attitude trends — and ways of circumventing them — represented on the silver screen. Most of the talents interviewed here are actors, writers, and others who either worked directly within a Hollywood that kept them in the closet, or grew up as young movie-goers looking for images or characters that they could relate to. Often instead they found characters that reinforced negative social stigmas or personal self-devaluation. We get to hear about what particular movies or scenes meant to individuals as well as how the movies' content reflected society's feelings regarding homosexuals. "Hollywood, that great maker of myths," the movie tells us, "taught straight people what to think about gay people, and gay people what to think about themselves."

So The Celluloid Closet works as a look at film history and into the sociology of movies as products created for public consumption. It's smartly directed and fluidly edited, keeping its pace brisk and conversational. It wins by being entertaining and informative without being self-righteous. Think of it as the That's Entertainment of gay cinema.

So you have to be, like, gay to enjoy it, right?

Good grief no. You just have to like movies. Now, being gay certainly adds a dimension to the experience. That's why I invited a particular group of friends (and their friends) to the screening. I lack that appreciation vector, so I wanted the perspective of a ... let's call it a focus group. (Between you and me, it was a fine excuse to throw a party on the company dime.) If it's universal appeal you're after, you do get to see Susan Sarandon's tits. She tells us that she had no trouble bedding Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger, and who among us would say otherwise?

Does the world need a documentary about Hollywood's depictions of gays onscreen?

Does the world need a documentary about, say, the space program? There's interesting stuff here. By taking a chronological look at gay characters and subtext in movies, we can trace the evolution of the conventions and stereotypes preserved on film. The earliest clip is from a Thomas Edison short titled "The Gay Brothers" from 1895, in which two men dance a waltz. We learn in this disc's first commentary track that "The Gay Brothers" outraged many who viewed it through the nickelodeons of the time. Still, during the golden age of silent cinema, the teens and twenties, there were movies that pushed the envelope by showing homosexuality with greater openness than in following decades. Sexuality onscreen didn't become a capital-I Issue until the restrictive self-imposed censorship that began in the '30s. Once social norms were set, the movies showed them to us literally bigger than life, thus solidifying them. As Tony Curtis states on one of this disc's abundant supplements:

So the head of a studio says, "I don't wanna see any fags, I don't wanna see any lesbos, I don't wanna see any fat, I don't wanna see any Jew kids" ... and that's the way it happened. All the major studios, they all contributed in that way. L.B. Mayer, every one of them. And they weren't to blame. They were just reflecting what they got from their audiences. Exhibitors would tell them, "Listen, they didn't like that scene where that guy came fromping in."... "Alright, no more fromping on the set!" So that's the way the code, the unwritten code became part of making the movie.

The Celluloid Closet takes us from the days of Chaplin-era silents, through the early talkies, into the changing — though not always progressively so — standards of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, then to controversial groundbreakers of the '60s, '70s and beyond. We see gays stereotypically portrayed as stock sissy caricatures, humorous swishy sidekicks, and tragic figures to be pitied.

From our perspective now, numerous "serious" clips here are eye-rollingly funny. Just wait until you see Jane Russell in 1953's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, where she bumps and grinds her way through the song "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" to an onscreen audience of completely indifferent, well-oiled Charles Atlas bodybuilders using a gym the way Busby Berkley chorus girls would use a dance floor.

Other clips are powerfully tragic in what they say a homosexual was: an unhappy, suicidal, desperate figure whose only inevitable end was to be destroyed. For decades anyone of questionable sexuality would meet with a bad end by the close of the last reel. One of the more alarming scenes in The Celluloid Closet presents a death montage stringing shot after shot of gay characters finding their natural comeuppance via bullets, fire, a bow and arrow, an ashtray, a fork, a falling tree, and even cannibalism.

Similarly, the image of the homosexual as victimizer rather than victim — as the shadowy psychopath, cold-hearted villain, or perverted killer — is a cliché resonating through such films as Dracula's Daughter, the controversial Al Pacino vehicle Cruising, and in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and Rope. Hitchcock was a master of sneaking gay-shaded content past the censors. His Rope in particular, scripted by Arthur Laurents, both perpetuates and subverts homosexual stereotyping.

The gears of Hollywood's censorship machinery sprocketed mainstream movies throughout most of the 20th century. So when not played for laughs or as tragic object lessons, gay characters were visible only through subtext and innuendo. Hollywood filmmakers were reined in by the willfully blind Hays Code (Will H. Hays appears here in archival footage), the notorious Legion of Decency, the prudishness of the studio executives, and the pressures of social conformity. So they learned to write movies between the lines. And audiences learned to view them that way.

Some of the most illuminating and humorous moments in The Celluloid Closet show how homosexual content found its way into movies that winked at the audience. If you got the joke, you were one step ahead of the morality taskmasters behind the scenes. Take, for instance, Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon. Or the John Wayne cowboy flick Red River, where six-shooters are phallic playthings and John Ireland says to Montgomery Clift, "There are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch, or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a Swiss watch?"

We get the inside dope on the classic gaydar pings preserved in two swords-and-sandals epics from the era of Hollywood's studio system: the cut, and recently restored, "snails and oysters" metaphor between Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier sharing a bath in Spartacus, and the Ben Hur anecdote that still sends Charlton Heston's blood pressure through the roof. As screenwriter Gore Vidal enjoys telling us, his job rewriting William Wyler's script for Ben Hur included fixing the knotty problem of explaining the all-consuming enmity between the two main characters. So Vidal gave some creative topspin to the key scene when Heston and Stephen Boyd first meet and renew their old friendship. Vidal suggested to Wyler that they play it with the idea that the two men were once teen lovers, with Boyd wanting to renew that relationship, only to be spurned and rejected by Heston's character. According to Vidal, Wyler agreed that the plan, while unusual, was better than what they had. He then told Vidal to let Boyd in on the new approach, but to not tell Heston, whose reputation as a prickly conservative preceded his NRA years. That new layering, with the two actors exchanging soulful looks as they share wine, survived through the final edit. Watching the scene with that awareness does make for a wryly amusing, and more dramatically engaging, experience. As you might expect, Heston over the years has not just denied that any homosexual context exists in the scene — he also steadfastly refuses to work on any movie that includes Gore Vidal in any way. (Public letters from Heston and Vidal about their conflicting views of Ben Hur's character development are reprinted as part of The Celluloid Closet's DVD pull-out production notes.)

Writer Susie Bright recalls being a young, isolated lesbian pushed back in her seat by the impact of a scene in Morocco, when Marlene Dietrich (looking smashing in a tuxedo) kisses another woman. For Bright, just seeing other people like herself up there in a movie was a thrill that swamped the years of conditioning that comes from being forced to stay hidden within your own society.

We also look at Sal Mineo's character in Rebel Without a Cause, Doris Day in Calamity Jane, and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (a gay actor playing a straight man pretending to be a gay man to avoid a relationship with a woman). Shirley MacLaine clearly has something to get off her chest when she speaks about her experiences filming The Children's Hour with Audrey Hepburn.

More recent movies are examined as they show how attitudes have made some halting progress: Advise and Consent, William Friedkin's daring The Boys in the Band, Cabaret, The Color Purple, Torch Song Trilogy, the eye-opening explicitness of Making Love, Fried Green Tomatoes, Philadelphia, and others. For the past couple of decades, most of the forward momentum on the big screen has occurred in independent films, and Epstein and Friedman acknowledge in their audio commentary track that The Celluloid Closet could only tip a hat to indies because it focused on mass-market mainstream movies. Today, looking back over the years since The Celluloid Closet's 1995 theatrical run, we can watch this DVD with further awareness of the two-steps-forward/one-step-back progress that "gay issues" have made in both mainstream and indie cinema, reflecting the shuffling, diffident footsteps of the culture at large.

No matter what generation they come from or their connection with the movies, the people we see interviewed in The Celluloid Closet repeat a point common to their experiences: Gay movie-goers have always been hungry for any movie, or just a single scene, that could give them an image, however fleeting, to hang on to. But in Hollywood's chief export positive images of homosexuals were — and remain — hard to find. Hell, never mind "positive" images, The Celluloid Closet says, how about simply real images, where gay men and lesbians are ordinary people?

There's one sad note in the making of The Celluloid Closet: Vito Russo didn't live to see it. He died in 1990.

So, what makes this a "special edition"?

Lots of stuff. Firstly, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment's DVD of The Celluloid Closet arrives with a fine transfer of pristine source material in its original full-screen 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The audio comes in Dolby Digital 2.0 surround. The extras offer a strong variety of supporting supplements:


What did your "focus group" think of it?

They loved it. At times my living room was (as they say in the movies) filled with laughter, other times with rapt silence occasionally punctuated with a quiet "Wow." Often comments from the movie's interviewees struck chords of deep recognition among the viewers. For instance, several shared with actor/writer Harvey Fierstein and writer Susie Bright the experience of an "underground railroad" communications network, where you call up your friends and tell them to see a particular movie or video because of a theme or even just one brief scene that hits home.

Post-movie discussion was vigorous. One of the guests noted that the same old level of censorship still exists with regard to showing affection between two men or two women onscreen. That's even more true today than during the silent era, where, for instance, two male friends showing deep affection physically didn't automatically set off the "Sex!" alarm (e.g., the war drama Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1919).

Also noted was the continuing lack of gay heroes in mainstream movies — heroes whose "gayness" is simply incidental. Where's the gay man or woman who saves the world from aliens or rescues his or her partner from terrorists or just has an ordinary movie-plot life without having to die before the closing credits? Hollywood product still too often offers homosexuals as tortured souls (the overblown American Beauty wrings melodrama from a repressed gay man whose homosexual denial makes him an abuser and murderer) or flamboyant caricatures played for giggles (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). On this disc, the restrictive neo-conservatism of the studio bosses during the 1980s is mentioned as one reason why positive progress has slowed. Whoopie Goldberg, certainly not an actor working in the days of the old morality codes, recalls the indignity of being told to play a role "more gay," asking how that's different from being told to play it "more black." While it's now easier for a gay actor to be "out," the very concept is still tabloid headline fodder and Tom Cruise thinks the whisper that he's less than 100% het is worth a $10 million lawsuit.

As a side note, recent advances in writing for mainstream television, where gay visibility is becoming standard fare, came up. But as far as The Big Screen goes, independent movies are where it's happening. Removed from the restraints of questionable opinion polling and often erroneously presumed "audience sensibilities," that's where honest and true stories, many from gay writers and directors, are opening doors and pushing envelopes. But unless you happen to have an "art house" theater or an unusually well-stocked video store nearby, you may not have an opportunity to see them.

I was pleasantly surprised later, while listening to this DVD's primary commentary track, by how much of our post-movie discussion was mirrored in the dialogue with Epstein, Friedman, and others who contributed to The Celluloid Closet and who can also look at it from a perspective several years removed.

So my party guests, gays and straights, enjoyed The Celluloid Closet both as a movie and as a vehicle for reflection on where we've all come from and how far progress still needs to go. Even without the "analysis," we all just had a good time. It's one of the best documentaries on film history to come down the pike. It's well crafted and free of any easy, mean-spirited, finger-pointing attack attitude. It's not a movie made solely for "gay audiences."

It's a good movie, period.

—Mark Bourne



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