In Oscar-winning films such as “The Times of Harvey Milk” and “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt,” documakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have been instrumental in presenting gay-related issues to a wider audience. Looking at depictions of homosexuality in mainstream American movies in “The Celluloid Closet,” they offer an immensely entertaining, galloping reflection on screen perceptions of lesbians and gay men, from the humorous to the heinous to the heartening. With attentive handling, this precision-tooled assembly of impeccably chosen clips and illuminating, often incisively witty interviews stands to bust out of niche markets into significantly broader commercial territory.
Some gay and lesbian audiences expecting a rabid tirade against Hollywood sterotying and misrepresentation may find the film to be less confrontational than they would have hoped. But Epstein and Friedman clearly are more concerned with objectively chronicling their subject than passionately crusading against it, and ultimately the film should benefit wholeheartedly from this in terms of its international profile on big and small screens.
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Basis for the film is Vito Russo’s landmark 1981 book of the same name, which analyzes how homo-sexuality has been portrayed onscreen since the beginning of the movies and the ways in which those portrayals overlapped with or mirrored society’s views. Russo, who died in 1991, was one of the people with AIDS focused on in “Threads.”
The docu throws out a swift, certain hook with a delightful title sequence of memorable gay and lesbian screen moments of both the intended and unintended kinds.
Narrator Lily Tomlin’s intro then points out that in 100 years of movies, homosexuality has been only rarely acknowledged, mostly as something to get laughs, or inspire fear or pity, conditioning straight people’s ideas about gay people and gay people’s ideas about themselves.
Hollywood’s first gay stock character to come under the microscope is the effeminate sissy. Mincing fops, often treated as nature’s mistakes, appeared from the century’s earlies decades, demonstrating that certain stereotypes already were firmly in place virtually from the birth of American movies.
As interviewee Quentin Crisp points out, while sissy characters often flirted with transvestism, this invariably was played for laughs, but women in male drag were another matter. High on the list of lesbian icons are Marlene Dietrich in a man’s suit in “Morocco” and Greta Garbo as Swedish bachelor-girl monarch “Queen Christina.”
During the moral crackdown of the 1920s, censors set about removing any obvious homosexual elements from the movies, but traces often remained. The Hays Code’s division of films into acceptable, morally objectionable and condemned categories meant most gay themes bit the dust, often being translated into more palatable plot devices. Screen homosexuals then entered a new phase, becoming evil, predatory villains.
Moving into the 1950s, the docu heralds the arrival of tough lesbians behind bars and the sleek socialite model, like Lauren Bacall in “Young Man With a Horn ,” interpreted by screenwriter Jay Presson Allen as a warning for ladies to get back to the kitchen. Gay male characters became miserable or doomed, like Tom Lee’s role in “Tea and Sympathy” and Sal Mineo’s in “Rebel Without a Cause.”
Man-to-man affinities come under scrutiny in films like “Spartacus,” with Tony Curtis wryly commenting on his deleted hot-tub scene with Laurence Olivier. Writer Gore Vidal discusses “Ben-Hur,” hilariously recounting his intro of a gay [7mfrisson[22;27m into the scenario with William Wyler’s consent, but without actor Charlton Heston’s knowledge.
Humor consistently is worked in, playing side by side with the acknowledgement of Hollywood’s stigmatizing of homosexuality. This is thoughtfully examined in regard to “The Children’s Hour,” “Advise and Consent” and other films that undoubtedly impeded many gay audience members from accepting their sexuality.
As the film moves systematically through each decade and trend, it shows gay visibility metamorphosing and growing, with new voices emerging to break down stereo-types and allow for more realistic representation.
Almost as stimulating as Friedman and co-editor Arnold Glassman’s fluidly assembled barrage of clips are the interviews, with especially notable contributions coming from Vidal, Harvey Fierstein, Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon and novelist Armistead Maupin, who wrote the narration.
One key point that surfaces is that there will be real progress in gay and lesbian screen portrayals only when such characters are accepted at face value, and not because they are presented in non-threatening terms designed to parallel heterosexual experience. Audiences also should find food for thought in a rapid-fire montage from recent films underlining how mainstream movie dialogue still provides a continuous diet of antigay insults, where racial or religious slurs would be frowned on.
Technically, the operation is a pristine one. Neatly completing the package are Carter Burwell’s music and a languorous k.d. lang rendition of the Doris Day evergreen “Secret Love” on the closing credits.