Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Closet Cases

Angelman (Chris) of Angelman's Place and I are doing a blogathon The Gender-Bending the Rules Blogathon in September.  The impetus of the blogathon stems from having just recently reviewed the 1982 film Victor/Victoria, and being inspired to look into the history of how gays and lesbians have been presented in film over the years.  (I was a history major in college, so any history intrigues me, but especially cultural history).

I read (and recently reviewed for this blog) the rather intriguing book The Lavender Screen, which delves into the story of homosexuals in film.  After finishing it, I donated it to my local library and mentioned to the director that I'd be interested in seeing The Celluloid Closet.  Apparently it had once been a part of the library shelves but had since gone missing and had not been replaced.  The director told me he would get it replaced forthwith, and sure enough it only took about a week or so.

First; a personal history:  I was born in 1961, and raised in rural Texas, which means I was privy to some of the racism that inhibited the South, if not in my hometown (which never had a black family living there until after I left town to go to college), at least on TV.  But I was raised to treat all people the same, regardless of race or color.  Which I still retain  the effects of that upbringing today.  But since my parents were fundamentalist Christians (Southern Baptists to be exact), I doubt they would approve of my extending that respect to members of the LGBT community.  But I do.  No one deserves to be second-class citizens in my America.  Which is why I call myself a Libertarian politically.  And it is also why I don't care whether my choices of movies garner approval from my family or my friends.  I watch anything that might have some appeal or at least something that would satisfy my curiosity in cultures that are otherwise alien to me.

The Celluloid Closet (1995):

From the very beginning of film there have been homosexuals.  How they were portrayed depended on the times.  This film includes a lot of clips that, apparently, had been part of the archives of Vito Russo, a man who made part of his living by touring the country delivering lectures on the history of how homosexuals were presented in the movies.  One of the earliest clips is from the files of Thomas Edison who basically invented the motion picture.  It is one of two men dancing.  (Note:  I'm not entirely sure that the two men are supposed to be gay.  Personally, I just think they were brought together to make the film.  Even though the title of the piece is supposed to be "The Gay Brothers"...)

But in it's earliest forms, the movies presented gay men as "sissies".  In silent films, this meant they used exaggerated pantomime to prance around, an admittedly prejudiced example of the homosexual as perceived by the straight audience. Interviews with various celebrities include both playwright Arthur Laurents who compares the sissy to the stereotype of the black characters in old movies who were portrayed as Stepin Fetchit types.  On the other hand, Harvey Fierstein claims he likes the sissy character, mainly because at least gays were on screen, even if they were rude stereotypes.

As we progress through the film, we become attuned to the goals of the Hays Code and its allies who sought to remove objectionable material from the movies.  As a result the homosexual went "underground", so to speak.  There were still gays in the movies, only no one admitted that the character was gay, only subtle and not so subtle hints even gave any indication of it.  Two films which I have previously reviewed, Dracula's Daughter, in which the main character is presented as (possibly) a lesbian as well as her position as a vampire, as well  as The Maltese Falcon, in which Peter Lorre's Joel Cairo is probably gay.  The character, as written in the original Dashiell Hammett novel is definitely a "fairy", but the movie had to make it something of a secret.

As the Code relaxed it's rules, there were many movies that had some gay characters, but because of the still in place restrictions, the characters often had to come to drastic ends (such as suicide or other forms of death).  Only after the Stonewall riot in 1969 did gays start getting more sympathetic treatment.  The film spends a portion of the movie discussing The Boys in the Band, which is noted in the film as the first movie in which none of the gay characters came to an untimely end.

No documentary of gays in film would be complete without addressing the issue of AIDS.  Fortunately this film appeared shortly after the movie Philadelphia, so it includes a discussion of that film as well as the lesser-well-known film Longtime Companion, a movie which addressed how a band of gay friends dealt with the AIDS crisis from it's first discovery to the untimely end of some of the characters over a period of a few years.

The sometimes not so subtle hints an inside jokes that were a part of the movies are covered in the documentary too.  One focus was on Rock Hudson, an actor who was known to be gay in Hollywood but was only "outed" after his death.  In Pillow Talk, Hudson plays a straight man who is acting gay to get inside Doris Day's panties.  It is commented on how Hudson must have felt in the role, himself being a gay man who tried to keep up a straight front on screen.  Another clip, from the movie Red River, features Montgomery Clift and John Ireland discussing pistols.  Montgomery Clift was well known as a gay man in Hollywood so the following quote has some subtle humor to it, even though the character he played was not necessarily gay:
"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?"

The film itself, unfortunately, came out after the death of the author, Vito Russo, on whose book it was based.  It would have been nice to have some commentary on it by him, but my copy does have a recording of one of his lectures.  Lily Tomlin narrates the film, and it is filled with interviews with various Hollywood people, including the aforementioned Fierstein and Laurents, but also Armistead Maupin, Tony Curtis, Gore Vidal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Tom Hanks.

As a history lesson, I found the film to be extremely entertaining.  After 20 years or so since the film first came out, the depiction of gays in films has progressed, although not always in a positive manner, at least it has been an improvement from what the studios did in the first 50 to 60 years.



  1. Bravo, Quiggy. Great article on one of my all time favorite LGBT documentary films. Thank you as well for being an ally in this continuing human rights struggle—as long as racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia still exist, all these stories still need to be told, so thank god for the medium of movies that show us that deep down we are all basicallyalike as human beings...
    - Chris

    1. I didn't add any more movies to my watch list since most of the ones they covered I had already had on it from reading The Lavender Screen, but I have a nice list now. Thanks for reading, Chris.

  2. I love history too -- minored in it in college -- and the history of movies has always had a special place in my heart. This sounds like a really intriguing documentary, especially since I've seen the majority of the movies you mentioned here. I'll keep an eye out for it.

    1. History is interesting. I just finally got around to watching the PBS documentary on Stonewall, which was the focal point of change in how gays were presented in film. Thanks for reading.


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