THE CELLULOID CLOSET (1995)
This fascinating multi Emmy-nominated documentary spans the history of Hollywood’s portrayal of gays and lesbians on screen from the silent era through till the mid-1990s. Based on Vito Russo’s book, it shows how in the early days, homosexual characters were initially suggested (or suggestive) in their mannerisms or presented as flamboyant caricatures especially before the Hays Code came into force. After this ultra-restrictive censorship was adopted, film-makers were forced to encode gay subtext or even remove gay plot themes altogether in mainstream cinema.
The film includes archive footage from many films as well as interview clips not just with esteemed gay writers and directors such as Harvey Fierstein, Armistaud Maupin and Gore Vidal but also heterosexual actors including Harry Hamlin, (star of MAKING LOVE), Tony Curtis, Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon who discuss their experiences of the risks and reactions to being involved in ground-breaking films before the more relaxed attitudes of today.
Vidal talks interestingly about the negotiations between himself and William Wyler about enlivening BEN-HUR by introducing a homosexual past history for Messala and Ben-Hur. Amusingly, this was openly broached with Stephen Boyd but seems to have been kept from Charlton Heston at the time for fear of repelling him – but no matter as the one-sided dynamic was still clear enough to audiences. Other films were not so lucky in having creators able to introduce or keep this element even when inherent in the original source material. THE LOST WEEKEND’s protagonist in the novel was an alcoholic tortured by his homosexuality. In the movie, Ray Milland’s writer had the drink problem but now the cause was writer’s block. Similarly, the film of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF suffered from extreme censoring to disguise Brick’s inner torment over his relationship with another man.
Hollywood began to embrace or at least recognise the existence and reflection of gay characters from the early ‘60s in films like VICTIM with its sensational portrayal by a big star, Dirk Bogarde, of a man blatantly admitting to his homesexual yearnings. However, these roles were hampered by a constant coluring of gay figures as confused, tortured and unhappy often with fatal consequences. This still betrayed an air of ‘disapproval’ especially if they died by tragic means, as though this was a price that had to be extracted in return for acknowledgement. Sympathetic versions of this could be seen in Sal Mineo in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE for example or Montgomery Clift in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER.
Possibly the first Hollywood mainstream film to feature positive gay characters who don’t have to die at the end but simply deal with life’s ups and downs like heterosexuals was William Friedkin’s THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970) written by Mart Crowley based on his stage play.
However, before Tinseltown could congratulate itself, as we moved into the 1970s the new liberality brought an even more offensive angle which was to portray the homosexual as threatening, a villain whose sexuality was perceived as part of their ‘perversion’. The absurd transvestite shot dead by James Caan in FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (1974) and the two menacing gay hitch-hikers in VANISHING POINT from 1971 are shown, as well as brief undiscussed clips of later movies like the cross-dressing serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’ in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and Sharon Stone’s bisexual killer novelist in BASIC INSTINCT. Even William Friedkin wasn’t immune to damaging the inclusive goodwill of his earlier work by exploiting unenlightened heterosexual fears of the gay scene in the extremely poorly- conceived Al Pacino undercover cop thriller CRUISING.
It does seem that in the last twenty years, gay characters and issues have become absorbed much more into the mainstream on screen. It seems to me that as long as we continue to reflect the diversity of sexual orientation and don’t tokenise or issue-drive homosexual inclusion, everyone will come to fit more easily into the sum total of a rich and truthful mirror of the world we live in.
THE CELLULOID CLOSET is expertly-made, thought-provoking and underscored with a lush orchestral score.