erik lundegaard


The Celluloid Closet (1995)

Since talking pictures began with Al Jolson, it's perfect that the HBO documentary The Celluloid Closet, a history of homosexuality in cinema, begins with Jolson as well. A man cuts in on a couple strutting across a big band dance floor, and, after a moment's hesitation, begins to dance with the guy. Jolson, witnessing from stage, purses his lips, rolls his eyes, and says in a fey manner, "Boys will be boys. Woo!"

Written by:
Robert Epstein
Jeffrey Friedman
Armistead Maupin
based on the book by Vito Russo

Directed by:
Robert Epstein
Jeffrey Friedman

Lily Tomlin (narrator)
Susie Bright
Quentin Crisp
Richar Dyer
Harvey Fierstein
Tom Hanks
Arthur Laurents
Armistead Maupin
Jan Oxenberg
Jay Presson Allen
Barry Sandler
Susan Sarandon
Gore Vidal

Academy Award Nominations:
Made for HBO, so not eligible for the Oscar

"There are lots of needs for art, and the greatest is the mirror."

This was hardly a "You ain't heard nothin' yet." Indeed, we heard very little about cinematic homosexuality for the next 60 years, and what we did hear wasn't exactly flattering. According to the doc, homosexuals showed up in movies to be laughed at, pitied or feared, and each reaction gets its own temporal niche.

There was "the sissy," a '30s humorous stock character, generally unattached, whom everyone knew was gay without mentioning it. He disappeared when the Hays Code grew teeth and homosexuals in cinema, as in society, were driven underground. Celluloid draws out the gay subtext during this period, from Mrs. Danvers underwear fetish in Rebecca to Plato's isolation in Rebel without a Cause. In the '60s, filmmakers began to chip away at the Hays Code, but early attempts at movies about homosexuality tended to be melodramatic affairs backed by overwrought jazz soundtracks and early, violent death. Homosexuals were to be pitied. In the '70s and later, despite such groundbreaking works as The Boys in the Band, homosexuals became something to be feared (Cruising, Silence of the Lambs).

Fine. Good. But how about a little back-and-forth, a little disagreement? Homo doesn't stand for homogenous, after all. If "the sissy" really disappeared in the 1930's, why is he showing up in 1960's Doris Day comedies and in '90s sitcoms? When Susie Bright says, RE: Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, "She opens the underwear drawer. So sensuous," was there no one to disagree with her? The scene is creepy! The Boys in the Band is touted, Cruising is disparaged, so why wasn't William Friedkin, the director of both, interviewed? Or why wasn't this fact even mentioned? And, hey, where are the directors? I think only one or two show up, while most of the rest of the talking heads are screenwriters.

How about this: When Susan Sarandon compares the endings of Thelma & Louise and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, couldn't anyone point out that while the heroes in the latter were killed, the heroines in the former killed themselves, which is why the latter resonates and the former thuds to a halt? Isn't such an ending returning to the "gay heroes have to die" theme from the hand-wringing '60s? That's if you buy Thelma and Louise as gay heroes, which I don't. They shouldn't even have been mentioned in this doc, particularly when such great gay films as Torch Song Trilogy, Longtime Companion, and My Beautiful Launderette are merely skimmed over, and Maurice, Merchant-Ivory's excellent adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel, isn't mentioned at all.

The documentary is also a little too polite. It focuses on an industry that for decades ignored or perverted homosexuality despite all of the homosexuals within the industry. So who was gay? No names are mentioned; no one is outed. Although Maybe just as well: Mark Rappaport's 1998 documentary, The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender, attempts to do just this, and is a mean, dismal failure in comparison.

Celluloid gives us fascinating clips from the silent era — a bully who mistakes Charlie Chaplin for gay and antagonizes him by swishing back and forth — which suggests, according to film historian Richard Dyer, that gay stereotypes were so completely in place then that movie audiences would immediately understand them. But the discussion ends there. Question: were those stereotypes in place because we are a bigoted society (Celluloid's unspoken assumption) or because the stereotypes are more-or-less true? One of the few disagreements between talking heads, for example, is when screenwriter Arthur Laurents (Rope) laments the sissy character — "They were a cliche...They were disgusting, unfunny..." — and we cut to Harvey Fierstein shyly admitting, "I liked the sissy... I am a sissy." Laurents, in other words, was disparaging a certain type — implying either that he wasn't true or that he was too embarrassing to reveal to the general, straight public — while Fierstein was saying, No, he is true, and he is me. There needs to be more of this. We need to take the discussion to another level. Are certain homosexuals embarrassed by sissies like Fierstein, whose motto is visibility at any cost? Are they trying to enclose him in a closet of their own making? And is there no price too high for visibility? At least Fierstein's motto makes his performance in Independence Day more understandable.

Despite its faults, I'd recommend The Celluloid Closet to just about anyone: film buffs, people interested in seeing a familiar segment of society from a different angle, and those simply in need of a mirror.

—February 28, 2001

© 2001 Erik Lundegaard