Take a look inside The Celluloid Closet

by Eric James

Daily Cougar Staff

Attention all friends of Dorothy: The love that dare not speak its name is now the subject of an entire documentary.

Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Epstein being the Academy Award-winning creator of The Times of Harvey Milk) have brought together more than 100 film clips from over 100 years of movies and created the documentary The Celluloid Closet.

The film opens with an eloquently attired couple dancing across the dance floor. A man approaches the couple and asks if he may cut in. Certainly. He then proceeds to dance off with the man. From the bandstand, Al Jolson proclaims, "Boys will be boys!"

The movie is Jolson's 1934 Wonder Bar, and it is but one of the multitude of film clips portraying gay images in the cinema.

Based on the late Vito Russo's novel of the same name, The Celluloid Closet follows homosexual portrayals on screen from an early image of two men dancing together in a Thomas Edison motion picture test to the more recent images of Tom Hanks in Philadelphia and the drag queens in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Author Susie Bright is one of the dominant voices throughout the documentary. She mentions that with the lack of gay images on screen, "you feel invisible."

Tony-Award-winning playwright Harvey Fierstein talks about how people go to the movies "to not feel alone." With the absence of gay images on screen, many homosexuals felt very alone.

Lily Tomlin narrates the film, saying, "Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people ... and gay people what to think about themselves."

The film opens with the first stock gay character: the "sissy." "From the very beginning, movies could rely on homosexuality as a surefire source of humor," Tomlin notes.

While some moviemakers are critics of the sissy, Fierstein disagrees, stating, "visibility at any cost."

With the introduction of the Hays Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency, Hollywood could no longer treat such characters lightly. In fact, Hollywood censors now set out to erase all images of homosexuality.

The documentary focuses on how homosexuals became cold-blooded killers. Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca and Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon are only two examples given. Danvers caressing Rebecca's underwear and Peter Lorre using a cane in a phallic way about his mouth clearly denote the villains as homosexuals.

Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Rope was based on the true story of gay psychopathic killers Leopold and Loeb. "The guys that ran that (Hays) Code weren't rocket scientists," states author Jay Presson Allen. "They missed a lot of stuff."

The film beautifully displays image after haunting image of homosexuals having to meet horrible deaths. Hollywood would not allow homosexuals to triumph.

The Celluloid Closet's strength comes from its overwhelming amount of film clips. From the funny (Montgomery Clift and John Ireland admiring each others' guns in Red River) to the sad (Sal Mineo as Plato in Rebel Without a Cause), the film shows how these characters, although visible, were as much in the closet as the films in which they appeared.

The strongest moment in the film comes from a dissection of the scene in which the homosexual character of Sebastian Venable in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer is chased through the street by an angry mob.

Intertwined with clips of the mob chasing the monster in the original The Bride of Frankenstein, the scene epitomizes the attitude toward homosexuals. Faceless and only in flashbacks, Venable was the perfect homosexual for his time. He was perceived as a monster and dies as a monster.

A sudden change of pace, however, shows how Hollywood has become more open with its homosexuality. Clips of The Boys in the Band and Cabaret finally showed more positive images of gay life. Hollywood moves away from the degenerate, suicidal homosexuals, to gays and lesbians that refuse to be silent.

The filmmakers refuse, however, to allow people to think that homosexuals were no longer mistreated in films. A long montage of films in which actors use "faggot" in a derogatory sense exhibits the fact that homosexuals on screen still have a long way to go.

Perhaps the film will help everyone see life as Tom Hanks sees it: "Love is spelled with the same four letters."

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