1995 documentary based on Vito Russo's book of the same title. A history of the depiction of homosexuality, bisexuality, transvestite, and transgender-related issues in film. Directed by Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, written by Epstein, Friedman, Armistead Maupin, Vito Russo, and Sharon Wood. Released by Sony Pictures Classics.

The movie is narrated by Lily Tomlin and features clips from decades of film as well as interviews with such luminaries as Quentin Crisp, Harvey Fierstein, Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Hanks, Shirley MacLaine, Susan Sarandon, Susie Bright, Gore Vidal, and many others.


The Celluloid Closet begins with a discussion of how cinema has reflected and still reflects the exclusion of homosexuals, bisexuals, transvestites and transgender people from mainstream society. It points out that homosexuality was, as it still often is today, mostly played purely stereotypically as an easy laugh. "The sissy" or effeminate male was something of a stock character in the early days of film. The ambiguousness of the sissy's gender made men feel more manly and women more feminine, so everybody (except the sissy) "won". He was always a joke, and one who reassuringly reinforced audiences' dichotic gender paradigm.

Quentin Crisp discusses the history of drag in cinema by explaining that men in women's clothing are considered funny (who on earth would want to be like a woman?), but women in drag presented more of a problem. Marlene Dietrich's very sexy appearance in a tuxedo in Morocco is cited as an example. Another example of a masculine female in early cinema is the title character of Queen Christina, a historical drama about a Danish monarch who may or may not have been a lesbian with gender issues.

If the last sentence sounds like a bit of a reach, that's because the 1920's and 1930's saw so much censorship in film that even heterogender sexual activity was all but invisible. The leaders of major movie studios agreed upon the Hays code for morals in film, but in 1934 the Catholic League for Decency came up with its A, B, and C ratings for films, resulting in even more widespread censorship of sexual content. Homosexual characters either became villains or were carefully hidden. Gays had to read between the lines to see themselves in film.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 thriller, Rope, is an example of the "homosexuals as villains" in film. A pair of gay lovers are depicted as coldblooded murderers, and of course get their just desserts. This can easily be read as agreeing with the position that gays are deviants, their existence is a crime against nature, and they deserve to be destroyed. Similarly, lesbianism generally appeared only in movies about prison, as if to deliberately associate it with criminality and to warn women to be delicate, feminine, and anything but "sick" like the on-screen lesbians.

The 1950s saw an upsurge of in the importance of masculinity, and so seeming gay was almost as bad as being gay (sounds like a lot of people's high school experiences). The indirect expression of gayness in film corresponded directly to the indirect expression of all kinds of sexuality, outside movie theaters. We see a hilarious interpretation of the gymnasium scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in which hordes of hunky young men express no interest whatsoever in the nubile female protagonist. (The latter film is described as a "delayed fuck" movie, of the kind that enforced the social standard of postponing sex until marriage.) Along the same lines, The Celluloid Closet discusses the irony of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson movies, in which it was an oft-recurring joke for the latter (a lifelong closeted homosexual) to play a straight man pretending to be gay to win the confidence of a straight woman in whom he is romantically interested. We see scenes from the much-censored Spartacus and learn that Charlton Heston's Ben Hur co-star was secretly coached to play the film's opening scenes as if their reunion was that of long-lost lovers. (I was so skeptical at this that I rented Ben Hur: I now believe, but I don't blame you if you want to see it for yourself.) Other films of note during this era included the also much-cut Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the shocking Suddenly, Last Summer.

In the 1960s, British cinema began to discuss gay issues while Hollywood was still too repressed. The Children's Hour, for example, depicted homosexuality as "sick and dirty", and the characters who suffered it (as if it were a disease), displayed inordinate amounts of self-loathing. Characters of questionable sexuality generally died unpleasant deaths, and were generally unhappy, unstable, and/or even suicidal. At this time, homosexuality was still considered a mental illness and often a prosecutable offense (oh wait, the latter is still all too often true... we haven't come all that far.)

In the late 1960's and early '70's, a few exceptions to this rule began to appear: the film shows clips of positive depictions of homosexuality in The Boys in the Band and Cabaret. Next Stop Greenwich Village and Car Watch began to mainstream the idea of black homosexuality, although it was still generally played for laughs. The 1980's saw a backlash against homosexuality. Playing gay characters was considered "career death" for an actor. Gays were depicted as victims in films such as Vanishing Point and the notorious Cruisin', which portrayed a gay serial killer who took advantage of the anonymity of casual sex. The latter film was widely protested by gay activists.

Making Love was another shocking film of this era, for an entirely different reason. Movie executives were scandalized by its sex scenes (which I found oddly touching, despite the fact that they would have been trite between a straight couple), as well as the notion that a homosexual relationship could be a loving one. The Hunger, a Catherine Deneuve-Susan Sarandon film of the same time, was much less shocking, probably (as Sarandon commented) because the idea of sex between women is often considered "just experimental". The film didn't mention, of course, the all-too-common depiction of "lesbian" activity in pornography, but that was probably a factor as well.

Coming into the 1990s, The Celluloid Closet discusses how the age of AIDS caused a reinvention of the "gays as victims" theme (we hear from Tom Hanks, who won his first Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of a character in Philadelphia which embodied this martyr stereotype). We see good and bad examples from more recent movies like The Color Purple, Fried Green Tomatoes, Desert Hearts, Basic Instinct, and my favorite movie of all time, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The film's conclusion is, basically, that cinema has come a long way towards the realistic and sympathetic depiction of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transvestites, and transgendered people, but still has a long way to go.

A final point in The Celluloid Closet, and one I particularly appreciated, was that the content of films is a touchy subject for many people because the purpose of films is escapism through emotional manipulation: what bell hooks terms "The relaxed, receptive state of surrender we like to reserve for the pleasure of entering into the aesthetic space of a film" (All About Love, p. 116; see also The effects of MotionPictures on the Human psyche). As a result, filmmakers and audiences were and still are reluctant to address queer issues realistically, let alone sympathetically, because the notion of queers having the same emotional impact as any other human being is unfortunately still a controversial issue for many. I thought that was cool, and in general really liked this movie.

Sources: The Celluloid Closet, the movie, and the Internet Movie Data Base.