In short: Every time some goat like Joe McCarthy sneezes, some alleged tough guy like Darryl F. Zanuck snaps to attention.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's The Celluloid Closet, based on the book of the same name by the late Vito Russo, surveys Hollywood's long history of ignoring, disguising and ridiculing homosexuality because it was afraid to do anything else. The mainstream movie industry's track record in terms of race is appalling, to be sure--bucks, mammies and grinning shufflers remained on the screen far longer than they should have. If anything, though, the movies' treatment of gays and lesbians was even worse.
Thankfully, the present filmmakers have a taste for satire as well as ideology, so Closet might be the funniest film ever made about prejudice. The scores of film clips include an excerpt from a 101-year-old Edison Vitascope in which two men dance while a third one fiddles, as well as a scene from Thelma & Louise. We see the witless censorship of the powerful Hays Office, submerged double entendres in the light comedies of the Fifties and the breakthrough release of The Boys in the Band, among other moments. Throughout, Epstein and Friedman paint an informative and highly entertaining portrait of Hollywood through decades of deception and denial. Armistead Maupin points up the irony of Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk--"a gay man impersonating a straight man impersonating a gay man." Screenwriter Paul Rudnick shows us a gymnasium full of male bodybuilders (in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) who pay virtually no attention to curvaceous Jane Russell as she sings "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" Coded messages and between-the-frames jokes abound, along with tales of dramatic evasion and political maneuvering.
We see Dietrich kiss a woman on the lips in Morocco (a sensation in 1930) and hear how Ray Milland was transformed in The Lost Weekend from a sexually ambiguous alcoholic into an alcoholic with writer's block. Tony Curtis remembers how the studio homophobes cut a suggestive bathing scene from Spartacus, and Gore Vidal explains why the Newman/Taylor version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof makes no sexual sense. We see how the prohibition against homosexuality in mainstream movies grew into outright loathing and, at last, something like honest portrayal. But even Tom Hanks expresses second thoughts about the smash hit Philadelphia: "You don't have to be threatened by this man's presence," he allows, "because little Tommy Hanks is playing the role."
There's much more, of course, all of it fascinating, very little of it humorless. The Celluloid Closet, which was completed through a grant from HBO, scores high marks as sociology, film history and cultural commentary. Unsurprisingly, the filmmakers are experienced: Epstein won an Oscar for The Times of Harvey Milk; he and Friedman earlier collaborated on Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt.
This useful exploration of a world long ignored should prove captivating to people of all orientations. Now if someone could just get Newt, Jesse and Bob to watch it.
The Celluloid Closet.
Documentary produced and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, based on a book by Vito Russo. Narration written by Armistead Maupin. Narrated by Lily Tomlin.