56 of 56 people found the following review helpful
Based on the book by Vito Russo, written by Armistead Maupin, and narrated by Lily Tomlin, THE CELLULOID CLOSET uses interviews and hundreds of film clips to examine the way in which Hollywood has presented gay and lesbian characters on film from the age of silent cinema to such recent films as PHILADELPHIA and DESERT HEARTS. Throughout the documentary, the focus is on both stereotypes and the various ways that more creative directors and writers worked around the censorship of various decades to create implicitly homosexual characters, with considerable attention given to the way in which stereotypes shaped public concepts of the gay community in general.
Overtly homosexual characters were not particularly unusual in silent and pre-code Hollywood films, and CLOSET offers an interesting sampling of both swishy stereotypes and unexpectedly sophistocated characters--both of which were doomed by the Hayes Code, a series of censorship rules adopted by Hollywood in the early 1930s. The effect of the Code was to soften some of the more grotesque stereotypes--but more interesting was the impetus the Code gave to film makers to create homosexual characters and plot lines that would go over the heads of industry censors but which could still be interpreted by astute audiences, with films such as THE MALTESE FALCON, REBECCA, BEN-HUR, and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE cases in point. Once the Code collapsed, however, Hollywood again returned to stereotypes in an effort to cash in on controversy--with the result that throughout most of the sixties and seventies homosexual characters were usually presented as unhappy, maladjusted creatures at best, suicidal and psychopatic entities at worst.
The film clips are fascinating stuff and are often highlighted by interviews of individuals who made the films: Tony Curtis re SOME LIKE IT HOT and SPARTACUS, Shirley MacLaine re THE CHILDREN'S HOUR, Stephen Boyd re BEN-HUR, Farley Granger re ROPE, and Whoopie Goldberg re THE COLOR PURPLE, to name but a few. All are interesting and intriguing, but two deserve special mention: Harvey Fierstein, who talks about the hunger he had as a youth to see accurate reflections of himself on the screen, and Susan Sarandon, who makes an eloquent statement on the power of film as "the keeper of the dreams."
Although the material will have special appeal to gays and lesbians, it should be of interest to any serious film buff with its mix of trivia and significant fact. The DVD also includes notable packages of out-takes from interviews that are often as interesting as the material that made the final cut. If the documentary has a fault, however, it is that it offers no "summing up," preferring instead to show only how far the portrayal of homosexuals has come and indicating how far it has yet to go. Recommended to any one interested in film history and interpretation.
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2003
I'd once been to a film seminar where the participants watched HItchcock's ROPE together and discussed the queer sub-text of it. I didn't know, until then, that ROPE can be a 'queer' movie, although I had seen it at least 3 times because I'm a big Hitchcock fan and had it among my movie collection. A professor at the seminar had a big hearty laugh when the two characters and James Stewart were discussing how they 'choked the chicken' back when they were younger. I didn't know what 'to choke a chicken' meant, so I didn't see how the scene could cause such a raucous laugh among some participants at the seminar. Now I know, and I could deepen my understanding of 'homosexuality in American cinema' by seeing this well-made documentary dealing with that subject.
I'm straight, and and although I don't think I'm homophobic, I must admit that I used to be prejudiced against homosexuality and homosexuals. A movie helped me to change my view on homosexuality and gay people forever, and it was Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet. In The Celluloid Closet, you can see tens of movie clips including the one from it. Just looking at those clips--some are from rather obscure titles, some are from my personal favorites--is a delight. I'd strongly recommend this wonderful film to anyone who wants to have an hour and a half of 'educational' entertainment.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on July 1, 2001
I remember how powerful this movie was upon first viewing. This film is both a celebration and a condemnation of the way Hollywood has portrayed gays in film. It's fascinating to see the early film clips, a Thomas Edison film with two men dancing, a silent western with a preening gay cowboy, Marlene Dietrich in tophat and coattails kissing a woman, and a Charlie Chaplin sequence where a man swishes around the set after Chaplin kisses a woman in drag. I felt so cheated upon learning that 'The Lost Weekend' was supposed to be about a guy confused with his sexuality who goes on a weekend binge, not a writer with writers block. Nevertheless, it won 4 Oscars in 1946 including Best Picture. The montage of scenes from various movies where character after character uses a particular disparaging word for a gay male, stunned me and left me feeling appalled by an industry that has institutionalized homophobia. The film 'Making Love' debuted on HBO and I remembered that day, watching with my parents, listening to their remarks, and hoping they wouldn't realize why I was so captivated. The list of films portrayed in this movie is long and spans each decade. This is definitely one of my favorite documentaries.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
This remarkable 1966 documentary addresses the portrayal of homosexuals in film, from the silent movies to the 1990"s, narrated by Lily Tomlin, with commentary by Whoopi Goldberg, Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City),Antonio Fargas, Barry Sandler and others. Many of the early black and white films, silent or talkie, featured comic scenes, two men or women spinning out onto the dance floor, a cowboy kissing his best friend, or partner, goodbye before he expires, the little woman looking on with approbation. There is a somewhat tacit agreement that all is not what it may appear on film.
Some of the first films to deal directly with the issue of sexual preference, did so with fear and loathing, a shame that is palpable in Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour" (1961) and "Advise and Consent" (1962). "The Boys in the Band" (1971) was one of the first films to openly discuss the lifestyle, an all male cast uttering scathing remarks about the realities of their world and the sources of their discontent. In contrast, "Cabaret" (1972) allowed acceptance and a degree of comfort with different preferences, Liza Minelli perfectly content in her role as foil. Screenwriter Barry Sandler, speaks about the acceptable negative language used in film when dealing with homosexuality, the phrases spoken with a sardonic twist, as well as the acceptable slang. There is one hitchhiking scene in "The Vanishing Point" (1971), where two men wait for a ride from a passing driver. The men exhibit all the stereotypes, language, dress and affectations and are quickly dispensed with by a macho hero.
1981 brought Pacino's "Cruising", turning the homosexual from victim to victimizer. In 1982's "Making Love", a story of two men, David Melnick says the audience left in droves during the love scene, unwilling to watch the scene play out. But "Personal Best" (1982) showed that romance between two women was more palatable to American audiences. Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve played female lovers in "The Hunger" (1983), with soft-focus lenses and drifting veils; Sarandon doesn't think the film was ever taken seriously by the public. By the late 80's we had "The Color Purple" (1985) and "Torch Song Trilogy" (1988), followed by 1993's "The Wedding Singer", all featuring same sex romances.
One groundbreaking film is highlighted, "Philadelphia", which truly humanizes the plight of a gay lawyer with AIDS. This character (played by high box office draw Tom Hanks) exemplifies good citizenship, a man in a committed relationship, a functioning part of society, but taken down by an epidemic too long ignored because of the original population it affected. Ron Nyswanger hoped "Philadelphia" would broaden the public's perspective of the disease and its cost to all of society. And Tom Hanks remarks, "Love is spelled with the same four letters." Armistead Maupin believes that there is still a censorship of "real images", as movie characters are forced from the real and heroic to the "bizarre, guilt-ridden and angry". Produced and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, this film is a thought-provoking examination of sexual identity in American film, reflecting the cultural attitudes of each decade, the positive dialog still defined by the language of the bottom line. Luan Gaines/ 2005.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 3, 1999
The film is a documentary of how gays and lesbians have been portayed in film. It is narrated by people gay and straight in the film industry. Some of the films that are shown are ones that are familiar to most people and there are also some more obscure film clips shown. I am not sure that I agreed with all of the points the commentators made regarding the films shown, but overall I thought the film was very interesting and thought provoking.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2007
In his groundbreaking book, The Celluloid Closet, gay activist Vito Russo argued that Hollywood's past harbored an abysmal record of portraying gay people on screen. Images of GLBT people in countless films of the classic era have subtly or not-so-subtly managed to malign, condemn, or misrepresent gay people in a manner that, in retrospect, is utterly mind-boggling. Using interviews and especially film clips, Mr. Russo's basic argument is well supported in this excellent 1996 film adaptation of his book.
The documentary includes in-depth interviews with screenwriters Jay Presson Allen, Arthur Laurents, Gore Vidal, Paul Rudnick, Barry Sandler, Mart Crowley, and writer / actor Harvey Fierstein, as well as actors Tony Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Antonio Fargas, Susan Sarandon, Tom Hanks, Whoopie Goldberg, Harry Hamlin, writer Quentin Crisp, director John Schlesinger and others.
The film begins by demonstrating the early prominence of the Hollywood "sissy". Shirley MacLaine observes that, "The sissy made everyone feel more manly, or more womanly, by occupying the space in between". But the relatively innocuous sissy soon gave way to Hollywood's penchant for presenting GLBT culture as a shadowy world of villains, subversives, and the mentally ill. The best we could hope for was that some sympathetic director might tone down the images of gays as sick and evil, a rendering that was more or less dictated by the censorship codes that were in force for much of the first hundred years of Hollywood history. By the late 1940's, Hollywood's version of gay people was as unrealistic and damaging as any propaganda ever wielded against any minority, anywhere, and the film proves that Hollywood maligned, marginalized and demonized an already disenfranchised minority. As Lily Tomlin says early on in the narration, "Hollywood, that great maker of myth, taught straight people what to think about gay people, and gay people what to think about themselves".
The powers that be were not content merely to ridicule us with the Franklin Pangborns and the Edward Everett Hortons of the art deco era. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood "grew up" and allowed "more realistic" depictions of gays and lesbians - which meant that for the next twenty-five years or so, we were portrayed as deviates, murderers, child molesters, or - if we were lucky - just plain seedy characters living on the fringe, almost always menacing, and never to be trusted. This period was followed by the "breakthrough" films of the late sixties - including such controversial attention-getters as The Killing of Sister George and The Boys in The Band. Meanwhile, lesser-remembered but influential films like Walk on The Wild Side, Advise and Consent, and The Detective continued to present us as pathetic and self-hating, occasionally benign but almost always sick. The most sympathetic storylines could be expected to paint us as hopelessly unhappy and maladjusted "problems of society," instead of simply showing us as what we are - people. One of the more brilliant sequences in the film employs a lengthy string of film excerpts to show how the word "faggot" has been casually bantered about the silver screen, in a manner that would have brought outrage had Hollywood dared utilize such a pejorative term in such a pervasive manner for any other minority. During this same period, Great Britain had a slightly better track record, with such genuinely sympathetic films as Victim and The Trials of Oscar Wilde.
The first light at the end of this bleak tunnel began in the 1970s with the emergence of more daring independent productions. In the past thirty-five years, hundreds of "Indy" GLBT films have catered to an ever-growing audience of gay people, who refuse to accept the malignant depictions that mainstream films have shoved down our throats for the better part of a century. Instead, GLBT viewers flocked to see more accurate representations of themselves than ever before, in films such as A Very Natural Thing, Making Love, Beautiful Thing, It's My Party, Jeffrey, It's In The Water, Parting Glances, Bargirls, The Watermelon Woman, Claire of the Moon, The Laramie Project, and Ma Vie en Rose.
For a while, Hollywood responded to our newfound and respectable popularity by producing a few movies that tried not to offend GLBT people and, at the same time, hold on to a straight or mixed audience. Frequently, it was the results that were mixed, not the audience. GLBT audiences went hoping to finally see accurate depictions of themselves, and straight audiences stayed away in droves. The big budget "gay" Hollywood films sometimes worked fine (Wilde, Philadelphia, Gods and Monsters, Personal Best, and, well, The Celluloid Closet all spring to mind), but, as often as not, Hollywood's attempts to woo a gay audience while holding the interest of heterosexuals just didn't work at all. The Birdcage, Stonewall, Kiss Me Guido, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, In and Out and Flawless were all either too bland, too banal, too full of stereotypes, or too patronizing. Many were as insulting as the "sissies" of days gone by. For a while, it didn't seem possible to make a gay film that could manage to entertain straight audiences yet not insult its gay audience at the same time. Many of us began to demand more. The formula for GLBT entertainment had to be able to appeal to everybody, or what good was it? And how can the GLBT community ever reap the benefits of accurate portrayals of our lives on film, if we are the only people who see them?
As if in answer to these questions, since the release of The Celluloid Closet, an even more radical trend has emerged, that is, the inclusion of positive gay images in otherwise mainstream heterosexual movies. It started subtly; such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Color Purple, Personal Best and As Good As It Gets finally arrived at a place we needed to be all along, presenting realistic, positive images of gay people, carefully integrated into the plots of otherwise heterosexual movies. This has been supplemented by gay movies that, thanks to their critical acclaim, have reached a wider mainstream audience (The Wedding Banquet, Swoon, The Living End). Now that the floodgates are open, I believe that this trend will be unstoppable. We have already had an Academy Award winner for Best Picture (American Beauty) that managed to present realistic gay people while condemning homophobia, and all within the context of a predominantly heterosexual plot. And the Academy's snub of Brokeback Mountain didn't keep a largely heterosexual audience from seeing it, loving it and, most importantly, learning from it.
This past year has seen even more gay characters inserted into otherwise heterosexual plotlines; Capote, Quinceñera, Shortbus, Infamous, Running With Scissors and The Night Listener all had gay characters who were central to the plot. Hopefully this trend will continue, and as GBLT people integrate themselves more fully into society, so too will their images be seamlessly added to American cinema.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Looking at the roles given to gay and lesbian characters in American cinema over the past several decades, "The Celluloid Closet" manages to simultaneously be hilariously funny, educational, and occasionally quite thought-provoking and even tragic. We see gay and lesbian stereotypes being reinforced over and over again, scenes cut from famous films because they hinted at homosexuality, etc.
Although the initial reaction is to sort of laugh at how backwards and ludicrous the intense homophobia of Hollywood once was, there are also reactions from people growing up during those years who talk about the effect of seeing gays and lesbians in films, or the impact of NEVER seeing gays and lesbians in films. Also, as the film progresses, it helps one to see that, although things have gotten SO MUCH BETTER in many ways, they're still so far from being where they ought to be.
This is a great documentary to watch with friends who might question what the big deal is with GLBT issues... why it's even an issue at all. It really helps one to see the importance of how popular media deals with (or chooses to ignore) minority groups and the very real impact of those decisions on people belonging to that minority group. And the fact that it's so darn entertaining makes it a fun, light movie to watch - a real pleasure!
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
I had been intending to see this documentary pretty much from the time it first came out until recently when I finally did see it. I was both pleased and surprised that it completely restricted itself to an analysis of the images that appeared onscreen and disappointed that in the end not much was really said of any depth. So, I was in the odd state of being relieved that it was not a bad film like it had the chance to be (by delving into speculations about the sex lives of famous Hollywood personalities) but that it wasn't quite as good as I hope it would be.
I had wondered beforehand if the film would cover such topics as the frequent speculation about Cary Grant and Randolph Scott (for which there is amazingly little evidence; the basis for their having been lovers seems to rest almost exclusively on their having roomed together for many years); the rivalries between the Cole Porter set in Hollywood and the Noel Coward set; efforts to hide the bi-, homo-, or pansexuality of actors such as Errol Flynn, Robert Taylor, Laurence Olivier, Danny Kaye, Tyrone Power (all of whom were in fact one of the three); or the proclivities of various actresses. In fact, there was astonishingly little comment on the sexual orientations of the various people in Hollywood. Instead, the entire film deals almost exclusively with images on the screen and only on the screen. This, however, turns out to be far more interesting than a voyeuristic plumbing of the sex lives of the stars. Being a movie buff I had, of course, seen a number of obviously gay characters in the movies. Joel Cairo in THE MALTESE FALCON is merely one of the better known. The documentary is at its finest when it unearths many gay and lesbian images from films of the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties, decades in which self-censorship limited what could be shown in the movies. Some of these images will be familiar to anyone who has seen many films, such as Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA (those it should be pointed out that even as it is the movie tremendously mutes the lesbianism that is far more blatant in the novel). Many others will be far less familiar. The number of scenes with unmistakable homosexual scenes will, I believe, surprise most people who have seen a lot of movies. The most interesting moment may have been when Gore Vidal admits that he and William Wyler decided that Ben-Hur and Messala had been lovers. Stephen Boyd was informed of this and he acted his half of the relationship with this in mind, while Wyler and Vidal decided not to tell the rather conservative Heston of any of this.
In the end, limiting the discussion of homosexuality to the images on the screen somewhat limited the scope of the documentary. I'm not quite sure what ultimate point they were trying to make, unless it is the somewhat trivial one that gays have been treated negatively in the movies, though that has improved somewhat in recent years. Not knowing what their ultimate goal in the film was, I can't say whether they achieved it.
Still, despite an ambiguity at the heart of the film about what they were trying to accomplish, this remains a very interesting film. It is narrated by Lily Tomlin. At the time of its first presentation on HBO the story was widely circulated that she had informally agreed to come out of the closet at the time the film was first shown. At the last minute she seems to have a change of heart. She remains to this day the most poorly closeted person in the United States. To me this points to a perhaps even more interesting story: the way that actors and actresses and directors have stayed closeted over the decades. For every Rupert Everett and Ian McKellan there have been forty actors to stay closeted. That ongoing struggle between maintaining a public image while living a very different life privately is one I find fascinating.
All in all, this is a very good documentary. I definitely recommend it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 13, 2003
From the beginning of motion picture history, gay men and women have played an important part in movie history. This wonderful film documents the roles of gay and lesbian characters in film, taking the viewer from the early days, when gay men were obvious characters in films. Gay men were always portrayed as the man wearing to much makeup, walking with a definite mincing gait, or playing the sissy.
Then, came the Hayes Commission, designed to keep the movie industry up to some form of moral code. This didn't stop the appearance of gay and lesbian characters; it only hid them, such as the character of Mrs. Danvers in 1940s "Rebecca" by Alfred Hitchcock. It's never stated that she is a lesbian, but her obsession with the former mistress of the house, keeping her bedroom as it used to be, even her overall bearing -- all these let the moviegoer know who/what she is without disturbing the Hayes Commission policies.
It's only recently that movies have portrayed openly gay and lesbian characters without fear of a gigantic backlash and in a positive light. "Jeffrey," "Kissing Jessica Stein," "The Boys in the Band" are just a few examples of this openness.
When I first saw this film in the theater, I never knew how large the GLBT presence was in front of the camera. it made me go back and watch many films again, with a new understanding of the characters. With a wonderful narration by Lily Tomlin, this movie is a must-see for any chronicler of GLBT history, any cinophile or any movie buff.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 2000
The Celluloid Closet is a documentary that examines Hollywood and homosexuality, and how gays and lesbians have been portrayed in films.. It actually all began in 1895, with Thomas Edison's film of two men dancing together!
Beginning in the 1930's, filmmakers, because of the strict production code in place at the time, constantly inserted gay and lesbian themes and storylines, and the earliest gay male character was always the "sissy", and lesbians could only be used if they were presented as dangerous predators. In viewing the film clips, some scenes from certain films are more overt than others, especially in non-gay or lesbian themed films. For example, Jane Russell, in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, sings in a room of half-naked man, none of whom pay any attention to her. A less overt example features a scene from Red River in which Montgomery Clift and another actor discuss their pistols after removing them from their holsters. Numerous writers, directors, and actors, including Gore Vidal, Susie Bright, John Schlesinger, Tom Hanks, and Susan Sarandon, all comment on their roles in this aspect of film history. This is an important and always interesting documentary that should be seen by everyone, no matter their sexual orientation.