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The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies Revised Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 860-1300043234
ISBN-10: 0060961325
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Amazon.com Review

When Vito Russo published the first edition of The Celluloid Closet in 1981, there was little question that it was a groundbreaking book. Today it is still one of the most informative and provocative books written about gay people and popular culture. By examining the images of homosexuality and gender variance in Hollywood films from the 1920s to the present, Russo traced a history not only of how gay men and lesbians had been erased or demonized in movies but in all of American culture as well. Chronicling the depictions of gay people such as the "sissy" roles of Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn in 1930s comedies or predatory lesbians in 1950s dramas (see Lauren Bacall in Young Man with a Horn and Barbara Stanwyck in Walk on the Wild Side), Russo details how homophobic stereotypes have both reflected and perpetrated the oppression of gay people. In the revised edition, published a year before his death in 1990, Russo added information on the new wave of independent and gay-produced films--The Times of Harvey Milk, Desert Hearts, Buddies--that emerged during the 1980s. --Michael Bronski
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harper & Row; Revised edition (September 20, 1987)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060961325
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060961329
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #560,440 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
The Celluloid Closet provides usefeul information about the presence of gay/lesbian imagery in film as a reference guide. What I find most useful is the discussion of what did not make it to the screen. Russo discusses scenes, such as that between Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier in Spartacus, which were removed before release. These scenes may not have impacted society as much as final scenes, but they are important when conidering the internal politics that shaped Hollywood. Russo is careful to acknowledge both the negative and positive aspects of visability, and to distinguish between visability and comic stereotyping. Probably more useful as a reference book than an enjoyable read, this book is packed with useful information from which people can start their own research/opinion making
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Format: Paperback
Russo, now deceased, published the first edition of this book in 1981, in the dark ages before queer independent cinema, and before mainstream cinema began the tradition of giving every female lead a gay man for a best buddy -- back when gay men appeared only as swishy queens or psychotic killers, and lesbians appeared only as psychotic killers, period. He exhumed hundreds of long-forgotten films, from moody German expressionism through the fluffy bedroom farces of the 1950's, and created an invaluable survey of the way movies look at gay people, comparable in scope to Donald Bogle's survey of African-Americans in film, "Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies, and Bucks." We desperately need an update, but for everything from Laurel and Hardy shorts to "Personal Best," this is the place to go.
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Format: Paperback
Although Vito Russo (1946-1985) was well known as a gay activist and was extremely influential in the creation of such AIDS-activist organizations as ACT UP, today his reputation rests almost exclusively on THE CELLULOID CLOSET, a powerful commentary on the way Hollywood portrayed homosexuality on film from the silent era to the early 1980s. The book received considerable attention when first published in 1981, and it continues to receive considerable attention to this day--and justly so, for Russo's examination of the various gay characters created by Hollywood explores not only how such images were created by Hollywood, but how they shaped "straight" America's ideas about homosexuals and often altered the gay community's own self image as well.

The position Russo takes and the interpretations he offers are nothing short of fascinating, and THE CELLULOID CLOSET holds up extremely well to re-reading. Even so, it is essentially an excellent work by an amateur writer. For all the power of its interpretations and arguments, the text is badly structured, and too often the tone of the prose seems less about the films under consideration than about the personality that considers them. And there are frequent factual errors in the text, with Russo's comments on the cult favorite The Rocky Horror Show perhaps the most glaring case in point.

Although Russo's omnipresent personality tends to undercut his prose at times, it is an engaging personality, and in a certain sense it drives the narrative--and indeed does a great deal to make the book's shifting structure seem more acceptable than it would have otherwise been.
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Nearly three decades after the final revised edition appeared, Vito Russo's "The Celluloid Closet" is still an impressive achievement and a compulsive read. Russo's enterprise and scholarship are still impressive, as is his sense of mission and his anger--sometimes barely contained--at the blatant, often bloody homophobia that persisted in cinema from its earliest beginnings through the 1980s.

Russo presents a panoramic view of homosexuality in the movies over nearly a century, beginning with an Edison experimental film of two men dancing a waltz and ending with gay-themed films that appeared toward the end of his tragically brief life. Some of these later films, such as "Parting Glances" with Steve Buscemi, represented a tremendous advance in the portrayal of gays on screen. Others, such as "Cruising" with Al Pacino, were so disgustingly violent and negative that they triggered street protests. In between, Russo presents some fascinating stories about early gay-themed movies, such as "Anders als die Anderen" (Different from the Others), a 1919 German silent starring Conrad Veidt as a gay concert violinist who responds to blackmail by committing suicide. The Nazis destroyed every copy of "Anders als die Anderen" they could find (in one case, Russo reports, opening fire on theater patrons in Vienna); only one partial copy, found in Ukraine, survives today.

Though some crirics have complained that Russo ignored social theory in his analysis, or that he failed to consider important gay directors such as Eisenstein and Fassbinder, "The Celluloid Closet" is still a fascinating and informative book. It's too bad no one has taken up Russo's torch. There have been articles and books about LGBT cinema since Russo's death in 1990, but nothing as magisterial as "The Celluloid Closet.
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