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. And after a careful re-reading of the text, I have come to the conclusion that the errors involved are best described as "surface" errors; they do not seem to me to undercut the power of Russo's interpretations, arguments, or positions, all of which are extremely well presented and very astute. Even so, given the book's somewhat problematic nature, I would take issue with those who describe it as "definitive," which is a rather sweeping word. I would prefer to describe it as a fascinating analysis of a difficult subject written by a gifted amateur author--who manages to overcome his limitations to present an endlessly fascinating series of interpretations, arguments, and positions. The book deserves a place on the bookshelf of every one who loves film as much as the writer did, and I recommend it strongly. But it would be a mistake to take it as an absolute.