Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel


Produced & directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman. Based on the book by Vito Russo. Narration written by Armistead Maupin, spoken by Lily Tomlin. Story, Epstein, Friedman & Sharon Wood. Editing, Friedman & Arnold Glassman. Photography, Nancy Schreiber. Music, Carter Burwell. Produced by HBO, Channel 4, ZDF/arte, Brillstein-Gray Entertainment, Hugh Hefner, James C. Hormel & Steve Tisch. Released by Sony Pictures Classics. 102 minutes. Not rated.
"The Celluloid Closet, Homosexuality in the Movies," published in 1981 and revised in 1987, is still THE book on that huge subject. Its author Vito Russo died in 1991, but I feel certain that other specialists will pick up the torch, update and expand this seminal work.

The film cannot reproduce the full book, yet it is a most satisfying, comprehensive primer, with many interviewees who all have something interesting to say, and with clips from 100-plus films.

Thoughtfully, sensitively and quietly --though it certainly would have the right to be polemical -- the documentary follows the inclusion, exclusion and depiction of gays in cinema.

In the history of the movies (now 101 years old), homosexuality was for a long time rarely seen on the screen. When it was it came either as a source of mocking laughter or as an affliction. TCC ("The Celluloid Closet"), does a fine job of avoiding procrustean principles, the kind that, in works with a cause, often modify facts to make them fit the theories.

Oddly, it is only at the beginning of the film that one finds some generalizations. In brief 1895 footage by the Edison studios, two men are dancing together to the music of a third. (This gets repeated at the end of TCC). But the dancing of two same-sex persons does not necessarily mean gayness. It is done in boys' and girls' schools, in ballrooms, in countryside dances.

Also,"Rebecca's" sinister Mrs. Danvers did not necessarily feel a lesbian attraction to the first Mrs. de Winter. And in "Rebel Without a Cause," Sal Mineo clearly play a (perhaps unconsciously) gay kid with a crush on James Dean, but the fact that he had Alan Ladd's photo in his locker may be stretching the burden of proof. Many a super-straight schoolboy has had pictures of male celebrities.

Be it as it may, TCC has ample illustrations of the mockery of gays as flamboyant and effeminate, in early films, followed by surrogate gays who were shown as sissies, stock characters as offensive today as Stepin Fetchit caricatures of blacks or even Eddie "Rochester" Anderson types of eye-rolling frightened supporting cast. The sissies included prissy, fussbudgetty types, seldom perceived as gay by their public then, but now often seen as such by viewers of old movies.

In the 1930s, from Greta Garbo to Marlene Dietrich, lesbianism (or the provocative pretense of it) are convincingly shown. Then come the forces of Morality attempting to regiment movies -- first in theory only (the Hays Office) then through Hollywood's timorous self-censorship, via the now infamous Production Code ruled over by its czar Joseph Breen. When the new standards classify homosexuality as a sex perversion, gays go, so to speak, underground. There are still on the screen, but in camouflaged, coded ways. They also become villains, whether as vampires or as humans.

Not so oddly, I find that film crypto-gayness has a parallel in the movies made in Central Europe in the days of harsh Communist government censorship. Many filmmakers managed to skirt restrictions by avoiding overt criticism of the State, through the use of allusions, serpentine plots, allegories, semi-secret dialogues with knowing audiences. This resulted in a Golden Age of Polish, Czech, Hungarian and Yugoslav cinemas.

In the USA the "gay thing" became a battle of wits in which films like "Rope" put over homosexual characters that the censors were unaware of. As delicious a case as any is related by Gore Vidal who, having a hand in the 1959 "Ben-Hur," wanted to improve drama and veracity by making Messala (Stephen Boyd) and Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) childhood lovers. Director William Wyler balked until it was decided to confide this information to Boyd but hide it from prudish Heston. Armed with this knowledge, when we now watch the two actors' reunion as adults, the scenes become wonderfully funny.

Equally diverting are the scenes from "Pillow Talk" in which Lothario Rock Hudson wants to reassure his skittish prey Doris Day by pretending to be gay. We have here a gay man impersonating a straight man impersonating a gay.

More serious is the "desperate need" (in the words of gay writer Arthur Laurents and others) of the gay audiences of overwhelmingly straight movies to find something of themselves, somewhere. "Crumbs" says gay author Susie Bright. These were rare, yet supplemented by codes that bamboozled producers and censors but were understood by the gays. The problem is like those of all minority audiences who have been exposed for decades to overwhelmingly Caucasian, Anglo-mainstream, WASP or Catholic cinema and saw nothing of themselves on the silver screen.

Examples abound, some covert, others not, as in "Suddenly Last Summer," that overheated and hysterical film. Gays did appear in 1950s and 1960s movies, but mostly as tragic, guilt-ridden characters who as often as not were fated to die. And even in the more sophisticated 60s and 70s, gays continued to be shown as unpalatable, to put it mildly--with some exceptions like the British "Sunday, Bloody Sunday."

With relaxation of rules, eventually homosexuality became the last screen taboo. This was broken by the 1961 British film "The Victim," and, in America, by the landmark "The Boys in the Band" of 1970. The breakthrough was followed by "Cabaret" (1972) and more pictures, but there was backlash: mostly bad movies in which the gays were grotesquely shown, reviled (as "fag, faggot, queer"), roughed up and sometimes gunned down with relish.

TCC goes on to the scandalous "Cruising" of 1980, with its gays now being victimizing killers and brutes instead of victims. Unless I missed it, the film does not mention that the same William Friedkin who had directed "The Boys in the Band" ten years earlier was also the director of "Cruising." This speaks volumes about "progress" and conscience. TCC also omits the fact that by and large gays have been far gentler people than straights. At least this is definitely my own take.

Another milestone came in 1982 with the cards-on-the-table "Making Love" which, however, made straight audiences extremely uncomfortable as well as inimical. Prejudices die hard. They even show when one of the two male leads of that film manages, in an interview, to make sure that the viewers know that he is straight.

A flashback here. Arguably, after the Code, the first Hollywood film with a major, once-gay character (and a gay bar) was Otto Preminger's "Advise and Consent" of 1962. Preminger was Mr. Code-Buster. In his 1944 "Laura" Clifton Webb (as "Waldo Lydecker") is of a peculiar sexual nature. In the 1953 "The Moon is Blue" the forbidden words "seduction" and "virginity" were uttered. In the 1955 "The Man With The Golden Arm" Preminger introduced drug addiction. In the 1959 "Anatomy of a Murder" detailed talk of sex and panties as courtroom evidence broke more taboos.

Near the end of TCC, Susie Bright and Susan Sarandon make cogent remarks about the non-menacing nature of female couples as opposed to male twosomes. They and others also discuss the bowdlerization of films to this day. And gay filmmaker Jan Oxenberg, analyzing "Philadelphia" says that it was "still a story about a gay hero who dies, who's a tragic figure. It remains to be seen whether Hollywood or the general public will embrace a film with a gay hero who lives."

It is true that the doors of the celluloid closet have mostly opened in films by independent filmmakers rather than from studios. Even so, TCC overwhelmingly relies for its examples on studio movies and Hollywood ones at that. Yet it is a documentary of major importance. Its subject is so compelling and encompassing that I wish the film had been much longer than its 102 minutes; that it had also the time to survey the experimental movie scene ("Lot in Sodom" 1933, "Scorpio Rising" 1963) and the international one. Examples: "Madchen in Uniform" 1931, and its French successor "Olivia," 1951, both by female directors. The British "A Taste of Honey" 1961, "Beckett " 1964, The Dresser" 1983. The films of the German Fassbinder and the Spaniard Almodovar. The Italian "The Damned" 1969, "Death in Venice" 1971, "The Conformist" 1971, "A Special Day" 1977. The French "Going Places" 1974 and "Menage" 1986. The Hungarian "Another Way" 1982 and "Colonel Redl" 1984. The Canadian "I've Heard the Mermaids Singing" 1987. The Mexican films by Jaime Humberto Hermosillo ("Dona Herlinda and Her Son" 1986).

Anyone listening? TCC Part II ought to be another winner.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel