April 9, 1996

'Celluloid' opens the closet on Hollywood's homophobia

By Chris Schmidt

When I was but a wee wain, me mum and I would rent movies every Saturday night-this was shortly before that time when admitting you even had a mother was enough to brand you a thumb-sucker for life-and Room with a View was our favorite. Forster, repressed homosexual that he was, could spin a tale of romantic longing both sly and sentimental. And with Daniel Day-Lewis playing the prissy dandy Cecil and Julian Sands as silent, sensitive George, I'm sure Forster would have liked the movie adaptation as much as I did. (Anyone can see what he had in mind when he wrote that swimming-hole scene.) When my mother leaned over to me and confided, "See how much sexier it was then, when passion was all kept inside," I nodded in agreement, and tittered; when it came to repression, my mother didn't know the half of it.

The half that my mother didn't know is exactly what Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman address in their new documentary, The Celluloid Closet-the hidden, and sometimes not so hidden, representations of gays and lesbians in the history of film. Not unexpectedly, the film presents the hidden gay subtexts that exist in some of our most classic movies, like Rebel Without a Cause and Ben Hur. But more importantly, the film intersperses these queer-readable movie clips with interviews of the directors, screenwriters, and actors who created them, giving us invaluable, and often hilarious, insight into the social climate of the times. My favorite was when Gore Vidal recounted how he managed to transform Ben Hur from a proto-Christian epic into a gay romance, and did so with Charlton Heston none the wiser.

Gay subtexts have, in contemporary culture, become stand-up comedy clichˇs (Quentin Tarantino clinched the trend when he famously postulated, in Sleep With Me, that Top Gun was really a gay romance). But the opening 20 minutes of Celluloid Closet show more than subtexts. It's shocking and delightful to see how visible gays and lesbians were in Hollywood films before mass censorship was instituted in the '30s. Granted, most of these early appearances are for the sake of humor, but it's a humor at least as sophisticated as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. And many of the references are as real as they are erotic: one of the first films ever made, an Edison Experimental Film, features two men dancing to a primitive phonograph. Wings, the first movie ever to receive the Best Picture Oscar, has a scene in which two men express their "friendship" with a succession of deep kisses. And Marlene Dietrich's sexy stint in a tuxedo had both the men and women panting and perplexed (and had Madonna beat by 60 years or so).

Once the film moves on to the '50s and '60s (age of the hidden-and usually negative-gay subtext), Celluloid Closet's thesis becomes clear: Hollywood's treatment of gays and lesbians affects the way we see ourselves and how straight audiences view us. A movie like The Children's Hour, in which Shirley MacLaine kills herself because of her budding and barely acknowledged lesbianism, can leave a lasting legacy of self-hate, as both Susie Bright and Lily Tomlin attest to in interviews (Tomlin in The Advocate, not the film, which she does narrate and has promoted heavily). MacLaine admits and apologizes that she and co-star Audrey Hepburn never even discussed the movie while they were making it, much less its malicious implications.

Never have the implications of gay representation been more salient than in the case of Cruising, a movie made in 1980 about the notorious '70s hard-core gay scene. In it, Al Pacino plays a detective hunting a serial killer in New York leather-bars. Gay life in the '70s was newly visible and notoriously intense. But the filmmakers' intent to exploit this intensity and associate gay life with violence and criminal behavior was so extreme that several stills of gay-male pornography were spliced into the climactic murder scene, to subliminally suggest, if the point of the movie was lost on anyone, that sex between men was punishable with death. It worked. Ron Nyswaner, the screenwriter of Philadelphia, reports that soon after the movie premiered, he and his lover were gay-bashed. The basher screamed in their faces, "If you saw the movie Cruising, you know what you deserve."

That was 15 years ago, and little has improved. Though Hollywood now routinely exploits gay life in feature films, exploitation is the operative word. The depictions are either condescending (Birdcage, Philadelphia) or criminal (Basic Instinct, Silence of the Lambs). Speaking personally (and pointing out what the movie optimistically glossed over), I can only think of one gay character in recent Hollywood movies, who doesn't bite it in the end, isn't a cross-dressing, serial-killing, AIDS-ridden, poodle-carrying stereotype. And that's the nerdy fourth-wheel in Reality Bites-a character who's notable for not having sex until he comes out to his mother. Hollywood's message is that you can be homosexual-as long as you're not sexual.

Of course, to a literate gay audience, none of this is new or terribly illuminating. The Celluloid Closet is neither profoundly thought-provoking nor wildly entertaining. It's a valuable history, a touchstone, but ultimately a teaser, just like any movie with a gay subtext. Now that I've had a nibble of Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, I need to see the whole cross-dressing affair. And clips from films I've already seen-even ones of questionable quality, like Suddenly Last Summer and My Beautiful Laundrette-made me want to see them again. (However, I do wish I had seen this movie before I watched the entire restored version of Spartacus just to watch an oily Roman senator proposition a well-oiled Tony Curtis with, " I like snails and oysters." Oh my.) For film buffs and gays and lesbians alike, this movie is a must-see. But Hollywood has always given gay audiences crumbs, and by stringing them together, Celluloid Closet leaves you no less hungry for more. ***1/2

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