In my humble opinion, documentaries are the highest of the
cinematic art form. The best documentaries can let us see worlds we
have never seen before or give us fresh insights into places with which
we naively think we already are familiar. From the famous
documentaries like TRIUMPH OF THE WILL and HOOP DREAMS to the spectrum
of lessor known but nevertheless fascinating ones like ANNE FRANK
REMEMBERED, FROSH: NINE MONTHS IN A FRESHMAN DORM and THEREMIN: AN
ELECTRONIC ODYSSEY, we learn more from them than most fictional movies.
To this great tradition is added director Robert Epstein and
Jeffrey Friedman's THE CELLULOID CLOSET which looks at the depiction of
gays and lesbians in the movies from the silent films to the today's
pictures. Although the film will clearly appeal to homosexuals and to
film buffs, I believe that anyone seeing this documentary will find it
an absolutely engrossing and fascinating movie. I believe that after
seeing THE CELLULOID CLOSET, I now have a fresh perspective on the
cinema and will never see films in quite the same way again. This
movie helps you in reading the subtext of the movies better than any I
have ever seen.
As the movie starts, narrator Lily Tomlin tells us that,
"Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to
think about gays and gay people what to think about themselves." The
format of the movie, beautifully edited by Jeffrey Friedman and Arnold
Glassman, is to intersperse interviews with mainly gay people in the
film industry with substantial length clips of movies to illustrate
their points. This technique is a total success, and the editors have
a great sense of how long to stay with each clip and each interviewee
(Quinton Crisp, Tony Curtis, Harvey Fierstein, Whoopi Goldberg, Tom
Hanks, Shirley MacLaine, Susan Sarandon, John Schlesinger, Susie Sharp,
Gore Vidal, and many others).
Each interviewee talks about his or her feelings about the movies
while growing up or while making movies. Actor and writer Harvey
Fierstein said, "The hunger I felt as a kid looking for gay images was
not to be alone." Although the documentary skips around a little bit,
it mainly sticks to a chronological line. In the early silent films we
see gay people described as, "one of nature's mistakes." By the time
of the early talkies, gays had become increasingly synonymous with
sissies. During this period, there were films with more honest and
open depiction of homosexuality particularly those of Marlene Dietrich.
With the advent of the Legend of Decency formed by the Catholic
Church in 1934, the movie industry agreed to a strict code where many
activities were absolutely forbidden, and the censor had control over
even the small parts of the script otherwise it would not get the seal
of approval and without it no theater owner would dare show the film
nor any studio dare make it. After this time, gay characters continued
to be in films, but they were much subtler. Also, during the 30s, gays
were almost always shown as villains.
The documentary shows clip after clip of movies with characters
that were clearly gay like Peter Loire in THE MALTESE FALCON, but whom
were not acknowledged as being so. They said the censors were not
"rocket scientist" and so writers got a lot of pictures past them with
gay characters, and the censors were never the wiser. Some of the
clips you could disagree with, but clearly most of the characters they
claim to be gay or lesbian are. They interview many screenwriters like
the one who wrote REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, who tell how they put gay
characters in their scripts, but had to hide the character's sexual
They showed the homosexual relationships in BEN-HUR and said that
the writer never told Charlton Heston about it, or he would have come
unglued. They showed CALAMITY JANE with Doris Day singing, "At last my
heart's an open book, and my secret love's no secret anymore," and then
they show scenes where she has a love interest in other women.
By the 1960s, the cinema was opening up, and the first gay hero
appeared in a British film called VICTIM with Dirk Bogarde. Most of
the 60s, however, showed gays as unhappy and suicidal, and they usually
died in the films. As Keir Dullea tells lesbian Sandy Dennis in THE
FOX (1968), "How come you've never married? You're not bad looking.
.. You've never had a man. That's your problem."
One of best interviewees is screenwriter Susie Bright. She tells
how frustrated she was by movies that would hint at lesbian
relationships and then back off. She and her lesbian friends would,
nevertheless, go to see them since it was the best they could get.
In the late 60s and early 70s, happy gay characters began to
appear. THE BOYS IN THE BAND was one of the first to show gays with
genuine camaraderie among themselves. The 70s and early 80s also had
gays move from being victims to being victimizers as in CRUISING.
Hollywood would never let the word "nigger" be uttered by anyone other
than a racist southern sheriff, but it showed film clip after film clip
of all the Hollywood stars calling people "fags" or "faggots" as
epithets. In the 80s films like MAKING LOVE began to show
homosexuality in new open, honest, and explicit ways.
By the 90s, the climate became much more open, nevertheless, as
Tom Hanks says, "There is a constant desire on the part of the studios
to make characters likable." The movie ends with k. d. lang singing
her version of "My secret love."
THE CELLULOID CLOSET runs a beautifully paced 1:42. It is rated R
for some nudity and sex scenes. Personally, I think it would be fine
for any teenager that is interested enough to see the picture. I think
the film is great and recommend it strongly. I firmly believe I will
be a better viewer and critic after being fortunate enough to have seen
this documentary. THE CELLULOID CLOSET easily gets *** 1/2 in my book.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes