Mincing Words

The Celluloid Closet


Lagoon Cinema

OF THE HUNDRED or so film clips featured in The Celluloid Closet, a documentary based on the late Vito Russo's 1981 study of gay characters in movies, the most striking is its first: a brief scene from a 1895 Thomas Edison Studio short called "The Gay Brothers," in which two men dance cheek-to-cheek while a third plays violin. Frustratingly, this gorgeous and seemingly anachronistic sequence is one of the few to pass without voice-over commentary, probably because the notion of a sexually progressive old movie isn't conducive to this doc's victim-based view of film history: namely that, almost without exception, gays were cruelly depicted by Hollywood as sissies, perverts, and killers, until at long last came Philadelphia and the New Queer Cinema, in that order. How ironic that a movie about the dangers of the closet would so confine one's freedom of interpretation.

Russo's book told a selective history too, but it was smart and impassioned: unrelentingly tough on offending imagemakers, but also enamored of the cinema's illicit pleasures and subversive victories. The movie, on the other hand, is unrelentingly reductive. The narration (written by Armistead Maupin and read by Lily Tomlin) never once mentions Amerindie auteurs like Waters, Warhol, Van Sant, Hammer, Haynes, Troche, or Rappaport, to name a few, nor such openly gay studio directors as George Cukor, Dorothy Arzner, or James Whale. Speaking of Whale, the film considers it revelatory to compare his Frankenstein with Gore Vidal's adaptation of Tennessee Williams's Suddenly, Last Summer; both conclude with a mob attack on a queer "monster." But might Whale and Williams and Vidal have been saying something about society's horrific persecution of the Other? Is it assumed that we would necessarily identify with or root for the mob? The last time I saw Frankenstein, both monster and filmmaker seemed plenty sympathetic.

Closet's codirectors Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein, who won an Oscar for their 1989 doc Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt, are the sort of film historians who can exalt Boys in the Band and despise Cruising without noting that both were directed by William Friedkin. Amid their flurry of clips and talking heads are countless critical evasions and missed opportunities: Vidal talks hilariously about slipping the homoerotic Ben-Hur past star Charlton Heston, but is never queried about Suddenly, Last Summer; similarly, screenwriter Arthur Laurents is invited to bash Hollywood stereotypes but isn't pressed to discuss his script for Hitchcock's Rope, which the film deems unconscionable. And several queerly beloved objets d'art are simplemindedly dissed for evoking rather than portraying homophobia: Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is criticized for not outing Sal Mineo's Plato character (could it have passed the censors or achieved the same subtlety?), while a clip from Ray's gay-iconic Johnny Guitar is accompanied by author Susie Bright's dim view of how costuming might be a virtue even though "the movie can be a dud." (Russo described Guitar as "a series of [butch] confrontations that keep present-day gay audiences howling.")

Perhaps I'm being too tough on the Closet movie, which means to advocate for unambiguously positive gay images in the mainstream without considering that to be a misplacement of energy. But reducing film history to mere grist for the defeatist notion that Hollywood has us over a barrel--and then exonerating the industry through a hasty happy ending that appears to give Jonathan Demme and Philadelphia credit for the likes of Todd Haynes and Poison--is an incoherent and unempowering approach. The truth is that we don't have to remain dependent on Hollywood movies, or on reading them in a straight manner. The potential beauty of film criticism, as practiced by anyone who sees a movie and decides to talk about it, is that it can provide opportunities to reward or retaliate--by celebrating radical visions, screaming "Bullshit!" at the top of our lungs, or twisting a film's intended meaning to suit our own best interests.

The drag about Closet is that it squanders its chance to promote viable alternatives; its unduly upbeat ending and miniscule treatment of indie cinema does nothing toward shifting the balance of Hollywood power. Might it be that Friedman and Epstein felt reluctant to bite the hand that fed them an Academy Award? In this sense, it's no surprise that the movie ends by further anointing the Oscar'ed Philadelphia--which, notably, Russo didn't live to see, and probably would have loathed. By the time of his 1987 revised edition, Russo had taken a bracing interest in such embryonic gay indies as My Beautiful Laundrette and Parting Glances, while clearly turning his back on the hope that Hollywood might change its evil ways. "I'm tired," he wrote, "of trying to figure out whether the latest well-meaning soap opera has succeeded in convincing America that I don't have horns and a tail."

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