Seeking out the

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The Celluloid Closet
The most eye-opening film about films I've ever seen

The greatest power a film wields is its ability to give a viewer a window into someone else’s experience. This capacity is why Roger Ebert called cinema "a machine that generates empathy.” No film realized this profound potential for me more than The Celluloid Closet. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s lively, accessible, and acutely powerful documentary adapts Vito Russo’s meticulous study of how homosexuality was depicted during the first hundred years of cinema history.

I love any opportunity to see one of my favorite movies with fresh eyes. Even before I fully understood how watching a film with different friends or different audiences over time could result in entirely different experiences of that film from viewing to viewing, I always wanted to re-watch my favorite movies with people who’d never seen them. It was almost like getting to see those films again for the first time. Watching The Celluloid Closet when it was first released was like having that experience fifty times over in the span of a single movie.

I still find it hard to believe I had never heard of Vito Russo's 1981 book when I went to see this documentary at the Landmark Kendal Square Cinema. True, in 1995, when the movie came out, I was a self-focused, straight, cisgender, twenty-four-year-old (the exact demographic, Russo would point out, that Hollywood movies are made for). But I was also a devoted movie buff who had studied film in New York City during the height of the AIDS crisis and the ACT UP Movement. The Celluloid Closet book had been revised and reissued just two years before I arrived in NYC. I’d also seen and loved Rob Epstein’s Academy Award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), so Epstein was a filmmaker I was well aware of. But somehow, Russo never made it into my consciousness. As is so often the case with me, the movie came first. Then seeing it inspired me to read the source material and delve deeper into the subject matter—in this instance, in ways that altered my perceptions of film and the world around me.

The Celluloid Closet examines queer representation in movies from the dawn of cinema through the mid-1990s. It was made at the point when LGBT-themed pictures had become a substantial segment of the indie film world and the festival circuit but had yet to crossover into the mainstream (outside of a small handful of Hollywood "prestige pictures" where the protagonists almost always ended up dead). Often funny, sometimes painful, and always eye-opening, the documentary shows how homosexuality was rarely acknowledged outright in the first several decades of cinema, and when it was, it was to get laughs, evoke pity, or instill fear. The movie is also a study of how film censorship and American "moral standards" evolved from the 1930s to the 1980s. It details the prevailing trends in how gay men and lesbians were depicted during each cinematic era, from the first silent pictures to the Sundance darlings of the day. Through a wealth of film clips and interviews with actors and writers, the film illustrates how the visibility of queer people has increased and evolved in movies and the subsequent reactions of audiences, activists, and film studios. The picture also explores the coded ways filmmakers would place gay characters, gay sensibilities, gay humor, and gay themes into movies in ways that film censor boards, and later ratings boards, could not detect.

Russo worked as an archivist at New York's Museum of Modern Art and was avidly involved in the emerging Gay Activists Alliance. His book grew out of a series of lectures and film screenings he did for years at colleges, universities, and theaters. Traveling around the country, screening clips from movies (and sometimes entire films) as part of his live lecture presentation, Russo discussed the political and social history and context surrounding these queer cinematic representations. His book covers thousands of movies in fascinating detail. His observations are sometimes personal, sometimes academic, but, on the whole, written in the popular vernacular with perception and wit. Russo himself initiated the film. The author approached Rob Epstein about making a PBS TV series out of his book because Epstein had become the preeminent gay documentarian of the 1980s, with his first film, From Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977), through the groundbreaking The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), to his acclaimed Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989). Epstein had won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature twice in the same decade, for Harvey Milk and Common Threads, and he had founded the production company Telling Pictures in 1987 with his filmmaking partner Jeffrey Friedman.

In the early stages, Epstein and Friedman figured any film made from Russo’s book would be built around the author and his lecture series. But by the time they started developing the project, Russo was diagnosed with HIV and was pretty sure if a film were to be made from his book, it would be made without him as an active participant. He wrote a proposal for the TV version in 1986, a year after his diagnosis, but it wasn’t until his death of AIDS in 1990 that Epstein and Friedman were able to find any backers to help them put the project together.

A documentary of this sort, made in the era before fair-use laws came into effect, required a lot of judicious legal legwork to obtain the massive amount of clearances to use clips from the various movies. Of course, the film wouldn’t be as exhaustive as the book, but any movie covering this subject simply wouldn’t work if it couldn’t include clips from several key Hollywood pictures. At the time, many studios and archives, and especially families and estates of long-dead movie stars, were still fiercely protective of the legacy of their closeted stars and loved ones. After Russo’s death, England’s Channel 4 offered development funding that enabled the team to determine if obtaining the clips they needed from the copyright holders would even be possible. As they expected, they faced some slammed doors. For example, they planned to include a segment from the book covering gay historical figures who were turned straight by Hollywood biopics. But the use of the Cole Porter biography Night and Day was considered insensitive since Porter himself had wanted to be depicted as straight in the film; star Richard Burton’s estate denied the use of Alexander the Great; and Charlton Heston (who presented Epstein with his Oscar for Common Threads) wrote the filmmakers a polite but firm note stating that “homosexuals want to claim Michelangelo, but I assure you, he was not of that persuasion,” and refused permission to include a clip fromThe Agony and the Ecstasy.
When word of the project got around, many in the industry feared Epstein and Friedman were setting out to make an exposé about who was gay in Hollywood—kind of a mass cinematic outing of closeted actors and filmmakers, both alive and dead. The prolific producer Howard Rosenman (The Main Event, Father of the Bride, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) signed on as executive producer, as he had for Common Threads. Rosenman set upon a quest to correct this false notion and use his political capital to get all the major studios to allow the filmmakers to use clips from their film libraries for no money. He got a quick yes from the president of Columbia Pictures and then approached the powerful Sid Sheinberg, president and CEO of MCA and Universal Studios. Once Sheinberg agreed, most of the other distributors followed suit. Only Samuel Goldwyn held out. Goldwyn had been close friends with Danny Kaye and was sure the filmmakers were out to out Kaye. Rosenman did his best to explain that it was actually Hans Christian Andersen they wanted to, not so much “out,” but reclaim. But, even though Samuel Goldwyn Films eventually granted clearance for many clips for the documentary, Hans Christian Andersen was not among them.

Epstein and Friedman faced far less resistance than expected when they approached people to speak on camera. After dropping the idea of building their film around Russo, they attempted a plan to make the movie entirely out of film clips and voiceover narration. That idea never got very far. Their next approach required lining up a host of celebrity interviewees to ensure a significant mainstream audience. Lily Tomlin, who eventually ended up narrating the picture (much to her surprise, as she’d been asked to narrate many documentaries in the past and had always found herself replaced by another actor), was a key fundraiser and awareness builder. She launched a direct mail campaign in Russo's honor and headlined a benefit at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco that involved Robin Williams, Harvey Fierstein, and Hugh Hefner. That got HBO involved, and suddenly, The Celluloid Closet movie was a go-project.

The quality of the on-camera interviews elevates this movie far above the many “essay films” that became common in the YouTube era. The range of interview subjects is perfectly focused. Epstein and Friedman only wanted to speak to people who participated in key ways in the films they planned to cover. But they also asked their subjects questions about their personal perceptions of certain other films and of gay people in cinema over the course of their lives. The picture does include one excellent film historian, Richard Dyer, but on the whole, the filmmakers figured they didn’t need to talk to academics about pre-1960s film history when they were already speaking with older industry figures like Arthur Laurence, Jay Presson Allen, and Quinton Crisp, who experienced that history first-hand growing up. Many movies they never planned to cover—some not even mentioned in Russo’s book—ended up in The Celluloid Closet movie because they were mentioned in the best personal stories of their interviewees. The first question they asked every on-camera subject was, “What is the first image you remember of a gay person on film.” That led to segments like Tom Hanks' revealing tale about seeing Vanishing Point as a young man.

Only twenty-five speakers made the final picture. Each time Friedman and co-editor Arnold Glassman cut to one of them, you feel like this is the best person, sometimes the only person, to make the point that needs making within the narrative structure. There are some A-list actors—Hanks, Fierstein, Tony Curtis, Whoopi Goldberg, Shirley MacLaine, Harry Hamlin, Farley Granger, Antonio Fargas, and Susan Sarandon. There are some prominent LGBTQ authors and raconteurs like Dyer, Crisp, and Susie Bright. And there’s one studio executive, Daniel Melnick, the producer of many great films who also oversaw MGM, Columbia, and 20th Century Fox at various times during the mid-'70s and ‘80s. But the most prominent speakers are screenwriters: Jay Presson Allen (Cabaret, Funny Lady, Deathtrap), Arthur Laurents (West Side Story, Gypsy, Do I Hear a Waltz?), Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City), Barry Sandler (The Mirror Crack’d, Making Love, Crimes of Passion), Gore Vidal (Ben-Hur, The Best Man, Myra Breckinridge), Paul Rudnick (Addams Family Values, Jeffrey, In & Out), Mart Crowley (The Boys in the Band), Ron Nyswaner (Smithereens, Philadelphia, My Policeman), and Stewart Stern (Rebel Without a Cause, The James Dean Story, Sybil).

Of course, directors like Kenneth Anger, Gregg Araki, and Robert Towne were also interviewed, but in the end, only two—John Schlesinger and Jan Oxenberg—made the cut. The lack of inclusion from the director’s branch may have had something to do with how few openly gay Hollywood directors there were during the years this film covers (especially those still alive at the time). But the main reason these folks aren’t represented is that, in so many cases, the directors of the films discussed here were not responsible for the gay subtext and sometimes were unaware of the queer readings of the pictures they were helming. As someone who has always rejected the auteur theory, the absence of directors speaking with an authorial voice in a documentary about cinema history is probably another reason this film appealed so much to my young self.
Speaking of my personal disdain for the idea that one man (and, let’s face it, the auteur theory is all about men) can be responsible for any work of cinema, The Celluloid Closet movie also provides more diverse perspectives on its subject than Russo’s book. I don’t mention this as a slight against the author's incredible work, but his compendium of how gay themes, issues, and characters were presented from the 1900s to 1970s is filtered through his own specific viewpoint. He completed the first version of the book when his community was under harsh attack, and his opinions on certain films are colored by his experiences as an activist in the 1970s. Reading what he writes about movies like Suddenly Last Summer or The Boys in the Band, which he clearly saw as shameful exercises in negative stereotyping, is different from the experience we get from the documentary, in which we hear Mart Crowley (the writer of The Boys in the Band) directly addressing the criticisms of Russo and many other gay critics of his time. Crowley is neither bitter nor defensive; he simply expresses that he wrote how he and everyone in his community of gay men who grew up in the 1950s acted, spoke, and felt at the time he wrote the play and screenplay.

Russo's first edition also criticized comedies that directly address gay relationships or make jokes about straight male gay panic. In the earlier chapters of the book, which covers films made before his time, Russo delights in the subversive aspects of how Hayes-code-era Hollywood depicted “The Sissie” and “The Bulldyke” in musicals, comedies, and prison pictures. In contrast, he has scorn for similar characterizations made by movies in his own era, like La cage aux folles, Victor/Victoria, and Tootsie. I never saw Russo speak, but I have heard recordings of some of his lectures made after the book's first publication. In these recordings, he finds much more to praise about some of those same films than when he first wrote about them. I believe those three films specifically are among the wealth of pictures that should be celebrated for what they were able to achieve at the time. They were all films I saw before I turned fourteen, and they each had a profoundly positive effect on my developing adolescent views on sexuality. In his later years, Russo seemed to agree, though he still felt the filmmakers should be called out for not trusting their audiences and going further than they did in their depictions of intimacy between men. The film of The Celluloid Closet includes some of the films viewed negatively in the book (and many others that I would say were positive steps toward diverse queer representation) in montages that play like joyful commemorations rather than examples of negative stereotyping.
Russo’s evolving attitudes towards many of the films he wrote about sheds light on a more contemporary trend in cinema culture: the dismissing of movies that no longer align with modern views on societal issues—how queer people are depicted in film prominent among them. The rejection of many great movies because they include something viewed today as insensitive or “problematic" has been taken to such an extent that significant pictures that were groundbreaking leaps forward in their time, and are often still incredibly relevant today, are not being seen. (Hell, some people today might dismiss Russo’s book because his use of the word “homosexuality” in the subtitle dates it and genders it.) But I think the difference between the ways Russo wrote about certain films in his book and how they are depicted in the documentary based on his excellent writing illuminates how fluid perspectives on works of art can and should be. As much as I lament the “canceling” of certain movies, I’m thrilled to see many of the pictures Russo speaks ill of in his compendium now getting reappraised and embraced by contemporary queer critics. Even the grizzly 1980 thriller Cruising, which plays a prominent role in the book and the documentary, is viewed today with far more nuance and ambiguity.

When The Celluloid Closet came out, many devotees of Russo were upset with its often light and playful tone, believing it dishonored the author's angry activist nature. But Russo felt the documentary needed to be far less harsh than the book because the movie could actually show the film clips in the context of his thesis. Even when trying to make the book into a PBS series, he referred to the project as “A Gay That’s Entertainment” because he believed the film clips would speak for themselves, regardless of the overall tone of the presentation.

Russo published a revised edition of his book in 1987, with 80 additional pages covering the 1980s and the immerging “Gay New Wave” or New Queer Cinema Movement. Likewise, the film, which came out right at the cusp of mainstream acceptance of queer narratives, includes a brief, hopeful montage of clips from '90s-era indie movies about gay and lesbian characters. If the film had been made just a few years later, that montage would have been much more powerful. As things stood in 1995, the most prominent mainstream gay film made by a Hollywood studio was Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993), a soft, sterile, sexless drama, though still a landmark picture, in which Tom Hanks plays a closeted lawyer who loses his job when his law firm discovers he has AIDS.

At the end of the doc, to illustrate the idea that depictions of homosexuality have always been part of the movies, Epstein and Friedman brilliantly juxtapose an image of two men dancing from the 1895 Thomas Edison test film The Gay Brothers with the image of Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas’s gay characters dancing in Philadelphia from the point of view of Denzel Washington’s reluctantly tolerant homophobic character. But if you know Philadelphia, as most everyone in the audience at the time did, it doesn’t feel like a huge leap forward in terms of acceptance, especially coming on the heels of Jan Oxenberg’s interview in which she points out that mainstream America in 1993 wasn’t ready for a gay hero who lives through the end of the movie. Still, this poignant but optimistic ending is one of the things that makes The Celluloid Closet resonate so powerfully decades later. It came out at a time when the future of same-sex rights and prominent queer representation in media was far from a foregone conclusion, yet its sanguine ending felt then (and still feels) appropriate and cogent.

The emotional conclusion is given a huge boost by Carter Burwell’s wonderful score, which mostly consists of variations on the song “Secret Love.” The Doris Day tune, initially written for her 1953 musical Calamity Jane, is amusingly referenced earlier in the movie. Burwell subtly weaves its melody and signature notes in and out of the soundtrack, building to an amazing crescendo during the film's final shots. This culmination of the melodic themes works as a kind of musical “ah ha” that mirrors the intellectual and emotional realizations audience members like me had been experiencing throughout the film’s 109-minute running time.