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The Celluloid Closet


The Celluloid Closet is a riveting and entertaining look at Hollywood and how it has both reflected and defined the way we think about homosexuality. From comic sissies to lesbian vampires, from pathetic queens to sadistic predators, from the good to the bad, gay characters have been around since the beginning.
Taking full advantage of over a hundred film clips of Hollywood classics (obtaining them for this film was no easy feat) it weaves an entertaining history lesson, expertly juxtaposing ideas and images.

See More
Running Time: 102 min.
Subject(s): Arts and Culture, Gender, LGBT, Media, Sexuality, Society
Language(s): English
Producer(s): Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Editor(s): Jeffrey Friedman, Arnoldsee all »
Production Company: Telling Pictures


  • Fascinating... a beautifully and thoughtfully made film that touches on many areas of human sexuality and human expression beyond the obvious ... a vital and artful piece of work ... Celluloid Closet is a nonfiction film that presses more emotional buttons than many a manipulative melodrama and seems of equal interest to those of every conceivable sexual identity. It's not only about how people see each other and see themselves; it's also about being human and the joy and pain and confusion that strange condition entails.
    Tom Shales, The Washington Post
  • FOUR stars: A spectacular movie movie
    Bruce Williamson, Playboy
  • Highly entertaining.
    Anita Gates, New York Times
  • Two thumbs up… Terrific.
    Siskel & Ebert
  • It’s hard to imagine a documentary more elegant, intelligent and absorbing.
    Edward Guthman, San Francisco Chronicle
  • That’s Entertainment with a difference… snappy, glamorous, enjoyable… a testimony to the power of the movies.
    J. Hoberman, Premiere
  • Immensely entertaining.
    David Rooney, Variety
  • Sheer fun.
    Janet Maslin, New York Times

Festival & Awards

  • Venice Film Festival - Premiere
  • Berlin Film Festival
  • Sundance Film Festival
    Freedom of Expression Award
  • Emmy Award
    Non Fiction Directing
  • George Foster Peobody Award
    Excellence in Broadcasting
  • Columbia-DuPont Award
    Excellence in Broadcast journalism

additional materials

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  • Synopsis

    The movies are over 100 years old, and gay movie characters have been with us since the very beginning—even during the Production Code years, when “sex perversion” was explicitly forbidden. From comic sissies to lesbian vampires, from pathetic queens to sadistic predators, Hollywood has both reflected and defined how we think about homosexuality—and about what it means to be a man or woman. With clips from over 100 Hollywood movies, and interviews with many of the filmmakers and stars who created them (including Tom Hanks, Shirley Maclaine, Susan Sarandon, Whoopi Goldberg and Gore Vidal), The Celluloid Closet is an epic story—by turns surprising, hilarious and disturbing. The Celluloid Closet makes us see Hollywood images in a whole new light, exploding sexual myths and examining our attitudes about sexuality and sex roles as they evolved through the 20th century.

  • Homosexuality in Film

    Homosexuality in Film

    In a hundred years of movies, homosexuality has only rarely been depicted on
    the screen. When it did appear, it was there as something to laugh at — or
    something to pity — or even something to fear. These were fleeting images,
    but they were unforgettable, and they left a lasting legacy. Hollywood, that
    great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay
    people… and gay people what to think about themselves.

    In fact, homosexuality, or the suggestion of it, has been with us since the
    movies were born. One of the earliest surviving motion picture images is a
    primitive test made at Thomas Edison’s studio, in which two men dance
    together while a third plays the fiddle.

    >From the very beginning movies could rely on homosexuality as a surefire
    source of humor.

    In early comedies of the teens and twenties, the possibility of homo
    behavior was a common joke. In “The Florida Enchantment,” two women dance
    off together, leaving their bewildered menfolk to shrug, and dance off
    together themselves. A popular gag in parodies of the western was to insert
    a flamboyantly effeminate pansy into the world of the macho cowboy
    (“Wanderer of the West,” “The Soilers”). As film historian Richard Dyer
    demonstrates, describing a scene in which a burly stagehand taunts Charlie
    Chaplin for supposedly kissing a boy in “Behind the Screen,” the equation of
    male homosexuality with effeminacy was already “so firmly in place that a
    popular mainstream film could assume that the audience would know what that
    swishy [behavior] was all about.”

    Enter the Sissy — Hollywood’s first gay stock character. The Sissy made
    everyone feel more manly or more womanly by occupying the space in between.
    He didn’t seemed to have a sexuality, so Hollywood allowed him to thrive.

    Talkies offered new opportunities for fun with effeminate men. An early film
    by gay director George Cukor, “Our Betters,” includes Mr. Ernest — an
    astonishingly swishy fop. Character actors like Edward Everett Horton made
    careers out of characters of vague sexuality. Backstage stories like
    “Broadway Melody” and “Myrt and Marge” featured fey costume designers —
    comic characters whose humor was based on male effeminacy. Screenwriter Jay
    Presson Allen recalls these sissy characters from her youth: “There were
    sissies, and they were never addressed as homosexuals. It was a convention
    that was totally accepted. They were perceived as homosexuals just
    subliminally. This was a subject that was not discussed, privately.
    Certainly not publicly.” Gay screenwriter Arthur Laurents recalls being
    offended by them: “They were a cliché… like Steppin Fetchit for the
    blacks.” But gay

    Actor/screenwriter Harvey Fierstein, from a later generation, disagrees: “I
    like the sissy. Is it used in negative ways? Yeah, but… I’d rather have
    negative than nothing. That’s just my own particular view — and also cause
    I am a sissy!”

    The movies were loose enough in those days that one Clara Bow movie (“Call
    Her Savage”) could take us slumming in Hollywood’s first big screen gay bar
    (this freedom wouldn’t last — it would also be the last big screen gay bar
    until Otto Preminger’s “Advise and Consent” 30 years later).
    “Sissy characters in movies were always a joke,” explains elder queen
    Quentin Crisp. “There’s no sin like being a woman. When a man dresses as a
    woman, the audience laughs. When a woman dressed as a man, nobody laughed.
    They just thought she looked wonderful.”

    Indeed, Marlene Dietrich caused a sensation when she finished a number in a
    nightclub in “Morocco” (1930) by kissing a young woman in the audience on
    the lips. Queer pop culture critic Susie Bright attests to the scene’s
    enduring power to titillate, and Arthur Laurents agrees: “The thing worked
    for everybody of every sex. And what’s amazing, I don’t think they’ve done
    anything as deliciously sexy as that since.”

    Even Greta Garbo raised eyebrows with her portrait of “Queen Christina”
    (1933), based on the life of a sixteenth century lesbian ruler of Sweden.
    While the movie invented a heterosexual romance with John Gilbert, hints of
    lesbianism remained, notably in her very affectionate relationship with her
    lady-in-waiting. When Christina is admonished by her Chancellor, “But your
    Majesty, you cannot die an old maid,” Garbo proudly retorts, “I have no
    intention to, Chancellor. I shall die a bachelor!”

    But such freedom would be short-lived. Powerful forces were already at work.
    Religious and women’s groups had been protesting the movies’ permissiveness
    throughout the twenties and thirties, lobbying for federal censorship of the
    movies. Screenwriter Gore Vidal describes how the movie moguls responded by
    attempting to censor themselves: “Let’s save Hollywood. We must get an
    outsider, preferably some politician who is above reproach. So they looked
    into the cabinet of Warren G. Harding — at that time there were a number of
    unindicted members of his cabinet — and they picked the Postmaster General,
    Will Hays of Indiana.” Will Hays would head the movies’ first voluntary
    effort at self-censorship. The early Hays Code was a token gesture, seldom
    taken seriously. But by 1934 the Catholic Church had devised a scheme of its
    own. The Legion of Decency not only rated movies as to content [an A rating
    meant a movie was acceptable; a B indicated it was morally objectionable;
    and a C meant it was condemned] — but threatened massive boycotts.
    Hollywood promised to play by the rules.

    Code director Joe Breen ran Hollywood’s censorship machinery for over two
    decades. He was authorized to change words, personalities, and plots. “The
    Lost Weekend,” a novel about a sexually confused alcoholic, became a movie
    about an alcoholic with writer’s block. “The Brick Foxhole,” a novel about
    gay-bashing and murder, became” Crossfire,” a movie about anti Semitism and
    murder. As Jay Presson Allen explains, “The Hays code just set up a series
    of rules that were inviolable.” In addition to depictions of homosexuality
    — or “sex perversion,” as it was called — other restrictions of the 1934
    Hays Code included: open-mouthed kissing, lustful embraces, seduction, rape,
    abortion, prostitution and white slavery, nudity, obscenity and profanity.

    For all its efforts, the Production Code didn’t erase homosexuals from the
    screen; it just made them harder to find. And now they had a new identity —
    as cold-blooded villains.

    Gloria Holden as “Dracula’s Daughter,” Judith Anderson as the ominous Mrs.
    Danvers in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” and Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo in “The
    Maltese Falcon,” begin a long line of movie characters in which subtle hints
    of homosexuality are used to make villains more menacing. “The guys that ran
    that Code weren’t rocket scientists,” Jay Presson Allen recalls. “They
    missed a lot of stuff, and if a director was subtle enough, and clever
    enough, they got around it.” “I don’t think the censors at that time
    realized that this was about gay people,” says Arthur Laurents of
    Hitchcock’s film “Rope”, for which Laurents wrote the screenplay, based on
    the true story of gay psychopathic murderers Leopold and Loeb. While Rope
    star Farley Granger makes it clear that the actors knew they were playing
    gay characters, Laurents thinks the censors “didn’t have a clue what was and
    what wasn’t. That’s how it got by.”

    By the early fifties, lesbians are suggested on the screen by tough
    bulldykes behind bars (“Caged”) or as a troublesome neurotic (Lauren Bacall
    in “Young Man With a Horn”). “These women were a warning to ladies,”
    explains Allen, “to just watch it and get back to the kitchen, where God
    meant them to be.” The fifties were a time of sexual conformity; for men,
    masculinity ruled. The tension between sensitivity and masculinity was
    represented on the screen by characters who are accused of being gay (Tom
    Lee in “Tea and Sympathy”); or by characters who seemed to be gay (Sal Mineo
    as Plato in “Rebel Without a Cause”). For gay movie-goers in those repressed
    years, these were the images that spoke to them. “Rebel” screenwriter
    Stewart Stern acknowledges a gay reading of the movie: “Any film is at the
    same time an expression of a writer, and it’s an offering to an audience to
    create their own film.” Gore Vidal explains, “You got very good at
    projecting subtext without saying a word about what you were doing.” Using
    his experiences as a screenwriter of “Ben-Hur”, Vidal illustrates how a
    writer, working together with the director and an actor, can hint at a gay
    relationship even in a biblical epic.

    Hollywood had learned to write movies between the lines. And some members of
    the audience had learned to watch them that way.

    “It’s amazing,” says Susie Bright, “how if you’re a gay audience and you’re
    accustomed to crumbs, how you will watch an entire movie just to see
    somebody wear an outfit that you think means that they’re homosexual.” Doris
    Day dressed as a man and singing “Secret Love”as “Calamity Jane;” a very
    butch Joan Crawford challenging a very butch Mercedes McCambridge in “Johnny
    Guitar;” Montgomery Clift and John Ireland admiring each others’ guns in
    “Red River;” Gloria Grahame getting worked on by a big butch masseuse in “In
    a Lonely Place;” tough guy Glenn Ford’s flirtatious relationship with his
    effete employer in “Gilda” — “Gay audiences [were] desperate to find
    something,” according to Arthur Laurents. “I think all minority audiences
    watch movies with hope: they hope they will see what they want to see.
    That’s why nobody really sees the same movie.” Richard Dyer, reflecting on
    the movies of this period, finds parallels with what it was like for gay
    people in the real world: “We could only express ourselves indirectly, just
    as people on the screen could only express themselves indirectly… the
    characters are in the closet, the movie is in the closet, and we were in the
    But as gay screenwriter Paul Rudnick argues, “you can’t keep gay life, gay
    behavior out of the movies. It’s like keeping it out of life in general —
    so it sort of pops up, often in somewhat hidden, or somewhat coded ways.”
    Comedies, in particular, have often found ways to push the boundaries of
    acceptable behavior, precisely because they’re not to be taken seriously.
    “In the film of ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,'” Rudnick continues, “there’s a
    gym full of bodybuilders who have absolutely no interest in Jane Russell” —
    singing “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?” Sissy characters survived in
    such comedies as” Lover, Come Back,” in which Doris Day is confounded by a
    decorator’s insistence on a lilac floor for a kitchen. And gay author
    Armistead Maupin recalls watching Rock Hudson – Doris Day movies with a
    group of gay men in Hudson’s screening room, and enjoying the “gay in-jokes
    occurring in almost all of those light comedies.” In “Pillow Talk,” for
    example, “the character that Rock Hudson played posed as gay in order to get
    a woman into bed. It was tremendously ironic, because here was a gay man
    impersonating a straight man impersonating a gay man.” Tony Curtis describes
    how our ambiguous sexuality, “that kind of sexuality of ours that overlaps
    — some like it hard, some like it soft…” was subtly exploited in Billy
    Wilder’s drag opus with Curtis and Jack Lemmon, “Some Like It Hot.” When
    Lemmon, disguised as Daphne, tries to convince Osgood (Joe E Brown) that
    they can’t get married because Lemmon is really a man, Osgood is unfazed.
    “Well,” he declares, “nobody’s perfect.”

    But when the subject turned serious — and actual sex was suggested — out
    came the blue pencil, the scissors and the scene.

    Tony Curtis again, this time as Antoninus, Lawrence Olivier’s “body servant”
    in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, describes the suggestive scene in which he
    bathes his master, and which was cut from the final film. “I’ve never seen
    such a time in my life with censorship,”” says Gore Vidal. “They cut and cut
    ‘Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.'” There was no way that Brick [Paul Newman] could
    have had any kind of sexual desire for his buddy.” Vidal describes his own
    battles with the censors when he adapted another Tennessee Williams play,”
    Suddenly Last Summer,” for the screen. The drama between Elizabeth Taylor,
    Katherine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift revolves around the unsavory habits
    of Sebastian Venable, a character who is seen in the film only in flashback
    — and whose face is never shown.

    Sebastian Venable was the perfect homosexual for his times — one without a
    face or a voice. Since he lives as a monster, he must die as one…

    Sebastian meets his end at the hands of the young boys he’s been using
    sexually, who chase him up a mountain and ultimately devour him — in a
    scene eerily reminiscent of the early horror classic “The Bride of
    Frankenstein” (which incidentally was directed by James Whale, one of the
    few openly gay directors in Hollywood history).
    As American filmmakers were struggling to make homosexual material
    acceptable to the Hays Office and the Legion of Decency, a film came out of
    Great Britain in which an explicitly gay (or at least bisexual) character
    actually stands up to fight the system that oppresses homosexuals: “Victim,”
    starring Dirk Bogarde as the screen’s first gay hero.

    Hollywood was hurting. Faced with competition from more sexually explicit
    foreign films, as well as from the newly popular invention, television,
    filmmakers searched for new ways to attract audiences. Producers were
    convinced that audiences would pay to see films with more adult themes. By
    the early sixties, the Code had gradually been whittled away. The only
    remaining restriction was “sex perversion.” Two filmmakers set out to make
    films that would smash the last taboo. Otto Preminger forced the issue by
    announcing (prematurely) that the Production Code had been revised to allow
    him to film the bestseller “Advise and Consent” — including the subplot
    concerning a US Senator (Don Murray) who is blackmailed about a homosexual
    affair in his past. And William Wyler’s “The Children’s Hour,” based on the
    play by Lillian Hellman and starring Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn,
    dealt with accusations of lesbianism in a girls’ school. In the view of
    Shirley MacLaine, though, the film was a failure. “We might have been the
    forerunners but we weren’t really, because we didn’t do the picture right.”
    According to MacLaine, there was so little awareness of what homosexuality
    was all about that the subject was never even discussed during the making of
    the film.

    Both these films dealt with homosexuality as something shameful, a dirty
    secret — and, as Susie Bright and Armistead Maupin attest, these films
    often had a devastating affect on the psyches of young gay people in the
    audience. As gay screenwriter Barry Sandler explains, “Growing up in that
    period in the sixties, all we had were images of unhappy, suicidal,
    desperate gay people.” “Walk On the Wild Side,” adapted from the novel, is
    the first movie that actually added a lesbian angle en route to the screen
    — Barbara Stanwyck as the tough madam of a New Orleans brothel who is
    desperately attracted to a glamorous young prostitute (Capucine). Even “The
    Detective,” a Frank Sinatra movie that tried to be daringly enlightened
    about homosexuality, presented a view of homosexuals as desperate, unhappy,
    self-loathing — and ultimately murderous. Sandy Dennis’ lesbian character
    in “The Fox” is a pathetic spinster taunted by Keir Dullea, who suggests
    that her problem is that she’s never had a man. Says lesbian filmmaker Jan
    Oxenberg, “These images magnify the sadness, the hatred of us, the
    prediction that we will not find love.”

    “I think the fate of gay characters in American literature, plays, films, is
    really the same as the fate of all characters who are sexually free,”
    reflects Arthur Laurents. “You must pay. You must suffer. If you’re a woman
    who commits adultery you’re only put out in the storm. If you’re a woman who
    has another woman, you better go hang yourself. It’s a question of degree.
    And certainly if you’re gay, you have to do real penance — die.”
    In film after film (“The Detective,” “Caged,” “Dracula’s Daughter,” “The
    Fox,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Rebecca,” “Suddenly Last
    Summer,” “The Children’s Hour”) characters of questionable sexuality meet
    their end in the last reel.
    Just when it looked like there was no hope for gay characters anywhere…

    Finally it happened. Hollywood made a movie in which gay people took a long,
    hard look at their own lives. And, in a refreshing twist, they all survived.

    The movie was “Boys In the Band,” based on the hit off-Broadway play by Mart
    Crowley, and for young gay men like Barry Sandler, it offered an image of
    “gay men as having this incredible sense of camaraderie, this sense of
    belonging to a group which I’d never really felt before.” It also presented
    a rather depressing collection of bitchy, vindictive, self-loathing queens.
    “I knew a lot of people like those people,” says Crowley, “and I would say
    that probably all nine of them are split off pieces of myself… I think the
    self-deprecating humor was born out of a low self-esteem, if you will, from
    a sense of what the times told you about yourself. Homosexuality was still
    classified as a mental illness. If you went to a gay bar, you were liable to
    be arrested, or the place be raided… There were still, not just attitudes,
    there were laws, against one’s being, the core of one’s being.” In one of
    the key scenes in the movie, the problem is stated succinctly by one of the
    miserable characters: “If we could just not hate ourselves so much. That’s
    it, you know. If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very
    And by the time the film was released, thousands of gay men and lesbians had
    done just that, and had taken to the streets in the name of “gay
    liberation.” As gay people made themselves more visible in the world, they
    also became more visible on the screen.

    Armistead Maupin recalls “Cabaret” as “the first film that really celebrated
    homosexuality… For me it embodied the very life I was beginning to live in
    San Francisco, one in which there was no onus placed on homosexuality.” “The
    boy was homosexual,” explains Jay Presson Allen, who wrote the screenplay
    for the film, “and it just seemed rational, it seemed reasonable… that’s
    what the story was. There was no fuss with anybody, none at all. So things
    change more quickly than you might imagine.”
    Gay male supporting characters began appearing more and more, and the
    characters often had a depth and self-awareness that was new for the movies
    (they also often had the best lines). African American actor Antonio Fargas
    played two such roles in the mid-seventies: in “Next Stop, Greenwich
    Village” he played a queen called Bernstein, one of a group of Bohemian
    friends living in Greenwich Village in the fifties; and that same year, he
    played a queen called Lindy, part of the ensemble that works at the “Car
    Wash.” “I think it was easier for the powers that be to show a black as a
    homosexual rather than a white character as a homosexual,” says Fargas. He
    likens it to the tendency to present the black experience in comedies and
    sitcoms rather than in dramas.
    But as gays (or at least gay men) became more visible, they also became
    easier targets. In movie after movie, gay male characters were ridiculed,
    taunted, scape-goated, beat up, or killed. Tom Hanks remembers the absurdly
    queeny hitch-hikers in “Vanishing Point” as “the first image that I
    remember… about anybody being gay in a motion picture that I saw.” He
    vividly recalls the stereotypical characterizations of the gay characters,
    as well as the glee with which he and his high school buddies greeted the
    moment when “those two homos” received their comeuppance.
    “Philadelphia” screenwriter Ron Nyswaner recalls similar experiences, but
    from a gay perspective. He recalls seeing “Freebie and the Bean” with a
    group of friends, and being appalled by the audience’s enthusiastic reaction
    to the brutal killing of a murderous drag queen. “People were applauding the
    death of the villain — but they were also applauding the death of a

    “You know you’re watching a heterosexual movie,” says Richard Dyer. “You
    know that’s the deal when you pay to see a Hollywood movie. But somehow,
    you’re still not quite ready to be insulted.” Barry Sandler points out the
    astonishing number of movies in which the word “faggot” is casually used —
    and argues that the word “nigger” would never be used that indiscriminately.
    By 1980, the urban gay scene was a visible part of the cultural landscape.
    The few movies that acknowledged that fact portrayed the gay subculture as a
    sinister world of kinky danger. When one such film, William Friedkin’s
    “Cruising,” was released, Ron Nyswaner describes being attacked by young men
    who worked in a movie theater: “as I was escaping from the hands of one of
    them, he said to me, ‘if you saw the movie ‘Cruising,’ you’d know what you
    “Cruising,” “The Fan” and “Windows” all offer glimpses of gay and lesbian
    characters who are no longer victims but victimizers — psychopaths, who
    murder the objects of their affection. But it was “Cruising” that roused gay
    activists into the streets — for the first time protesting Hollywood’s
    treatment of gay characters. As the film was being shot in New York’s West
    Village, protesters disrupted the filming and created a cause celebre.
    In an attempt to balance the overwhelmingly negative stereotypes of the
    previous decades, Barry Sandler wrote a script about a married man who finds
    himself attracted to another man, and comes to realize he’s gay. The twist
    this time was that the gay characters would be comfortably masculine,
    squeaky clean, and played by very attractive young actors. Sherry Lansing
    green lighted “Making Love” at Fox, but according to the film’s producer,
    Daniel Melnick, “the men were hard to cast, because every one of their
    advisors, both Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean, told them not to possibly
    play someone who is gay, that it would destroy their career.” Harry Hamlin
    concurs, “Hollywood was pretty much of a cowboy town, and a straight cowboy
    town.” By the time the film was finished, the studio had changed hands, and
    according to Melnick, when he screened the film for the new owner, he was
    outraged, calling it a “goddam faggot movie.” Barry Sandler recalls seeing
    the finished film on its opening night in Miami. “When they [Hamlin and
    Ontkean] had the first kiss… people panicked, I mean it was pandemonium,
    people started storming up the aisles.”

    There was a time when men were free to express tenderness on the screen…

    …for example, in “Wings,” the first film to win an Academy Award for Best
    Picture, a handsome young soldier says good-bye to his dying buddy by
    kissing his lips…

    …but as the world grew more aware of homosexuality, male-to-male affection
    would be seen as an incriminating act. A kiss would become an assault …

    …as in “The Sergeant,” when the repressed homosexual sergeant (Rod
    Steiger) loses control and forces his mouth onto that of the horrified,
    disgusted, handsome young private he’s obsessed with (John Phillip Law)…

    …or an ugly accusation.

    In “A View from the Bridge,” a violent Raf Vallone attacks handsome young
    Jean Sorel, growling, “I’ll show you what you’re gonna be — what you are —
    what you are!” And kisses him brutally on the mouth as Carol Lawrence
    screams in horror. And in the quirky buddy movie “Thunderbolt and
    Lightfoot,” Jeff Bridges taunts George Kennedy by clamping his hand over
    Kennedy’s mouth and kissing it. “I’ll kill you for that,” screams Kennedy.
    “I think Americans are perhaps more scared of their sexuality,” suggests gay
    British director John Schlesinger. “They’re prepared to show violence of all
    kinds, but when it comes to sexuality I think America is both self-righteous
    and tries to bury it as if it didn’t exist.” Schlesinger’s “Sunday, Bloody
    Sunday” is one of the first examples of a film in which homosexuality is
    presented simply as a part of the lives of the characters, without making a
    point about it. Schlesinger describes his battle with the screenwriter, who
    wanted the gay kiss played “in long shot and silhouette, and I said ‘no
    way.’ It should just happen. And that’s what we did.”
    “There’s a world of difference,” says Susie Bright, “between how an audience
    looks at two men getting it on, and two women getting it on.” As in
    “Personal Best,” when Mariel Hemingway makes love to Patrice Donnelly,
    “there’s a comfort with female nudity and female girlishness and girlie
    bonding that can be sexy, and it can be completely palatable, even erotic.”
    On the other hand, says Whoopi Goldberg, “straight men are more
    uncomfortable with two men making love because somehow that means you’re
    weak.” In contrast, she describes her own love scene with Margaret Avery in
    “The Color Purple” as being less about sex than about intimacy, which is
    acceptable between women. Similarly, when Susan Sarandon “put the kiss in at
    the end of ‘Thelma and Louise’… my feeling was that they were beyond
    sexuality, that it was a kind of love… they were really there for each
    other in the tradition of ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ except they
    didn’t go down in a rain of bullets.” She speculates that had Butch and
    Sundance kissed at the end of that movie, “they would have had more reason
    to shoot them.”
    Reflecting on her love scene with Catherine Deneuve in the elegant vampire
    movie “The Hunger,” Sarandon conjectures, “I don’t think, for better or
    worse, that women are taken very seriously in this area… it’s actually
    something that straight men can watch and not be threatened by, and straight
    men are the ones that are propelling the industry forward… And I suppose
    when you go to the movies and you see men being affectionate… besides the
    sex, just the affection itself is just too much. Guys are supposed to be
    strong and unfeeling.”
    A perfect illustration of Hollywood’s ambivalence about male-to-male
    affection is “Midnight Express,” with a screenplay adapted by Oliver Stone
    from the true story of Billy Hayes’ ordeal in a Turkish prison. Whereas in
    his book Hayes describes making love to a male fellow-prisoner, the movie
    allows the two men a passionate kiss in a steamy shower — but before it
    goes too far, Hayes (Brad Davis) gives his friend a gentle brush-off,
    shaking his head “no” and kissing his hand before walking away.
    Susie Bright describes her anger when Hollywood takes a story with a gay
    angle and then removes that angle: “It’s like somebody’s just powdered me
    with fleas the entire time, I’m being irritated that they’re not telling the
    truth.” She gives as an example “Fried Green Tomatoes:” “The passion that
    these two women feel for each other was not presented in an honest way in
    the movie.”
    Daniel Melnick explains the industry’s fear of portraying homosexuality as
    part of the same conservatism that he sees at the highest levels of most
    corporations: “We all get paid more than we should, we all get paid more
    than our fathers ever made, and there’s always the fear that they’re gonna
    take it away from us.”
    Shirley MacLaine agrees that “the public is always ahead of us about what
    they’re ready for… And if you do it right, if you pierce the heart-truth
    of what the public is feeling and thinking, you have a hit.”
    “Philadelphia,” featuring a hero who was gay, and who had AIDS, touched a
    nerve in the movie going public, and became just such a hit. Tom Hanks
    ascribes some of the film’s success to the fact that “my screen persona is
    pretty much non-threatening… [so] this idea of a gay man with AIDS…
    doesn’t have to be scary. You don’t have to be threatened by this man’s
    presence, [partly] because little Tommy Hanks is playing the role.” Jan
    Oxenberg points out that, as effective as the film was, 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.” “Philadelphia” screenwriter Ron Nyswaner responds, “We felt
    we would fail if our movie played to people who already … believe that
    people shouldn’t discriminate against homosexuals. If our movie only played
    to people who thought just like we do, we would have done nothing very
    significant.” As Hanks sees it, the message of the movie is that, gay or
    straight, “love is spelled with the same four letters.”

    A hundred years after those two men danced together in Edison’s studio,
    fifty years after the Production Code made homosexuality a forbidden
    subject, gay characters of all stripes and colors can be found on the
    screen. Some of these are from Hollywood, with varying degrees of boldness
    and honesty, but most of them are from low-budget independent filmmakers
    working outside the mainstream system.

    The long silence is finally ending. New voices have emerged, open and
    unapologetic. They tell stories that have never been told — about people
    who have always been there.

  • About the film

    Narrated by Lily Tomlin
    Emmy Award, Nonfiction Directing (1995)

    Featuring Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon, Shirley MacLaine, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Curtis, Gore Vidal, Arthur Laurents, Harvey Fierstein, John Schlesinger, Armistead Maupin, Susie Bright, and others.

    The acclaimed documentary based on Vito Russo’s groundbreaking book, The Cellulioid Closet explores the hidden subtext of more than 100 Hollywood movies—from The Maltese Falcon to Spartacus and Rebel Without A Cause to Thelma and Louise and Philadelphia. A lively cinematic journey through evolving lesbian and gay stereotypes—and homosexual self-image—as seen through the first century of movie-making. With clips from over 100 movies, and revealing interviews with many of the artists who created them.

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