"Celluloid Closet" shows Hollywood's dark history of gay images

By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor

Watching "The Celluloid Closet" now, as an openly gay man, the negative images of Hollywood didn't affect me as they were intended. But then, I realized that I didn't come out until I was 23, and I couldn't think of any movie role that featured a gay character that helped me see myself while growing up.

In addition, the lack of gay characters also shows the straight world the distorted image it wants, that we don't exist. Gay youth particularly have a hunger to see themselves, to identify. It's a hunger that still goes by relatively unsatiated.

"The Celluloid Closet," a gripping documentary based on the late Vito Russo's book of the same name, was produced and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who won an Academy Award for their 1989 HBO Documentary "Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt," about the AIDS Quilt.

The movie, which will be released theatrically in March, begins with a montage of swishy mimes, self-hating homos and effeminate bachelors from Hollywood's history. It was shown in a special one-time-only preview on Home Box Office on Jan. 30.

"These were fleeting images, but they were unforgettable, and they left a lasting legacy," Lily Tomlin narrates over the montage. "Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people -- and gay people what to think about themselves. No one escaped its influence."

Tomlin, who helped get the movie produced, has recent come under attack by writer Armistead Maupin, who is featured in the documentary and wrote Tomlin's narration. He told Michael Musto, a gossip columnist for the Village Voice, that Tomlin was going to use the Celluloid Closet's release to mark her own coming out.

"I feel profoundly disappointed and slightly used," Maupin told Musto. "I'm angry at Lily because she led several of us to believe she'd use this film as a vehicle for coming out. I would never have accepted the project if I thought that wasn't the case.

"At one point, Vito told me he wanted an out-of-the-closet actor to narrate the film. My feeling was it should either be an openly gay person or a sympathetic straight person. Instead, I have to endure the cruel irony of a film called The Celluloid Closet narrated by a closeted person!," Maupin said.

Despite Tomlin's backpedaling, the film is still essential viewing.

The earliest clip in the documentary is a 1895 experimental film by Thomas Edison which shows two men dancing for the camera. Such begins a chronological tour through cinema's lavender vault, intercutting film footage and present-day interviews with writers of gay films and actors such as Harvey Fierstein, Tony Curtis, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon and Tom Hanks.

When films in the 1920s started dealing openly and sometimes positively with homosexuality, lobbies formed to censor the movies, which led to the Hays Code and the Legion of Decency ratings of the mid-1930s.

The new measures forced gay content in the movies to be more covert, such as Peter Lorre's gay character in The Maltese Falcon, who wears perfume and nearly fellates his cane while talking to Humphrey Bogart. The novel, according to the documentary, had Lorre's character as openly gay, but the movie was only able to hint -- broadly.

Movies about gay killers, self-loathing lesbian prison wardens and married women lured into lesbianism were apparently unaffected by the code.

Sal Mineo's character, Plato, in Rebel Without a Cause was obviously gay. He idolized the James Dean character and had a picture of Alan Ladd in his high school locker. It also featured scenes of male bonding between the two characters which people sometimes interpret as being about homosexuality.

"Rebel was about tenderness, intimacy. It was an attempt to widen the permission to love when men were supposed to be one way with each other," Rebel's screenwriter Stewart Stern says in the documentary. "I think if I were writing that script again today, I would be much more specific about Plato. I would let him be an outcast because the gang thought he was a fag. And let his isolation come from that opinion."

Plato, being an obviously gay character, was, of course, killed in the movie.

Gore Vidal, the screenwriter for Ben-Hur, provides the funniest insight of slipping homosexual subtext into a movie. He decided that in the back-story of the movie, Ben-Hur and Messala used to be lovers. When they meet again, many years later, Messala wants to start the relationship back up.

So, Vidal and the film's director tell the actor playing Messala about the back-story, but not to Charlton Heston, who played Ben-Hur.

"Don't say anything to Heston, because Chuck will fall apart," Vidal recalls the film's director telling him.

So, the two share an intimate scene, and only one actor was aware of the subtext -- even while locking arms to drink from goblets.

Richard Dyer, a film historian, notes that expressing homosexuality in real life in those days was the same way, it was all covert and reading between the lines. "The movies were in the closet, and we were in the closet," Dyer says.

In 1959's "Pillow Talk," Rock Hudson, a gay man perceived then by most of America to be heterosexual, poses as a straight man posing as a gay man. In "Spartacus," from 1960, Anthony Curtis is chosen to be Spartacus' "body servant," with no further reference as to what that means. In a deleted scene shown in the documentary, Curtis is then shown bathing Spartacus with a dialogue dripping with gay subtext.

But in most instances, characters with a questionable sexuality died, by their own or someone else's hand, before the end credits rolled.

"It's not always like it happens in plays, not all faggots bump themselves off at the end of the story," one character tells another in 1970's "The Boys in the Band," a bittersweet movie about gay men, in which no one dies in the end. Some films of the 1970s began featuring openly gay characters, but not all were positive.

In 1980, "Cruising" had Al Pacino exploring the gay S&M scene in a murder thriller, which drew gay protesters upon its release.

"Making Love," a 1982 movie, featured a gay romance between Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean. The film studio's trailer featured a "warning" about the subject matter of the film, which contains both actors undressing one another, running their hands over each other's naked torsos and kissing passionately.

Also in 1982, "Personal Best" featured a lesbian relationship with full-frontal nude scenes.

"I think straight men are more uncomfortable with two men making love, because somehow that mean's you're weak," says Whoopi Goldberg, who played a lesbian character in The Color Purple. "And people equate weakness with male sensuality toward other men, not realizing that that's a ridiculous theory. ... Like being a man is based on who you happen to be boning that day."

Other movies, like "Fried Green Tomatoes" water down the sexuality of its lead characters, and make them ambiguous, but not necessarily queer.

Tom Hanks attributes his acceptance as a gay lawyer with AIDS in 1993's "Philadelphia" to his "everyman" sceen persona. "Because of it, this idea of a gay man with AIDS is not scary," he says. "You don't have be threatened ... because little Tommy Hanks is playing the role."

Gay films such as Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy" don't get much screen time in the documentary, which focuses mainly on mainstream Hollywood's dealing with gay subject matter. Some people have also criticized the film for including the controversial "The Silence of The Lambs" and "Basic Instinct" among a montage of positive "real" images of gays and lesbians.

But with films such as the delightful "The Wedding Banquet," "Swoon," "Parting Glances," "The Crying Game," and "Jeffrey" (which comes out on video in the middle of February), a new era of positive images is beginning in Tinseltown.

"The long silence is finally ending," Tomlin says near the end of the feature. "New voices have emerged, open and unapologetic. They tell stories that have never been told -- about people who have always been there."

General information: Jeff Walsh
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