The Celluloid Closet
Dir: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Cert: U • US: 110 min • Peccadillo Pictures • DVD
The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about the representation of homosexuality in Hollywood, was first released in 1995. It is an enlightening, entertaining and somewhat disturbing look at how a coded idea of homosexual identity was put forward in mainstream cinema, the lingua franca of the 20th century. The talking heads are reputable and authoritative. They range from screenwriters Jay Presson Allen (Marnie, Cabaret) and Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy), through to actors Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon, and literary maverick Gore Vidal.
The subject at the core of The Celluloid Closet is that of the acceptable visibility of homosexuality within the mainstream culture. The rise of Hollywood and the backlash against its perceived moral excesses, led by the Catholic Church in the 1920s and ‘30s, provided the setting for how this would play out over the course of the twentieth century. The introduction of the Hays Code under the stewardship of William Hays – “who looked not unlike Mickey Mouse,” Gore Vidal caustically observes – was followed by the far tougher Breen Code in the 1930s. It effectively forced sexuality into the closet. Yet like the phantom repressed, it rose in other guises.
The point, as Lily Tomlin observes in her narration, is that “Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people, and gay people what to think about themselves.” It did this indirectly, through negative imagery, innuendo and subterfuge. In showing how this played out in a range of mainstream films, The Celluloid Closet is a chilling depiction of the power of Hollywood over the Imagination Afraid, as well as the political and social realities this imagination engendered.
Vidal is the best of the documentary’s talking heads. His knowledge of Hollywood is encyclopaedic, his experience writing for the cinema throughout the closeted era extensive, and his delivery sublime. He does not buy into the ‘Hollywood is the universe’ thinking that seems to have so many of the others – the actors in particular – in its thrall. Vidal recalls that, in writing Ben Hur, he suggested Massala (Stephen Boyd) play the reunion with his old friend Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) as that of lovers reunited. Boyd was in on it, but Heston not, “because he would fall to pieces”. Vidal’s rendering of the tale, and the judicious editing of the footage, makes for great documentary. Interestingly, when the film was released, Heston was incensed and proceeded to attack Vidal in the pages of the LA Times. In response Vidal proved superior and dismissive, and Heston like a five-year-old who has been told he can no longer play with his toy guns.
The most disturbing psychological undercurrent, as Quentin Crisp so rightly points out, is that in that in the depiction of homosexuality there is no sin like that of being a woman. Homosexuality in Hollywood would either end in death, or in a form of death-in-life, which took the form of the sexless sissy queen. The extent of how misogynistic the mainstream depiction of homosexuality proved to be is talked about to a greater extent in the DVD extra, ‘Rescued from the Closet’, and in particular by Rita Mae Brown, who is conspicuously absent from the main feature. This 55 minute extra of interview footage in fact makes up for much of the shortfall of the feature, which is remarkably ahistorical, especially when it claims that Hollywood finally picked itself up and dealt with the subject of male homosexuality in The Boys in the Band (1970). There is no mention of the social and political upheavals of the 1960s, nor of the Stonewall riots even, which made this possible.
In the pre-liberation period – a time in which homosexuality on the screen was largely a matter of coded meanings and sub-text – The Celluloid Closet is fascinating. In the post-liberation years it loses its focus and descends somewhat into a ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ ahistorical celebration. There is a tendency for the narration to talk about ‘cinema’ as if it is a uniform object, rather like using the word ‘books’ or ‘television’ to define a subject rather than the medium itself. Nevertheless, when it is on topic, namely Hollywood’s celluloid closet, it is illuminating.
A film that receives plaudits in the closing scenes is Philadelphia. The equation of homosexuality and death that was so prevalent in the closeted era is not even raised as a subject because the ‘Hurray for Hollywood’ blinkers are well and truly on. And so fourteen years on, what progress has been made in the mainstream cinema? Not in the Indie world, not in the straight to DVD world, but in the mainstream. There’s Brokeback Mountain. Oh wait, that ended in death, there being no way to reconcile the lives of Jack and Ennis with their sexuality. But what about Milk. Oh wait, that ended in death, too. Hmm. What else? … Television has proved itself far ahead of Hollywood cinema. The days of the Hollywood of old are well and truly over. Yet have the lessons that should have been learned, which are laid bare for all to see in The Celluloid Closet, been learned?
“I have never seen such a time of my life for censorship. It was like working under the Kremlin.”
Gore Vidal on the writing of Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)