Films

Hollywood taboos

THE CELLULOID CLOSET Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Brian D. Johnson April 15 1996
Films

Hollywood taboos

THE CELLULOID CLOSET Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Brian D. Johnson April 15 1996

Hollywood taboos

Films

Tracing the movies’ treatment of homosexuality

THE CELLULOID CLOSET Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Writer Gore Vidal chortles about how he slipped a homosexual slant into Ben-Hur (1959) without its star, Charlton Heston, being aware of it; Tony Curtis talks about bathing Laurence Olivier in a suggestive manservant scene that was cut from Spartacus (1960);

Susan Sarandon describes how she insisted on the kiss between her and Geena Davis at the climax of Thelma & Louise (1991). Those are some of the juicier moments in The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about Hollywood’s portrayal of homosexuality over the years that offers a captivating blend of history, gossip and cultural anthropology.

Narrated by Lily Tomlin, the film includes interviews with such stars as Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Hanks and Shirley MacLaine. But what makes it work as effective big-screen entertainment is a treasure trove of clips culled from 120 motion pictures—beginning with a test shot of two men dancing filmed at the Thomas Edison Studio in 1895. Based on the 1981 book by Vito Russo (who died of an AIDS related illness in 1991), The Celluloid Closet tracks an evolution of stereotypes.

The sissy emerged as an early comic cliché, always guaranteed a laugh. But while effeminate men were a joke, crossdressing female stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo only enhanced their glamor by playing titillating scenes with lesbian overtones. As Hollywood succumbed to censorship codes in the 1930s, homosexuality receded into the closet. Censors stripped gay references from plots and dialogue, while those characters allowed to retain hints of homosexuality were often cold-blooded villains.

But by the ’50s, America’s golden age of

sexual repression, writers and actors had learned to work between the lines. Talking about making the “gorgeously junky” Ben-Hur, Vidal describes how he persuaded director William Wyler and actor Stephen Boyd to convey a gay subtext in a warm reunion scene between Hur (Heston) and Messala (Boyd). Vidal says the director did not dare let Heston in on the secret for fear that the actor would not be able to handle it.

In the case of closeted star Rock Hudson, the subtext was often overwhelming. Author Armistead Maupin remembers watching Hudson’s movies with gay friends in the actor’s private screening room and laughing at the injokes. In Pillow Talk, Hudson’s character pretends to be gay in order to seduce a woman—“it was tremendously ironic,” says Maupin, “because here was a gay man impersonating a straight man impersonating a gay man.” As homosexuality began to surface in the movies, it was as an unspeakable perversion. In The Children’s Hour (1962) MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn play characters with a lesbian secret. “I feel so damn sick and dirty I can’t stand it anymore,” weeps MacLaine’s character in a melodramatic scene with Hepburn. No one on the set ever discussed homosexuality, MacLaine now recalls with amazement.

The Celluloid Closet goes on to document the emergence of gay-positive movies, from The Boys in the Band (1970) to Philadelphia (1993). And, in 1996, how far is Hollywood out of the closet? “About as far as the rest of American society,” says the documentary’s co-director Rob Epstein. “No more, no less.”

BRIAN D. JOHNSON