Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Film Review: The Celluloid Closet

The Celluloid Closet
dir. Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Reviewed by Max Fincher

The re-release of The Celluloid Closet, originally screened in 1995 on Channel 4, is based on Vito Russo’s groundbreaking study, The Celluloid Closet (published in 1981, and reissued in 1987). One might ask whether we need to be reminded of Hollywood’s history of predominantly stereotypical and negative portrayals of gay and lesbian people, at this particular moment, given the success of independent queer film making. Nevertheless, this history warns gay film makers and audiences against complacency.

Russo’s study was one example of a self-conscious attempt by many gay and lesbian writers and academics in the late 1970s and early 1980s to reclaim gay identities and histories as their own. Several studies in film, literary criticism, history and sociology revealed hidden histories of gay life and identities that were often denied or simply invisible in the presence of an institutionalised version of history, always heterosexual. Watching this documentary again, we are reminded of how sophisticated gay and queer representation has become since the mid-1980s. But we are also reminded how Hollywood can still blows bubbles of homophobia to audiences through the veil of comedy, in for example films like Bruno, even if we overlook its irony.

In fact, comedy is a film and television genre where gay men still often find themselves predominantly (mis)represented. There is a lack of serious drama about gay lives and/or history. As Lilly Tomlin, the narrator, explains, ‘homosexuals on screen either inspired fear, pity or were to be laughed at’. The documentary’s narrative (written by the novelist Armistead Maupin) centres on examples around these three themes. Shots from Chaplin’s films like ‘The Soilers’ and ‘Wanderer of the West’, and an excerpt from a Laurel and Hardy film, emphasize how double entendre, cross-dressing, camp performance and close friendships between men could all signify to audiences ‘in the know’ that there might be seeing something more on the screen than just campy antics. Queer goings on in silent film morphed in the 1930s to the figure of the sissy. In films like The Gay Divorcee (1934), Myrt and Marge and Call Her Savage (1932), the sissy was present and ‘occupied the space between men and women’, and was often the butt of jokes. Harvey Fierstein confesses that he likes the sissy and would prefer ‘visibility at any cost’. One of the entertaining aspects of this documentary is the impressive array of commentators, including actors, scriptwriters, film-makers and film historians, who are all often witty. Significantly, Quentin Crisp is included, and as he says of the sissy: ‘there is no sin like being a woman’.
Or, in the case of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, like being a man. Carefully selected performances of these two sexually ambiguous actresses are included to point up the lesbian subtexts to both Morocco (1931) and Queen Christina (1934) through the vehicle of cross-dressing. Epstein and Friedman capture these ‘fleeting’ moments in the style of the documentary which alternates between fast-paced montage shots, and longer excerpts from key films discussed in the book. These snapshots are intercut with both informed historical context, along with personal reminiscences and thoughts on how many people looked for images of themselves on screen, with the figure of the closet dominanting both the production and reception of the films.

From the mid-1930s, with the advent of the Hays Production Code, it became increasingly more difficult for screenwriters and directors to represent any kind of sexuality on screen, let alone gay and lesbian sexualities. Novels were rewritten as screenplays and they were heavily edited, overseen by Hollywood’s censor, Joseph Breen. The lesbian became stereotyped as a monster, a predator on the young, innocent or virginal, as in Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Rebecca (1940), while gay men were cast as sociopathic murderers, most notoriously in Hitchcock’s films, Rope (1948) and Psycho (1960) or as tragic alcoholics as in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The ‘Legion of Decency’ enforced a series of rules and as Gore Vidal comments: ‘It was like working under the Kremlin. You just couldn’t use the word’.

Nevertheless, many writers and directors managed to bypass the dull-witted censors by writing between the lines or directing actor’s gestures and looks carefully, enabling the audiences to infer that that there was a hidden level of meaning, oblique, but always present. In the 1950s, described by Jan Oxenberg as ‘a decade of towering dullness and stupidity’, icons of (supposedly) straight masculinity like James Dean, Marlon Brando and Rock Hudson ruled the screen. Any whisper of effeminacy signalled that a man might be queer. Musical scores could also encode gay desires. Full renditions of ‘Secret Love’ by Doris Day, and ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love’ by Jane Russell (Gentleman Prefer Blondes, 1953), are included, both of which can be read to represent how gay men felt, particularly as Russell camps her performance up in a gym full of indifferent buff male athletes!

Gore Vidal notes that writers became very adept at projecting subtexts into their screenplays, and directors into their actors’ performances. For Ben Hur (1959) Vidal proposed to the director, William Wyler, that the story of Ben Hur should be about the rekindling of a love relationship between Ben Hur (Charlton Heston), and Messala (Stephen Boyd) his Roman teenage friend. Wyler advised that Heston who should never know that the story was about homosexual love, or he would never agree to it, while Stephen Boyd, who played Messala, should be in the know. Our awareness of this anecdotal knowledge allows us to see how the performance of Boyd is supercharged with desire, and is a delicious irony. It is now impossible not to read the film as a story of love between two men, now we know both Vidal and Wyler’s intentions. As such, The Celluloid Closet draws our attention to where the traces of gay sexuality are in supposedly ‘heterosexual’ stories.
Epstein and Friedman signal the importance of Dirk Bogarde’s performance in the British film Victim (1961) as tacking homosexuality head on in contrast to Hollywood’s reticence. Hollywood literally made victims of gay men and women from the 1960s onwards, although the trend started earlier with Rebel Without a Cause (1955). We are shown a montage of characters’ deaths whose sexuality is suspicious. The sequence culminates in a climatic scene from Suddenly Last Summer (1959). The character of Catharine (played by Elizabeth Taylor) screams manically for help on a mountain top while her queer cousin Sebastien, the perfect homosexual, ‘one without a face or a voice’, is devoured by a group of young male cannibals on the remote island of Lope de Vega. Catherine’s call for help perhaps signifies that this was how audiences themselves were feeling when confronted by so many repeated tragic and negative images. Hollywood suggested that the natural trajectory for a gay man or woman was either suicide (The Children’s Hour, 1962) or violent murder (The Detective,1968) often at the hands of those who were repressing their sexuality. Armistead Maupin confesses that he was scared when he saw the film Advise and Consent (1962), one of the first to feature a gay bar: ‘I felt that the end of that road would be suicide’.

In the 1970s, two films seemed to offer promise that there could be more positive alternatives: The Boys in the Band (1970) and Cabaret (1972). Throughout the 1970s, despite increased visibility, stereotypes still abounded with the audience laughing at characters predominantly rather than with them, a phenomenon that continues to this day. We are reminded of how subtle, and not so subtle, homophobia in Hollywood could be with the use of the word ‘faggot’ in films from the 1980s, and from personal testimony. Ron Nyswaener, the screenwriter of Philadelphia (1993) relates his experience of going to see the controversial film Cruising (1980) where he and his boyfriend were chased out of the cinema by a group of homophobic thugs and they were gay-bashed. When Twentieth-Century Fox released Making Love (1982), the film was prefaced by titles warning that ‘it may be too strong’ for audiences. Hailed as the first sensitive depiction of love between two men, (a precursor to Brokeback Mountain almost) the studio head of Fox declared to the producer that it was ‘a god-damned faggot movie’ at the pre-screening and walked out. As did audiences.

Epstein and Friedman’s narrative is, inevitably, more circumscribed than Russo’s book which covers many more examples and many films from the late 1980s and early 1990s are included in a montage. Sadly, this re-release might have included an extra on what has happened to gay representation since the 1990s, although the extras do include deleted scenes and a fascinating interview with Vito Russo. The viewer is taken up to the time of Philadelphia (1993) and Thelma & Louise (1991) and there are some revealing anecdotes from Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon on their views of these landmark points in their careers and gay film. Nevertheless, an impressive spectrum of films is covered. Informative, humorous, moving, and sometimes painful to watch, this is one of the most significant documentaries on gay film history in the last twenty years. Hopefully, it will educate a new generation of audiences on where current representations have come from, and how Hollywood ‘taught straight people what to think about gay people’. And as Maupin observes: ‘Hollywood still runs scared’.

Max Fincher wrote his PhD at King’s College London, a queer reading of late eighteenth-century Gothic fiction that was published as Queering Gothic Writing in the Romantic Age by Palgrave Macmillan (2007). He has taught part-time on eighteenth-century fiction and women’s writing, at both King’s College London and Royal Holloway, and is an occasional book reviewer for the TLS. He is currently writing his first novel, tentatively titled The Pretty Gentleman, a queer historical thriller set in the Regency art world.



At 5:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was actually Jay Presson Allen who described the '50s as a decade of "such towering dullness and stupidity," not Jan Oxenburg.


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