THE CELLULOID CLOSET (1995) C 102m dirs: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
narrated by Lily Tomlin
From Variety's review of the film: "In Oscar-winning films such as The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, documakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have been instrumental in presenting ray-related issues to a wider audience. Looking at depictions of homosexuality in mainstream American movies in The Celluloid Closet, they offer an immensely entertaining, galloping reflection on screen perceptions of lesbians and gay men.
"Basis for the film is Vito Russo's landmark 1981 book of the same name. Russo, who died in 1991, was one of the people with AIDS focused on in Threads.
"Narrator Lily Tomlin's intro points out that in one hundred years of movies, homosexuality has been only rarely acknowledged, mostly as something to get laughs, or inspire fear or pity.
"During the moral crackdown of the 1920s, censors set about removing any obvious homosexual elements from the movies, but traces often remained. Screen homosexuals then entered a new phase, becoming evil, predatory villains. Moving into the 1950s, docu heralds the arrival of tough lesbians behind bars and the sleek socialite model, like Lauren Bacall in Young Man With a Horn.
"As the film moves systematically through each decade and trend, it shows gay visibility metamorphosing and growing. In the interviews, especially notable contributions come from Gore Vidal, Harvey Fierstein, Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon and novelist Armistead Maupin, who wrote the narration. Technically, the operation is pristine."
From an American Movie Classics Magazine article about the documentary written by Stephanie Zacharek: "Today, gay and lesbian actors in Hollywood movies have gained more acceptance than ever before; which is to say, they now have a little instead of absolutely none. Hollywood is ostensibly more open about sexuality both on and offscreen; but Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's documentary The Celluloid Closet ... suggests not much has really changed since the 1930s.
"The Celluloid Closet shows us an experimental film made by Thomas Edison in 1895 in which two men slow-dance in each other's arms. It's not a shocking image, or even a particularly erotic one --- it's simply charming in its matter-of-factness. But Hollywood's relationship with homosexuality has never been that relaxed; film clips included in the documentary show how Hollywood hardly addressed the issue until the 1970s, and even then barely allowed them to be more than either unbalanced psychopaths or 'sissies.'
"Depictions of gay characters have thankfully changed over the years, as Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters ... , about the later years of James Whale (the director of 1931's Frankenstein ... and 1933's The Invisible Man ... ) proves. The elderly Whale (Ian McKellen) is a cantankerously elegant gent who potters around his Hollywood home, His days spent at glamorous parties with gorgeous young men are long over. But he develops a crush on his strapping young gardener Clay (Brendan Fraser), who is straight but nonetheless fascinated by the old man.
"McKellen's portrayal of the director isn't necessarily a flattering one. Whale was a man with faults; the movie doesn't make him a saint, nor does it go out of its way to make him repulsive. It simply allows him the dignity of his flaws as a human being, his sexual orientation notwithstanding.
"As Fraser plays him, Clay doesn't pity Whale, but he's not intimidated by him either, and he treats him with more kindness and compassion than the old crank sometimes deserves. It's a fine depiction of one relationship between a gay man and straight one, a relationship untouched and undamaged by fear or taboo.
"But Hollywood at large has a long way to go. It's frustrating that a dashingly appealing actor like Rupert Everett, sensational as a (straight) romantic lead in An Ideal Husband (1999), isn't being offered leading roles by the score. He would be marvelous as the star of a romantic comedy, playing opposite a woman or a man. (Anyone who thinks a gay actor can't be believable in a love scene with a member of the opposite sex clearly hasn't thought much about the meaning of the word 'acting.') Similarly, when Anne Heche revealed her relationship with actress and comedienne Ellen DeGeneres, some people carped that it was a ploy to ignite Heche's career --- not that there was even the remotest likelihood that such a ploy would work for anyone. Heche had been marvelous in movies like Donnie Brasco (1997), but her career didn't improve with the revelations about her personal life.
"Naturally, it isn't as hard to be a gay actor in Hollywood today as it was in the days of [William] Haines [OUT OF THE CLOSET, OFF THE SCREEN: THE STORY OF WILLIAM HAINES], Rock Hudson or Montgomery Clift. At the same time, though, the studios still aren't about to take chances on what audiences will accept when it comes to gay actors or characters. If only people in Hollywood were as refreshingly open as Tony Curtis is in The Celluloid Closet, talking about his portrayal of Josephine in Some Like It Hot (1959): 'Listen, we're all half-man, half-woman. We all come from those two cells.' While playing a woman, Curtis tapped 'that kind of sexuality of ours which overlaps. Some like it hard, some like it soft. That kind of waviness is in the movie --- just delicately, you know?'"