Film affects society and society affects film. It affects how we see ourselves and how we see each other. We are affected by how we are portrayed but also how we are ignored as well. The documentary, The Celluloid Closet is both a celebration and a sad reminder of the journey gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gender people have come over the first 100 years of cinema.
The Celluloid Closet is presented as part of the Inside Out Film Festival flashback series on landmark films in queer cinema. The 1995 documentary is directed by Academy Award winning directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman who are also presenting the Canadian premiere of Howl at the festival. The film is narrated by Lily Tomlin and features interviews with people like Gore Vidal, Tony Curtis, Harvey Fierstein and Tom Hanks.
The film traces the evolutions of the depiction of gay characters right from Thomas Edison’s clip of two men dancing in 1895 to Gay Cinema in the early 1990s and then to breakthrough Hollywood films like Philadelphia . The documentary explores Hollywood stereotypes such as the comedy “˜sissy’, homosexuals as tragic figures, then as villains and, in this writer’s opinion, the worst one of just being invisible. Not until the 1960s could you even acknowledge that someone was homosexual in a film. It was left to being placed in the subtext of the story and in small gestures. I have to admit that until seeing this film I never caught much of this subtext in films over the years simply because I wasn’t looking to find it before. In particular, I don’t think I will ever look at Ben Hur the same again.
The Celluloid Closet is based on the 1981 book by the same name by Vito Russo. Russo’s original book on the subject was very serious but Epstein and Friedman allow humour to come through in the clips that they select. They are also really clever to let the clips “speak for themselves” and not hit the viewer the head with a big agenda. The interviews (mainly with writers and actors) in the documentary present the strongest point of views and they vary quite heavily showing how opinion of homosexuals in cinema differed.
Since the original release of the film in 1995, it is amazing to see how far LGBT images in cinema have improved – and in many ways, it has still sadly stayed the same. There was one montage of how it’s completely acceptable to say in film “don’t be a fag” or “you’re so gay” in 1980s and 1990s cinema and that sadly still rings true today. Still today there is no major film star that has come out of the closet. In Hollywood films homosexual characters still tend to die in the last reel of films today ( Brokeback Mountain is one example of this). Portrayals of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans gender characters in cinema have come a long way, but the journey continues.
Even though this film is 15 years old now, this documentary is an excellent history lesson on LGBT character portrayal in cinema and worth checking out on DVD. The 20th annual Inside Out Film Festival continues to May 30th.