CELLULOID CLOSET SPOTLIGHTS GAYS IN CINEMA
"The sissy made everyone feel more manly or more womanly by filling the space in between," wryly notes narrator Lily Tomlin in the recently released documentary The Celluloid Closet. Based on Vito Russo's groundbreaking 1981 book, it's an ironic and complex story of how an industry populated by gay actors, actresses, producers, and directors came to present a closeted and homophobic representation of gays to the American public.
This is a documentary largely about gays and lesbians. Only a handful of transgender films appear, and only for a split second: Some Like It Hot, The Crying Game, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. So why should the transgender community care? Because it shows how Hollywood makes and breaks images. The recent spate of transgender themed movies has led many Crossdressers and Transsexuals to see Hollywood as a potential saviour. They can give us the exposure and acceptability to the general public we need, it is argued. But by seeing how Hollywood has depicted another sexual minority, the Gay community, we can see the serious limitations and contradictions of this medium.
"Sissies" appeared early on in Hollywood as stock characters for comic relief. Effeminate men were already a figure of fun to the American public, and everyone instinctively understood who they were. Harvey Fierstein says "I like the sissies", as homosexuals needed "exposure at any cost". However, others felt that it was a stereotype as negative as burnt-cork minstrel show blacks.
Ironically, the film industry was relatively uncensored in it's first decade and a half, as it was still something of a novelty.
By the mid 1920's, the Church hierarchy, conservative politicans and the "Legion of Decency" cracked down, with help from the Harding Administration. These groups had a list of taboo subjects including "Sexual Perversion". Hollywood more or less acquiesced under this as the price for continuing to do business. Gore Vidal commented that in many ways it was like living in Communist Russia: Many directors and producers had to submit things to a censor and cut or alter objectionable scenes.
Still, many film-makers were able to slip in subtle gay messages, such as the brief appearence of a gay character. For example, in the 1941 Maltese Falcon, the client Peter Lorre is ushered into Private Eye Humphrey Bogart's office as a gentleman wearing perfume. Lorre's coy toying with his walking stick and softly flicking his tongue over the shaft was unmistakable to a gay audience, but went over the heads of many viewers. Noted lesbian writer Susie Bright observes that Gay audiences were so accustomed to the crumbs tossed them that they would watch a whole movie for even the slightest hint of a homosexuality.
Still, some scenes which hinted too broadly wound up on the cutting room floor. The most notable example was the homoerotic scene in 1960's Spartacus, where Roman slave Tony Curtis is bathing his master Sir Lawrence Olivier. Olivier beguilingly speaks of the differences between "those who like snails and those who like oysters". Preference is merely a matter of taste and not morality. For his part, he liked snails and oysters. This cut scene was only recently restored to the movie.
In the 1950's Gays were introduced to the public as people, but as tortured characters because of their "perversion". Tea & Sympathy showed homosexuality as a character weakness to be cured by the right woman. Rebel Without A Cause (1956) featured the all-too-effeminate Sal Mineo with his not-too-hidden crush on James Dean. It can be argued that he, not James Dean, was the real rebel in the film. And he was the one killed at the end.
Nobody embodied the Celluloid Closet better than Rock Hudson. He played leading male heartthrobs in many films, and his private gay life was largely kept from the public. In movies like Pillow Talk, it reached the height of absurdity: Here was a Gay actor, playing a straight man, who posed as a gay man to disarm Doris Day so he could pursue her! The Gay community, which knew about him, enjoyed many double-entendres and inside jokes the rest of the moviegoing public missed.
The 1960's were to carry the anguish theme further. 1962's Advise and Consent featured a budding Senator plagued by his queer past. Suddenly Last Summer was about several people who "procured" for the un-shown gay character, who is later killed by an angry mob in a scene reminiscent of the monster's dispatch in Frankenstein.
But by far the most tortured depiction of gays was The Children's Hour (1962). A spiteful child falsely accuses Shirley McLaine and Audrey Hepburn of something stronger than friendship; as it happens, one of the women indeed feels lesbian attractions. Shirley McLaine pours out her torment and self-hatred in one particularly riveting scene, and later hangs herself. 1968's The Detective, starring William Windom, is similar. As a private eye who agonizes over his attraction to men, he stares in revulsion but fascination at the gay underworld of the city. Ultimately, he's lured into a gay man's apartment, but kills him in a fit of recrimination and disgust. Gay writer Armistead Maupin notes that for many young gay men and women, the message was that being gay meant despair, self-destructon, and death.
The Boys in the Band (1970) was a landmark film; it not only dealt with Homosexuals as real people with good and bad moments, but they weren't even killed at the end. The movie needs to be seen in the context of the time, when blacks, chicanos and women were speaking out and organizing for liberation. 1972's Caberet introduced Michael York as a gay character and the idea that Homosexuality could be a lifestyle. And who can forget Peter Finch's homosexual kiss in 1971's Sunday Bloody Sunday?
However, Hollywood soon went back to casting gays as token characters. 1971's Vanishing Point shows a pair of gay hitchhikers threatening Barry Numan before being forced from his car; 1976's Carwash has a Black Queen being dished as a product of the white system which emasculates black men. However, it took one movie at the decade's end to mobilize the gay community: Cruisin.
Al Pacino stars as an undercover detective tracking a serial killer in the gay underworld of Leather and S & M bars. A psychotic stalks and kills gay men in extremely graphic ways; for example, a knife is repeatedly driven into a gay man's back as blood spurts from his wounds. Soon after the movie was released, a number of young men started emulating the movie, luring gay men and then beating them savagely. This led to massive protests by the Gay & Lesbian community against the film.
Hollywood took a tentative step towards a more positive image two years later with 1982's Making Love, starring Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin as gay lovers. Even so, the producers felt the need to preface the film with warnings about how it attempts to portray one married man's "struggle with his sexual identity", and the mature audiences only theme.
Although gay issues became more salient in America in the 1990's, a disproportionately small number of films actually dealt with them. Whether its Gay Couples in Torch Song Triology (1988) or AIDS in Philadelphia (1993), representation of gays and lesbians has only slightly increased.
Lesbians have arguably fared better, but because they are not taken as seriously as gay men. Most filmgoers feel indifference or even titillation at two women making love. Hence, the relative noncontroversy of films such as Personal Best (1982) Lianna and The Hunger (1983) Desert Hearts (1985) The Color Purple (1986),and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). Still, it is precisely because lesbians are not taken seriously that it's difficult for their issues to be addressed. Recent movies such as Go Fish and Bar Girls deal with lesbianism from a more realistic perspective.
This documentary points out that Hollywood sees no problem demeaning gays, and largely to public applause. For example, the word "Nigger" is now used only as something coming from racist small town sheriff, or a term of endearment between black people themselves. But the equally offensive word "Faggot" is used by many characters in many situations, and hardly raises an eyebrow.
In The Boys In The Band, one character movingly asks "If we can only learn to stop hating ourselves". By showing gays as comic figures, tortured perverts, token villains, or AIDS victims, cinema does little to encourage any feelings of self-esteem. The transgender community would do well to keep this in mind when they look to the entertainment industry with any kind of hope.
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