Coming Out of The Celluloid Closet

“Hollywood that great maker of myths taught straight people what to think of gay people. And gay people what to think about themselves. No one escaped their influence.”

A flickering image shows two men slow dancing, while a third plays the violin, standing in front of the wide mouth of a horn. Swelling, sweeping orchestral music plays, and it’s almost as if the men are dancing to the strains of the soundtrack. Text suddenly appears at the bottom of the badly-frayed film: “Edison Experimental Film 1895,” announcing what might possibly be the very first queer scene in cinema. It’s a fitting start to the 1996 documentary The Celluloid Closet, because the clip kicks off a complex and fascinating look at the first century of cinema, a century in which homosexuality was continually twisted, obviated, mitigated, or erased, depending on shifts in cultural and generational mores.

Queer cinema is far too messy, wide-reaching, and diverse to neatly package up in a documentary that runs just over 100 minutes. The genre intersects and overlaps with other film tropes and types, and queer identities are still emerging—so in a way it feels as if The Celluloid Closet should never end. Given that it was released over 20 years ago, it not only provides current viewers with a helpful and handy guide to queer cinema, speedily dashing through decades of film, but also serves as a fascinating timepiece, almost quaint in its unawareness of how much would change in the two decades that followed. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman piece together a loving tribute to queer history, inspired by the exhaustive work of film critic Vito Russo, whose book gave the documentary its name. Though the film is about queer history, it’s also about the importance of representation—about seeing oneself reflected. As Harvey Fierstein points out during the film, “There are lots of needs for art. The greatest one is the mirror of our own lives, of our own existence. And that hunger that I felt as a kid, looking for gay images, was to not be alone.”

That feeling of recognition, empathy, and visibility is what The Celluloid Closet is all about. It’s about queer cinema, but it’s also about how queer audiences sought it out, to validate our existence at certain moments in our cultural history when validation was hard to come by. As Jan Oxenberg poignantly points out, our need to see ourselves reflected can be so acute that we’ll often seek out any kind of representation, no matter its artistic merit. By way of example, she cites the cheesy ‘80s vampire flick The Hunger, which is often reduced to a softcore flick, with Catherine Deneuve seducing and cannibalizing a young and winsome Susan Sarandon (who appears in the documentary, to talk about both The Hunger and Thelma & Louise).

Because we’re looking at 100 years of cinema, we’re presented with a dizzyingly wide variety of films—comedies, dramas, and thrillers—grouped generally into loose themes which revolve around certain ideas of mainstream culture’s response to queerness: scorn and condescension; pity and contempt; fear and repulsion. From the beginning, queerness in film—and particularly queer men—was used as a punchline for jokes that reaffirmed masculinity, patriarchy, and traditional gender roles. These jokes operated as a way in which to ostracize effeminate gay men, but also to deflect any possibility of homosexuality; in other words, they worked as an attempt to preserve order. We witness cinematic montages of sensitive men being schooled by masculine mentors in how to “act” like men—as if effeminacy was simply a bad habit which could be kicked by practice and diligence.

On the other side of the emotional response to homosexuality, the opposite of mirth, is disgust and pity. Shirley MacLaine discusses her 1961 film, The Children’s Hour, in which she starred opposite Audrey Hepburn as a young, sexually confused woman who develops feelings for her best friend in a small, gossipy town. MacLaine astutely describes how full of self-loathing and self-disgust her character is, as she grapples with her feelings of love toward her friends. She’s also very critical of the film, suggesting that she and the entire crew were approaching the film with a certain level of ignorance; the contemporary MacLaine (in 1996, anyway) saw her character’s self-flagellation as “mind boggling.” MacLaine gives voice here to a lot of actors who were trying to portray people that were so deeply misunderstood, but a part of her point is that they were working in a different time. However, as writer Susie Bright notes, The Children’s Hour still makes her cry. Though she tries to convince herself that the film’s depiction of self-loathing in queer people is dusty and antiquated, she eventually realizes:

People do feel that way, today, still, and there’s part of me, despite all my little signs—you know, like: “Happy!” “Proud!” “Well-Adjusted!” “Bisexual!” “Queer!” “Kinky!”—you know, no matter how many posters I hold up saying, “I’m a big pervert and I’m so happy about it,” there’s this part of me that’s like, “How could I be this way?”

Bright’s moment of vulnerability is also what made The Celluloid Closet so real, vital, and urgent to me when I first saw it 20 years ago, at a time when it took a whole lot of work to find affirming queer imagery. And it wasn’t just Bright—Fierstein, Armistead Maupin, and Quentin Crisp all show up to share their feelings of alienation and isolation, discussing how mere glimpses of queerness once gave them succor. It was something I understood well, as I also sought out glancing images of gay people on television or film as I grew up, finding relief even when the representation wasn’t necessarily positive or profound. Arthur Laurents sums it up perfectly in the film when he states, “Gay audiences were desperate to find something…they hope they will see what they want to see.”

And while the films can certainly speak for themselves, the participation of the various interview subjects is what ultimately sets The Celluloid Closet apart from most other documentaries about film, as it includes not only those who were making the films, but those who were a part of the audience as well. Creators like Fierstein or Mart Crowley speak not only about their experiences as writers, but as consumers, too.

The directors frame many of the montages with a poignant score from Carter Burwell, who had his own history with queer cinema, having composed the music for the 1993 drama And the Band Played On. I’m a sucker for a beautiful score, and Burwell’s lush music works like an elegant waltz, punctuating the film clips, tying them together to create a single narrative out of a patchwork of movie scenes. His music is especially effective when heard over the silent Edison film—the footage seems perfectly timed to Burwell’s score, turning its groundbreaking technological innovation into something beautiful, romantic, and lovely.

But the music isn’t just pretty for pretty’s sake. It also works to propel the directors’ story of queer cinema forward. As the film moves from the 1950s into the late 1970s and early 1980s, the queer community becomes mobilized and activist, spurred by political factors such as the Briggs Initiative and AIDS. The film industry doesn’t escape the ire of queer activists; damaging portrayals in films as disparate as Cruising, Basic Instinct, and The Silence of the Lambs still elicit strong reactions from sections of queer communities, who see these films as damning and dangerous, affirming terrifying stereotypes that cast queer people as predatory, violent, deviant, or treacherous. So much of what informs homophobia and anti-gay sentiment is fear, and as The Celluloid Closet points out again and again, film helps shape culture.

The directors also inject some mordant humor by including two important clips in the film. The first is a deleted scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 swords-and-sandals epic Spartacus, in which Laurence Olivier’s Crassus tries to seduce his slave (Tony Curtis, who adds colorful commentary in the documentary) by comparing his bisexuality to someone who likes to eat both “snails” and “oysters.” The other clip is even more explicit and unsubtle: A scene from the 1948 western Red River, in which a smirking Montgomery Clift ascents to showing John Ireland his “good-looking gun” and then takes the gun in his hand. The scene ends with the pair shooting off their guns together in a bromantically-inspired game of target practice.

Because there’s so much to tackle, with so little time, a lot of queer cinema gets crammed into reductive montages that show just how diverse and wide-reaching the genre really is. When we catch glimpses of films like My Beautiful Laundrette or The Wedding Banquet, we see how important intersectionality is when looking at queer cinema (intersectionality wasn’t a thing back in 1996, when gay representation in the media was firmly and squarely white, cis, middle-class, and male). In The Celluloid Closet, we’re still ensconced in a white, primarily American discussion, with only a few nods towards non-white contributions to queer cinema. The ending features a valedictory montage, over which narrator Lily Tomlin optimistically says, “The long silence is finally ending. New voices have emerged, open and unapologetic. They tell stories that have never been told, about people that have always been there.”

I would love to see a follow up to The Celluloid Closet, something that looks at the two decades that followed. The year the movie premiered, queer history was at a pivotal moment, with the country debating the rights of openly gay service members in the military (a debate that helped bring about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” an awful piece of legislation that President Clinton supported, which sought to bring the discussion to a close with a terrible compromise). But in the years that followed, queer rights accelerated at warp speed, picking up significant momentum once President Obama was in office. During that time, we saw an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and DOMA; we saw marriage equality, and a president issuing executive orders to protect transgender rights.

The films made during the past 20 years reflected these shifting changes, too. Queer people started to be written as actual characters instead of plot devices. They weren’t always killing themselves, or dying of AIDS, or being murdered anymore. Films like Far from Heaven (2002), The Hours (2002), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Transamerica (2005), Milk (2008), The Kids Are All Right (2010), Philomena (2013), Moonlight (2016), Call Me by Your Name (2017), and Love, Simon (2018) have helped foster a queer cinema that allows for meaningful and relatable characters, telling stories from perspectives informed by gender or gender identity, race, or national identity.

Viewers watching The Celluloid Closet in 2018 will likely have a hard time recognizing the queer cinema being depicted in the film (unless they grew up with it). The film works mostly as a time capsule now, highlighting just how far queer filmmakers have gone, and just how grim some of the representation used to be. The film provides a perfect capture, not only of queer cinema as it stood 20 years ago, but of the astounding work of artists, both queer and straight, who were trying to tell a story.

And it’s clear, after watching The Celluloid Closet, that the story Epstein and Friedman were telling is far from over.