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The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality and the Movies

The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality and the Movies

by Vito Russo
  • Nonfiction
  • Publisher: Harper & Row, Publishers
  • Publication Date: 1987
  • 368 pages

reviewHarmony H. Wu: Harmony H. Wu is pursuing her doctorate in the Division of Critical Studies in University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television. Her dissertation is on international horror hybridity and the intersections of genre, gender, sexuality and national identity.

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Vito Russo’s THE CELLULOID CLOSET, originally published in 1981 and reprinted in 1987 with a new chapter, remains a useful and insightful survey of the representations of gays and lesbians in mainstream Hollywood films, from the silents to the mid-eighties. The book served also as the inspiration for the documentary film of the same name released in 1995 after Russo’s death. The book and the film together make for essential understanding of how the images of gays and lesbians have served mainly as the objects of unkind jokes and cruel homophobia. Screen gays in Hollywood movies, Russo persuasively asserts, have always been treated with gayness as the defining feature of their personality; gay characters are never treated with any sort of character complexity. Broad in scope and incisive, CELLULOID CLOSET is an essential study of screen images of gays and lesbians.

The first chapter, “Who’s a Sissy? Homosexuality According to Tinseltown” deals with the beginnings of cinema, exploring the roots of the connection between cinema, masculinity and national character: “Men of action and strength were the embodiment of our culture, and a vast mythology was created to keep the dream in constant repair” (5). So in spite of the early short film THE GAY BROTHERS by film technology pioneer Thomas Edison—showing the degree to which gayness and celluloid have been intertwined since the birth of cinema—characters with suspiciously homosexual leanings were most often the object of laughter and ridicule. The stock character of the “sissy” was liberally used to these ends in pre-censorship films from THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929) to THE GAY DIVORCEE (1934). A rare exception this ridicule of gay characters is found in Laurel and Hardy films, where Russo finds a tenderness between Stan and Ollie that suggests a long-term love and “hinted at the deeper level of language that could at times capture the possibility of pure androgyny” (p.10).

Chapter 2, “The Way We Weren’t: The Invisible Years” explores the effect of the institution of the Production Code and censorship of “perversity” in Hollywood films: sissies went underground and homosexuality was treated obliquely. These “Coded” (with all the implications of the pun) gays were inevitably burdened with great anguish and desire for “normalcy.” In a perceptive analysis of TEA AND SYMPATHY, Russo outlines how small but significant changes of the plot to TEA AND SYMPATHY perform ideological contortions to make even these circuitous references to gayness acceptable within the norms of heterosexuality. The Hollywood plot concerned the problem of the ACCUSATION of homosexuality, not the actual presence of it in main character Tom Lee. Thus, a film that could potentially have shown the deleterious effects of homophobia instead resolves the specter of gayness with the improbable—yet much less “frightening” to straight sensibilities—suggestion that all a homosexual man needs is a good woman to “cure” him. This pattern of using narrative plot turns to play down potential gayness was to be used for decades to come.

The loosening of the Code and its effect on treatment of gay and lesbian characters in film is the subject of “Frightening the Horses: Out of the Closets and Into the Shadows.” But the newly visible screen gays in the 1960s are almost always plagued by self-hate, and frighteningly often homosexual characters are victims of suicide or other violent deaths. 1970’s THE BOYS IN THE BAND marked a turning point in representations of gays: not just uni-dimensional, the characters are shown dealing with the negative effects of the media’s portrayal of gays. But, Russo notes that THE BOYS quickly was pigeon-holed as “a gay movie for gay people, and it immediately became both a period piece and a reconfirmation of the stereotypes” (p.177).

The 1970s were characterized by a newly aggressive and vitriolic homophobia, emblematized by CRUISING. As Russo points out in “Struggle: Fear and Loathing in Gay Hollywood,” gays had become the new villains in a series of thrillers and homophobic horror films. Homosexuality was equated, in these films, with something to be feared, something that inevitably produced violence. Television, alternatively, offered a more positive venue for changing representations. Although these TV images still left something to be desired, Russo argues that the weekly programming demands of television fostered an attitude of experimentation which was amenable to trying out something new—something less homophobic—in representations of gays and lesbians.

The final chapter of the book, “Taking the Game Away from Hollywood,” was written for the revised edition and takes account of the over 100 films dealing with or featuring gay characters since the book’s original publication. Even with this increased visibility, Russo writes, “In the popular arts, the topic of homosexuality is [still] preserved as the last taboo; any mention of it onscreen is still considered daring” (p.249). Russo suggests that the best hope for gays and lesbians lies with independent filmmakers, rather than studios that are always worried about offending the status quo and the bottom line. Still, Russo finds there is much to be desired even in the independents. The afterword sums up the book: “Gay visibility has never really been an issue in the movies. Gays have always been visible. It’s HOW they have been visible that has remained offensive for almost a century” (p.325).

For its sheer scope and ambition, THE CELLULOID CLOSET remains today, even seventeen years after its first publication, the definitive title on gay representation in Hollywood. It stands among Molly Haskell’s FROM REVERENCE TO RAPE and Donald Bogle’s TOMS, COONS, MULATTOES, MAMMIES, AND BUCKS, definitive surveys of Hollywood’s oppressive representations of women and blacks, respectively. However, Russo’s project suffers from the same pitfalls as these other ones.

This is a book about REPRESENTATIONS. Russo is ultimately quite persuasive that Hollywood’s representations have been unkind and unfair to gays: Hollywood does not paint an accurate picture of gay life in America. But to make such a claim, Russo is buying into the notion that screen representations somehow correlate directly to reality. In attacking the images that are already there, the implication is that there is a more acceptable image, and thus winning the battle simply means projecting more positive representations of gays on screen.

Russo’s work is buying into the reflectionist theory, whereby critics interpret the representations on screen to correlate to the everyday life of women, blacks, gays, etc. But as Laura Mulvey’s crucial essay, “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema” (1975) shows, movies are never simply about representations themselves—there are other, psychic and more insidious operations of power in a movie than the problem of whether a woman finally decides to settle down and marry the man in screwball comedies, or if the gay character gives in to self-loathing and commits (another) suicide.

This reflectionist logic also collapses real life struggle with reel life struggle: in the context of gay liberation, it seems somehow like putting the cart before the horse to complain of negative Hollywood representations when everyday life for gays is often the object of negativity from the middle American mainstream. As an operation of capital with the bottom line always at the heart of Hollywood interest, we should expect nothing less than for mainstream movies to appeal to popular misconceptions. Does this mean these images are inoffensive? Certainly not. It suggests, however, that the terms of the debate over Hollywood representations needs to be recast.

The screen version of THE CELLULOID CLOSET ironically points out another shortcoming of the book. The film showcases interviews with gay actors Harvey Fierstein and Quentin Crisp, and the discussion of the “sissies” is particularly illuminating. In the book, Russo trashes the Hollywood sissies, pointing out all of their negative and stereotypical implications. In the film, Fierstein readily admits that he loves the sissies, in all their stereotyped glory. Is Fierstein not toeing the politically correct line? Didn’t he read Russo’s dissection of the siss? Doesn’t he know the sissies are part of his oppression as a gay man?

Fierstein’s guilty pleasure in the sissy illustrates the problem with reflectionist arguments. In focusing solely on the representation, the RECEPTION is ignored. In a culture that has historically and continues to be assigned to the prefix “sub,” it is especially important to be attentive to the ways in which screen images—negative on the face of it or not—are appropriated by viewers and interpreted for their own use. To completely dismiss and criticize, as Russo does, Garbo’s portrayal as the heroine in QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933) because she ultimately finds heterosexual love in the dashing Spanish aristocrat (one-time real life lover John Gilbert) is to ignore and lose all of the incredibly subversive power of Garbo’s gender drag and vacillations of sexuality. Christina—in masculine trousers and boots, and even a sword—tells the pouting lady-in-waiting Ebba that they will spend three days in the country completely alone; the lesbian implications are barely coded and can be quite pleasurable if the viewer doesn’t invest all of the film’s meanings in the expressly stated. Indeed, when Christina tenderly takes Ebba’s face in her hands and kisses her on the mouth, the homoerotic connotations are much more powerful than, for example, the non-eroticism between the openly gay—and supposedly “positive”-characters in PHILADELPHIA. These lovers who are the focus of the film do not even kiss; lead actor Tom Hanks says-and apparently without any irony—it is much more erotic and loving to show them only dancing. The heterosexist caution employed in PHILADELPHIA makes this supposedly liberated film much less homoerotic than QUEEN CHRISTINA, even if the former is a “gay” story and the latter a “straight” one.

In this study, Russo completely ignores the viewer and cedes all power of meaning-making to Hollywood and the question of “intent” which gets us nowhere. So what if the filmmakers “intended” that Michael York in CABARET was “really” heterosexual, not gay or even bisexual? Even knowing this tidbit does not evacuate the film of its frank and refreshing portrayal of homosexual relationships. If we believe Russo that because the filmmakers INTENDED York not to be “really gay” the film is therefore ultimately gay-negative, then it follows that BEN HUR (1956) does not have strong homoerotic undertones because actor Charlton Heston steadfastly refuses to admit that his character Judah Ben Hur ever had a love relationship with Messala. Similarly, by Russo’s logic, the homoerotic implications of Ben Hur and Messala’s relationship ONLY become accessible when writer Gore Vidal tells us that the gay intent was specifically written into Messala’s character. We have a story here of two “intents” at odds with each other: Heston’s and Vidal’s. Which one ultimately decides whether the reunion scene between Ben Hur and Messala is homoerotic? I would argue NEITHER; there are viewers who would immediately access the gay subtext and those who, like Heston, would refuse to see it. Meanings do not wholly reside in intent or Hollywood.

In spite of these critical oversights, however, THE CELLULOID CLOSET stands alone in its project. And, it is admittedly essential work to engage in reflectionist criticism: the history of the highly productive feminist film criticism shows that getting angry about screen shortcomings is the first step in producing more critical work representations and issues of power. The influential contributions to film theory by queer theorists suggests that as a first step, Russo’s CELLULOID CLOSET has had a crucial impact on film theory. The newer queer scholarship has in many ways rejected the simple equations of real and reel in reflectionist work. But THE CELLULOID CLOSET has been instrumental in finally and definitively iterating that the question of gays and lesbians on screen is not to be ignored. He ends his 1987 afterword with a query as to where the scholarship is that further interrogates gayness and Hollywood. By 1998, queer criticism in film has already matured and has had a profound impact on film and television studies. For all of the book’s shortcomings and retrospective naiveté, THE CELLULOID CLOSET was and still is groundbreaking and eye-opening.


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