The Celluloid Closet

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The representation of homosexuals in mainstream Hollywood pictures has been dubious at best. But they are there, even if in truncated forms that involve a certain knowledge of the world in order to find them. The Celluloid Closet is documentary from the mid nineties that celebrates the roles that homosexuals play in the movies. Filled to brim with talking heads and clips from dozens of other movies, this is a good primer for anyone interested in this subject.

The role of the homosexual in film can be traced all the way back to a short Edison movie from the turn of the last century. In this short, we get a glimpse at two men dancing together. There is no harmful or funny connotation, it just is what you see on the screen. However it didn’t take long before homosexuals were put into two categories: the sissy and the harmful deviant. In a Charlie Chaplin short, he is caught kissing a woman disguised as a man. Although Chaplin knows that he is experiencing heterosexual love, no one else does. The man who catches him is a tall and big man with a manly stature. Once Chaplin becomes aware that this man has caught him, the man prances around the screen. This is played for comedic effect and is one of the first examples of a sissy. These men would appear as the best friend of the protagonist and bumble their way through the story, creating comic relief. There would be no hint at his preference for men or even that he was particularly smart. He was just there to liven up the screen when the action has become too plot based. The other path a homosexual character could go down is to be too oversexed. These characters showed up in harsh dramas. They were obviously lost young men and women whose need for preferring the company of the same-sex made them at odds with the protagonist. Their fate of these characters is almost always death, usually self-inflicted. These stereotypes continued as the film world evolved and still happen today in a more evolved fashion.

Talking about homosexuality outside of these two stereotypes was at one time considered wrong and awful. But never underestimate the enlightened screenwriter, actor or director. References to homosexuality by hetereosexual characters in mainstream movies isn’t hard to find. You just have to find them. In an interview with Gore Vidal, he talks about his experience re-writing Ben-Hur for William Wyler. One of the problems he encountered during his re-writes is the lack of motivation behind the animosity between Ben-Hur and Messala. Vidal goes to Wyler and tells him that Ben-Hur and Messala were lovers when they young. But now Ben-Hur refuses to acknowledge the affair although Messala is still clearly in love with him. This being 1959, Vidal tells Wyler that there will be no dialogue written about the fact they were lovers, but instead would be all subtext. Wyler then tells Vidal that although he think it will work, he couldn’t tell Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur) because he would freak out. Instead Wyler tells just the man playing Messala about the past affair, not Heston. This results in tense scenes between Messala and Ben-Hur where Messala is giving him loving eyes and Ben-Hur is not returning them. This antidote is indicative of the type of references people would put in to movies. Everything would not be overt, but if you knew what you were looking for, the references would be obvious.

As the film worked its way to the present day (which is 1995 by the way), a problem with the film started to emerge for me. Basically everyone is praising the straight men who chose to “stretch” themselves by playing a homosexual. The directors gave these straight men a platform in which to pat themselves on the back. Since 1995, this has become a troubling trend in Hollywood. If you are going to play a homosexual in a Hollywood film, you are instantly nominated for an Oscar. The film world praises them for being able to go so far out of their range to play a historical homosexual or an over the top fictional one. Instead of giving these roles to homosexual actors and actresses who could probably bring some real life experiences to the material in order to inform and humanize the character, we give these meaty roles to heterosexual men and women. The more major point here would be that we need to give more jobs homosexual people behind the camera, then maybe we will see more homosexual people in front of it. I think this is the only way we will be able to see well-rounded homosexual characters. I will now get off of my soap box.

This film would be good start for anyone who wants to know more about this issue. However I had known and researched this trend in Hollywood, so the film felt too much at times like it is a well tread path. The directors don’t try to dig too deep or seem to offend anyone watching the film. Therefore you get witty remarks and shallow recollections of ideas that have been brought up before. So if you have a passing knowledge of this section of film history, I would suggest skipping it.

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One thought on “The Celluloid Closet

  1. In theory the idea of a doco about homosexual portrayal onscreen is a really interesting one. This does not sound particularly great though.

    Totally agree with what you are saying about the commending of straight actors who ‘stretch’ themselves by playing gay characters being lauded unnecessarily. On a related note, I have been reading a lot of criticism from the trans community about Leto in Dallas Buyer’s Club.

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