The love affair between gay people and the movies is a long and paradoxical one, as Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's new movie, The Celluloid Closet, poignantly demonstrates. Movies have long been the core of America's dream culture — our national collective consciousness, to the alarmingly slight degree we have one. As actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein says early on in one of the picture's talking-head interviews, he, like so many other people, learned about life at the movies: how to dress, how to act, what to say.
Despite Fierstein's love for movies, his revelation is depressing, not least because the one thing neither he nor anyone else learned from the movies was how to be gay: how to recognize and accept a minority sexual identity and fit that unusual fact into one's life without becoming an alcoholic or being arrested in the bushes or committing suicide. Epstein and Friedman cover a century of gay and lesbian images in movies, almost all of which, if not censored altogether, are caricatures of sickness or evil or pathos.
Yet gay audiences are among the most tirelessly loyal and hopeful of movie devotees, paying to watch year after year of idiotic or abusive dreck in hopes of feeding on what writer Susie Bright calls “crumbs” of subtext — little clues in dialogue or gesture or facial expression that say indirectly what for many years could not be said directly.
The movie (based on the late Vito Russo's 1981 book) consists of interviews with Hollywood figures of various shapes and sizes — Susan Sarandon, Gore Vidal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Tom Hanks, among others — that alternate with illustrative clips narrated by Lily Tomlin. One of the first of these clips is the famous little scene, filmed by Thomas Edison in 1895, of two men dancing together while a third plays the fiddle. Despite the jerkiness of movement and the muddy lighting, the brief passage gives a glimpse of unself-conscious same-sex affection.
But it's downhill from there, into a long, shallow valley of swishy queens and bull dykes in men's suits, cavorting at the edges of the Jazz Age. Even these images were snuffed in the 1930s, when Catholic bishops, their noses out of joint about “sexual perversion,” established the League of Decency to frighten decadent moviemakers into cleaning up their acts.
Epstein and Friedman seem to be aiming at an amused outrage about the decline from cheap mockery to outright (if half-witted) censorship, but the real effect of The Celluloid Closet on this point is to illuminate, from a particularly unflattering angle, the fierce superstitiousness that has long dominated American life — the incessant conjuring of enemies, the moralizing, the dread of life's glorious mess, including that truly unmentionable perversion: men kissing.
That was and remains the greatest taboo of all. No one particularly cares if women get it on, as Susan Sarandon explains, because the sight of two women kissing doesn't threaten straight men and might even titillate them, and straight men, she says, “drive the industry.” (Epstein and Friedman include scenes from Sarandon's famous — and lovely — love scene with Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger.)
But if a man should attempt to kiss another man, as Jeff Bridges did to George Kennedy in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, then of course the only proper response is, “I'll kill you for that!” Men are permitted to demonstrate affection for each other only through violence. When John Ireland and Montgomery Clift admiringly compare guns in Red River, it's perfectly clear that the filmmakers are teasing censors and sensibilities with an extended inside joke — but the longing expressed through belligerent competition is also distressingly true. American men connect through violence, whether trading shots at a tin can or screaming for blood at a hockey game.
On the other hand, tenderness is weakness is feminine — and intolerable. “There's no sin like being a woman,” says the ancient queen Quentin Crisp (who looks, with his long, frizzy gray hair, like a retired British nanny).
The film's portrait of male nuttiness about sexuality is deft — often funny (there's an extended riff on the movies' casual love of the words “faggot” and “queer”), sometimes sad, always true. And, in the end, exhausting. Movies may help shape the culture, but mostly they reflect it, and what they reflect most clearly in The Celluloid Closet is our society's wild irrationality about homosexuality and homosexual people.
Ironically, it's from Britain — not exactly a hotbed of libertinism — that movies with fresher and truer pictures of gay lives have emerged over the years. In Victim (1961), Dirk Bogarde plays a hero who is also frankly gay. And John Schlesinger's Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971) presents an omnisexual romantic triangle (a young man having affairs with both an older woman and an older man) as a study in human connection and frailty, rather than as a morality play requiring final punishment for deviant sex.
So it can be done — but by Hollywood? Closet's artful review of homosexuality in movies is pretty discouraging, but then Hollywood movies' images of heterosexuality are often equally unreal. If, as Fierstein suggests, people learn how to live from the movies, then it's not really surprising that half of American marriages end in divorce. For most people there will never be a gorgeous violin soundtrack to enhance their sexual encounters; and most people will find that having sex in a bathtub, or in crashing surf, is more difficult and less satisfying than it appears on the big screen. They will have to accept that most of the people who will have them are not as attractive as the movie stars they swoon over. They will have to settle for less.
Epstein and Friedman strike a few hopeful notes at the end, with the Michael Ontkean-Harry Hamlin kiss from Making Love (1982) and the Tom Hanks-Antonio Banderas dance from Philadelphia (1993) — modest proof that progress is possible. But the movie is linked to bigger, and darker, themes than it acknowledges: the delusional addictiveness of movies in a rich-and-famous society that promises what, increasingly, it can't deliver; the profound and unshakable religious roots of American attitudes about sex, the body, life itself. The celluloid closet is but one small nook in a dank temple whose creepiness awaits further and more sweeping exploration.
The Celluloid Closet opens Thurs, March 14, at the Castro in