Film Scouts Reviews

"The Celluloid Closet"

by Henri Béhar

In such Academy Award-winning films as "The Times of Harvey Milk" and "Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt", documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have been instrumental in bringing gay themes, and gay history, to mainstream audiences, both with a solid dose of humor and compassion and without any compromise. No wonder, the early 1990s celebrating the centennial of cinema, their new work, inspired by the late Vito Russo's "The Celluloid Closet" uncovers one hundred years of gays and lesbians as depicted by Hollywood movies, "from the humorous to the heinous to the heart-rending" as David Rooney put it in "Variety".

From the two men dancing in a Thomas Edison 1895 clip ("The Gay Brothers", directed by William Dickson) to Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas in an almost identical shot from "Philadelphia", the viewer, guided by Lily Tomlin's sweetly acid narration, treks through representations of the effeminate sissy (the first gay stereotype); the transvestites--Fatty Arbuckle and Charles Chaplin dressed as women for comedy purposes; the troubling women in drag epitomized by a tuxedoed Marlene Dietrich in "Morocco" and Greta Garbo's Queen Christina; the advent of the Hays code that relegated gays and lesbians between the lines (Judith Anderson in "Rebecca" or "Dracula's Daughter") till it almost became too easy a game to detect them: Lauren Bacall in "Young Man With a Horn", Tony Curtis and Laurence Olivier in a deleted (recently restored) scene from Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus"; Stephen Boyd's fiercely seductive eyelash-batting toward a blissfully unaware Charlton "Ben Hur" Heston; the not-so-latent homosexual rapport between Sal Mineo and James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause", then the first above-board kisses between men (Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean in "Making Love", Peter Finch and Murray Head in "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"...

If early on, women in drag were deliciously troubling ("wicked" our grandmothers might say) and effete men used for comedy, they were soon to be doomed (Don Murray in "Advise and Consent", Shirley MacLaine in "The Children's Hour") or demonized("Looking for Mr. Goodbar", "Cruising")... Epstein and Friedman make their case with flying colors: attentive to the slightest nuance, choosing their clips impeccably and assembling them with uncanny precision, illuminating them with incisive and funny interviews (check Gore Vidal on "Ben Hur"), they have made a film that is, in equal measures, immensely entertaining and incredibly enlightening.

THE CELLULOID CLOSET Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Production Company: Telling Pictures Inc. Executive Producers: Howard Rosenman, Bernie Brillstein, Brad Grey. Producers: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman. Screenplay: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Sharon Woo, Armistead Maupin, based on the book by Vito Russo. Cinematographer: Nancy Schreiber. Editor: Jeffrey Friedmdan, Arnold Glassman. Production Designer: Scott Chambliss. Sound: Peggy Names, Lauretta Molitor. Music: Carter Burwell, k.d. lang. Narrator: Lily Tomlin. Running time: 102 minutes

INTERVIEWS WITH: Tom Hanks, Shirley McLaine, Susan Sarandon, Whoopi Goldbeerg, Tony Curtis, Gore Vidal.

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