1:55 PM |
21 Things I Learned From 'The Celluloid Closet'
How many times have I seen Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's The Celluloid Closet (1995)? I've lost count. It has become my bible of sorts when it comes to understanding gay representation in cinema, and part of its appeal is the sober and intelligent narration by the great Lily Tomlin, whose voice provides a kind of authority that could only come from somebody who has known the Hollywood tango with gay identity.
The seminal documentary, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, deserves a place in the pantheon of gay studies -- just like the book by Vito Russo which inspired its making.
The film begins promisingly with a clip from an old movie where an orchestra is in progress, the bandleader all jazzed up as well-dressed patrons start getting up to dance. We see a couple -- a man and a woman -- dancing close by. And suddenly, a man cuts in, and asks to dance. The woman replies, "Why, certainly!" -- only to find the man go about dancing with the other man. And the bandleader barely blinks, and then broadly smiles and exclaims: "Boys will be boys!"
I've always loved that starting clip, and that line. Because the documentary above all is about identity, and how that identity has been shaped by a powerful medium in popular culture -- and yet gay men and women have somehow managed to stage a slow revolution occurring only in the last two or three decades in order to change the lens of that medium to afford the LGBT a more positive representation.
So what I have learned from the film?
1. I like the thesis Lily Tomlin intones at the very beginning, because of the weight of its truth: “In the hundred years of movies, homosexuality has only rarely ben depicted on the screen...
“... When it did appear, it was there as something to laugh at...
“.. or something to pity...
“... or even something to fear....
“These were fleeting images, but they were unforgettable, and they left a lasting legacy...
“Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people...
“... and gay people what to think about themselves. No one escaped its influence.”
2. The earliest “gay” image in film is reportedly a scene of two men dancing in a clutch in an 1895 experimental silent film made by Thomas Alva Edison.
3. Homosexuality in early American silent films became a sure-fire source for humour, and was used with much frequency.
4. The movies taught us how to perceive what is "gay." Film historian Richard Dyer says: “Your ideas of who you are don’t just come from inside you. They also come from the culture. And in this culture, they most especially come from the movies, so we learn from the movies what it means to be a man or a woman, what it means to have sexuality. The movies did provide us with some kind of history — all that society thought homosexuals were. A very good example is the Chaplin film Behind the Screen (1916). There’s an extraordinary moment where Chaplin kisses someone who looks like a man...
“...He knows it’s a woman. And someone else comes along and sees it and immediately starts swishing around in an overt, effeminate way. It’s a fascinating that those stereotypes were so completely in place that a mainstream popular film could assume that the audience could know what this swishy mime was all about.”
5. The “sissy” is Hollywood’s first gay stock character. Lily Tomlin narrates: “The sissy made everyone feel more manly or more womanly by occupying the space in-between. He didn’t seem to have a sexuality, so Hollywood allowed him to thrive.”
The Gay Divorcee (1934)
6. Hollywood’s first depiction of a gay bar is in a 1932 film titled Call Her Savage. Here, a bunch of "sissies" hop from one table to the next, singing and entertaining the gay crowd.
7. From the very beginning, there has always been a double-standard in the reception of men and women acting out of their expected gender roles. As opposed to the laughter that men in drag brought, women in drag — like Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930) — were somehow taken as images of exotic erotic power. Stewart Stern, screenwriter of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), explains the allure: “She was doing it to turn on both the woman and the man, which appealed to everybody.”
8. The general raunchiness (sex! violence!) that attended film in the 1920s and 1930s soon led to a massive conservative backlash led by the Catholic Church, and it finally forced Hollywood to start censoring the industry. William Hayes was hired to enforce the so-called Hayes Code, or the Hollywood Production Code, which restricted from the screen open-mouthed kissing, lustful embraces, seduction, rape, abortion, prostitution and white slavery, nudity, obscenity, and sex perversion. Being gay was, of course, considered a “sex perversion,” and thus outright depictions of it were prohibited. The overseers of the Production Code was allowed to change storylines: The Lost Weekend (1945), a film about a sexually-confused alcoholic, became a story of an alcoholic with writer’s block, and Crossfire (1947), a film originally about gay-bashing and murder, became about a film anti-semitism and murder.
9. The Production Code didn’t completely erase the homosexual from the screen. That would be impossible. The Code only forced filmmakers to hide gay men and women in ingenious ways, and mostly as cold-hearted villains.
Gay men became killers...
Dracula's Daughter (1936)
And lesbians became vampires preying on young girls...
... or housekeepers “terrorising” new and naive mistresses of the manor...
... or prison guards manipulating the fates of female prisoners...
Young Man With a Horn (1950)
... or wives who willingly break their poor cuckolded husbands’ hearts …
10. Beyond the obvious use for villainy, Hollywood films "codified" gay men and women in certain ways -- the use of music [usually lilting, vaguely oriental musical cues to signal the entrance of a character to be read as gay, like Peter Lorre's in The Maltese Falcon], the use of song (see my previous post about Doris Day singing "Secret Love" in Calamity Jane), the use of dialogue (the gun scene in Red River, below, is one of the best gay "love scenes" ever depicted on film, and they do it only through dialogue and allusions)...
... the use of gestures...
Peter Lorre playing with his cane suggestively in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
... the use of costume...
Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge "hating" each other in cowboy clothes in Johnny Guitar (1954)
... the use of props...
Sal Mineo opens a locker with a picture of Alan Ladd inside in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
... All that could clearly indicate to the knowing audience that a certain character is gay or can be read in a gay way, although the film does not explicitly state it. Gay subtext is everything. (See my previous post on that, using Ben-Hur.)
Here's another example. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), a gym full of muscular and handsome bodybuilders have no interest at all in Jane Russell, even as she walks sexily about asking if "Anyone Here for Love?"
11. Some films, like Tea and Sympathy (1956), tackle homosexuality head-on, but treat it as something that can be managed or cured. There's a funny -- but ultimately heartbreaking -- scene in the film where the boy, whose behaviour has been deemed highly "suspicious," takes lessons from a friend on how to act more manly.
12. Rock Hudson had a small run of movies where he, a real-life gay man pretending to be a straight actor in Hollywood, played straight characters pretending to be gay in order to get the girl.
13. But the heavy censorship that was brought on the Production Code for the most part ruined many Hollywood movies’ chances to depict the full humanity of gay people, as well as the complexities of their stories, like in Spartacus (1960), or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), or Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), where the characters couldn’t utter the word “gay,” leading to muddled screenplays where the words are going for one thing -- the gayness of the individual and the drama it has caused -- but never quite arriving at the destination
The censored "snails and oysters" scene in Spartacus (1960)
Injured Paul Newman cannot exactly define his true relationship with this "best friend" to his father in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Elizabeth Taylor cannot exactly tell what she meant that she was a "procurer" of boys for her cousin in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
14. In Victim (1961), British actor Dirk Bogarde, whose celebrity was stellar at the height of his career, embodies the screen’s first gay hero.
15. By the late 1960s and into the 1970s, breaking taboos became the norm of filmmakers, and all the previously censored subjects under the Hollywood Production Code were now being embraced -- except, alas, depictions of gayness, which is still considered “sexual perversion.”
16. Continuing a long tradition starting in the late 1930s, gay men and women in film -- characters of questionable sexuality -- would have to meet a nasty end, often death in the last reel. They have to "pay" for being gay.
Death by gunfire in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Death by gunfire in Walk on the Wild Side (1962)
Death by strangulation in The Detective (1968)
Death by arrow in Dracula's Daughter (1936)
Death by stabbing in Caged (1950)
Death by disembowelment and cannibalism in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
Death by fire in Rebecca (1940)
Death by a falling tree in The Fox (1968)
Death by repeated gunshots in Freebie and the Bean (1974)
Death by suicide in The Children's Hour (1962)
17. And then a breakthrough happened. The Boys in the Band (1970) provided a refreshing sea change, which is encapsulated in a line by one of its characters: “Not all faggots bump themselves off at the end of the story!” A self-reflexive depiction of gayness came to being, and as Lily Tomlin narrates: “Hollywood [finally] made a movie where gay men took a long hard look at their own lives, and in a refreshing twist, they all survived.”
18. Even with that bright spot in the cinematic treatment of gay lives, the depictions of gay men and women after 1970 were still mired in being objects of hate and ridicule.
The "sorry-looking faggot" retorts: "Honey, I'm more man than you will ever be, and more woman that you will ever get" in Car Wash (1976)
How you "sink even lower" in Night Shift (1982)
In Teen Wolf (1985), for example, Michael J. Fox’s character would rather be a murderous werewolf than admit to being a “fag.”
The use of “faggot” or “queer” as slurs in cinema are plentiful, in direct opposition to the current usage of the "n" word.
As Making Love screenwriter Barry Sandler notes: “You become either enured to it, or conditioned to accept it. And it becomes the prevailing attitude, it becomes the way people perceive gay people.”
19. By some miracle, Making Love (1982) became the first studio film to treat homosexual love with a wide degree of respect.
But were still inclined to include a caveat in the very beginning of the film:
20. While Making Love was a box office failure (and also ruined the careers of the actors who made it), the tide couldn't be stopped anymore. There was now growing complexity in characterisation of gay lives, and it started appearing films like Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), Midnight Express (1978), Personal Best (1982), The Hunger (1983), and The Color Purple (1985), — although these films also demonstrate that mainstream audiences find it more acceptable to see two women being affectionate with each other than two men. Compare the deadly endings of Thelma and Louise (1991), where the titular characters kiss before they plunged willingly to their deaths, and the absence of such a notion in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). The kiss becomes the ultimate battlefield -- all right between women, but never between men.
21. While some glossing over still existed -- Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) did itself a disservice by shirking from making its main characters lesbian when the narrative itself demanded that they are -- the “long silence [was] finally ending” with 1990s invasion of filmmakers now collectively called New Queer Cinema plus their allies -- in seminal films like Long Time Companion (1990), My Own Private Idaho (1991), Poison (1991), Edward II (1991), The Living End (1992), The Crying Game (1992), Swoon (1992), The Hours and Times (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993), Go Fish (1994), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Boys on the Side (1995), To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), In and Out (1997), and Boys Don’t Cry (1999) -- “new voices that emerged that [were] open and unapologetic,” says Lily Tomlin -- although precursors could already be seen in films like Lianna (1983), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Desert Hearts (1985), Parting Glances (1986), Mala Noche (1986), and Torch Song Trilogy (1988).