The Celluloid Closet (1995) (R)

Rob Epstein's heart is never far away from the LGBT community. In the 80s, he won an Oscar for his work on "The Times of Harvey Milk" and in the 90s, he stirred the pot again by looking back on the film industry's history and searching for gay characters who might have snuck in under the censoring radar. Along with co-director Jeffrey Friedman, Epstein pulls in actors and producers who have worked on some of the game-changing movies that Hollywood has allowed since the age of film making.
One of the earliest experimental films that was shot by Thomas Edison depicts two men dancing to music, cheek-to-cheek as it were. Then we jerk forward to the 20s where homosexuality was never properly addressed by we begin to see the appearance of such figures as "the sissy" and the woman who dresses in men's clothing. Now to the carefree observer, these scenes might not come across as the beginning of any gay figures in cinema, but to the repressed and very often represented homosexual (which most of the interviewees are) these scenes speak volumes.
We watch as the progression of the gay character becomes more and more bold up to the 30s, and then censorship kicks in. From the 30s to the 60s, we get nothing, or at least, we almost get nothing. Film makers were still smart and screenwriters who wanted gay characters put into their movies would find ways to write around the issues and let the ambiguity speak for itself.
From Tony Curtis to Whoopi Goldberg, the movies ranging from "Wings" (picture above, the first Best Picture Winner" to "Red River"; "The Celluloid Closet" isn't a perfect documentary, but it is as fun as it can be given the source material.
As the humor is taken out of the situation and the gay character is no longer seen as a source of cheap laughs, movies began to villain-ize the homosexual character and we get such creations as "Rebecca" and "Rope", both Hitchcock movies. Interestingly enough the film doesn't address certain movies that I would have thought to be a dead giveaway like "Top Hat" and "Strangers on a Train"—Hitchcock again.
"The Celluloid Closet" seems to be focusing mainly on the biggest hits that you might have heard of and the stories behind them. The most interesting of these is Gore Vidal's story about "Ben-Hur" and the gay romance that lies beneath the surface of that film. But for all its attempts and grand gestures, "The Celluloid Closet" isn't a complete success because it ignores vast works that have gone on to become classics in their own right like "Scorpio Rising" or "Tongues Untied". These underground works perhaps illustrate the film's point: you shouldn't have to look too far to find a gay character in any movie or show and they shouldn't be objectified. We shouldn't have butch lesbians who prey on the virginal or sissy queers who are just out for cheap sex. Yes, we shouldn't have to look far to find honest, homosexual characters, but the film is ignoring the people who risked whatever careers they had to make these smaller films...I digress.
"The Celluloid Closet" isn't as extensive as it could have been and has an air of finality to it, as if this was the nail in the coffin and the final word to everything that has been made. Part of me wishes this weren't so because remarkable changes were made to cinema in the decade following "The Celluloid Closet's" opening such as "Brokeback Mountain" (there is still soreness that this movie didn't win the Best Picture Oscar) or the decade after that where the explosion of indie filmmaking gave us more and more vibrant, gay characters in movies like "I Killed My Mother", "Weekend", or "Blue is the Warmest Color".
The progression of the homosexual character is viewed quite intensely and that's the movie's downfall. It hasn't aged well so at the end, we are left wanting more. This documentary could use an updated version.
For what it is, I appreciate it and think it does a wonderful job; but by today's standards it's only educational, never emotional, though very enjoyable.

Score: ★★★

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