The Celluloid Closet (directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, 1995)
Based on Vito Russo’s exhaustive study of the same name of LGBT images on screen that date as far back as the early Edison experimental films in the late 1800s through the dawn of New Queer Cinema in the early 1990s, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s 1995 documentary should be required viewing for, well, everyone. Lily Tomlin narrates the film, which juxtaposes scenes from dozens of movies with talking head interviews featuring queer luminaries and Hollywood trailblazers. Whoopi Goldberg, Tom Hanks, Quentin Crisp, Susan Sarandon, Tony Curtis, and lesbian sexpert Susie Bright weigh in on their experiences with LGBT images back when viewers had to mostly read between the lines. But the film is worth the price of admission alone for Gore Vidal’s delicious spilling of the tea on the making of Ben-Hur and how he and actor Stephen Boyd pulled the wool over ultraconservative Charlton Heston’s eyes.
As a lesbian who came out and of age in the ’80s, I wasn’t accustomed to seeing overt representation in movies or on television. By the time the ’80s ended I was an expert on naming films with queer characters — at least in that decade. Maurice, Another Country, The Hunger, Entre Nous, Personal Best … I knew them all. Surely, the early ’90s was a watershed era for LGBT images on screen, and The Celluloid Closet became an endlessly fascinating, entertaining guide to a secret world I hadn’t realized existed. I was living in New Jersey, waitressing at a seafood restaurant just 40 minutes from New York City when The Celluloid Closet was released. I had just started dating another waitress there. One mid-week day after our lunch shift she drove us in her beat-up sports car (a Z-28 or something terrific like that) into the city to a classic old theater in Greenwich Village. The date was wildly romantic in its way, and while that relationship didn’t last for long, I would remain forever transfixed by the world that The Celluloid Closet opened up to me. It was the first I’d learned of Hollywood’s restrictive Hays Code, censorship that made it nearly impossible to depict overt homosexuality on screen. In the decades since that wild ride into the Village to watch — gasp — a queer film, The Celluloid Closet would become a touchstone for me as a film theory student and as a writer for LGBT publications. —Tracy E. Gilchrist