The Celluloid Closet – A brief primer on the history of Queer Cinema

The Celluloid Closet (1995, Epstein and Friedman) demystifies the belief, propagated by cinema, that homosexuality manifests as a psychological disorder or behavior engaged in by perverse criminals. Based on the pioneering work of Vito Russo, the film documents the representation of homosexuality onscreen through both cruel stereotypes and the exclusion of authentic images of the LGBT community.

Pre-code films reflected the homophobic attitudes of contemporary society by employing caricatures such as the “The Sissy”. With the advent of the Hayes Code, comic stereotypes of gays disappeared, but the suggestion of homosexuality persisted through doomed villains or the mentally ill.

Screenwriters and directors learned to bypass censorship by forging complex subtexts. The sophistication of the writing demanded more of actors forced to convey unspoken emotion such as Montgomery Cliff and John Ireland’s shooting competition in, Red River (Hawks, 1948).

Movies like, The Boys in the Band (Freidkin, 1970), allowed the emergence of gay characters who reconciled their sexuality without apology, but filmmakers Epstein and Friedman downplay the fact that studios still hired patriarchal directors such as William Friedkin to helm these projects.

Interviews with prominent gay artists such as Armistead Maupin testify to intense psychological damage incurred by those raised on a steady diet of negative images of the tragic homosexual. These soul-baring admissions remind us that for men and women persecuted by society, no sanctuary exist for those who desire to live openly.

Unfortunately, the film fails to take into account trailblazing gay cinema from outside the United States. Funeral Parade of Roses (Matsumoto, 1969), features an all-gay cast and revolves around the world of Japanese gay bars. Fox and His Friends (Fassbinder, 1975) follows the tribulations of an openly gay man and his exploitive relationships. Although disappointing, the omission of world cinema further illustrates how American puritanical society influenced Hollywood.

The Celluloid Closet (1995, Epstein and Friedman), celebrates homosexuality’s inconspicuous role throughout the history of cinema and its deserved move to the center stage of films. While narrow in scope, Epstein and Friedman’s movie proves a fitting tribute to those marginalized for their sexuality.

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