Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Celluloid Closet


Norman and I, being long time veterans of the Hollywood scene, have seen a lot of changes over the course of our film careers. When we started in pictures, the Hays code was very much a part of the business. Joe Breen and his army of censorious gnomes would arrive and blue pencil anything they thought might be immoral or indecent. For instance, when I made my famous comedy, The Velveteen Rabbit Test , we weren’t allowed to use the word "pregnant" or even “expecting’; I had “a delicate condition”, as if such a normal human function were something to be feared and from which the audience must be protected. As Yip Harburg once said, ‘Though the movie censors tried the facts to hide, the moviegoers upped and multiplied”.

Under the Hollywood production code, almost anything that smacked of human sexuality was considered taboo; the one exception being the glamorous longing looks and chaste kisses of conventional Hollywood romance. For an industry that was essentially founded on selling sex and romance to the masses, it was quite circumspect in its approach to those subjects. Some of this was economic - Hollywood feared organized boycotts by the 'Family Values' crowd of the day. Some of this was socio-political - the majority of the studio moguls of the golden age were Jewish and wanted to keep a low profile in the wake of the anti-Semitism sweeping the world at that time. Some of this was artistic - society was reeling from the depression and World War II and the excesses of the 1920s were considered passé.

Hollywood was no stranger to gay or lesbian individuals. Being a community of artists, behavior outside of the mainstream was tolerated as long as you did your work well. Everyone knew about George Cukor's special parties, Rock Hudson's swimming pool brunches, Marjorie Main's girlfriends, and the like. They even knew about the time Tallulah and I and Norman committed an indiscretion in the back of a taxi with that belly dancer from Karbala, but the dream factory's publicity machine kept it out of the public eye.

In the late 70s, a film scholar named Vito Russo began to question the images of gay and lesbian life that had appeared out of Hollywood over the years. He was interested in how a community with many gay and lesbian artists might have gotten their messages across to their brothers and sisters under the Hays code; how the images that were there influenced American society and were in turn influenced by it; and, how the emerging gay community was able to use Hollywood as a means of providing an identification across a far flung population. The result was his book, The Celluloid Closet , the first serious scholarly look at homosexuality in the movies and one of the seminal literary works for a growing gay/lesbian movement.

Lily Tomlin, a lesbian in a long-term relationship with her writing partner, Jane Wagner, was a huge fan of the book. She conceived the idea of turning it into a documentary film, feeling that seeing the actual film images themselves could tell America more about their lives and attitudes than the words. No one was interested in funding such a project and she and Jane worked tirelessly to gather small donations over many years. Eventually, HBO films agreed to provide the funding to get the project off the ground. Acclaimed documentarians Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were brought in to assemble the film while Lily provided the narration. The resulting film was shown on HBO and is available on home video under the same title as Russo's original book, The Celluloid Closet.

The film is put together in a roughly chronological order from early silents (dating back to an 1895 Thomas Edison clip of two men dancing together) through the modern day. Talking heads, commenting on the film world and on specific movie scenes punctuate the clips. These include screenwriters (Paul Rudnick, Arthur Laurents, Jay Presson Allen), performers who have played prominent gay or lesbian parts (Susan Sarandon, Tom Hanks, Farley Granger), gay/lesbian thinkers (Susie Bright, Armistead Maupin, Gore Vidal) and others. There are discussions of the different types of stock characters (the sissy, the butch), how Hollywood managed to slip references past the censors, and how social attitudes of the time affected film construction. The gay and lesbian subtext of films as diverse as The Maltese Falcon, Red River, Ben-Hur and Rebecca are shown and analyzed.

There are sections showing how films reinforce societal homophobia, especially amongst young men. There are looks at the politics of cross dressing and how a man who dresses as a woman loses status and power and is a figure of fun, but a woman who takes on male attributes is dangerous and a threat. The film ends with a kaleidoscope of more modern and enlightened film images celebrating a growing awareness of the part the gay and lesbian community has to play in the wonderful tapestry that is America.

The film is important viewing for both gay and straight audiences as it shows how powerful images can be. Movies are where our culture learns how to act and what it means to be this or that sort of person - and they are more or less permanent images, frozen in their own time as ours marches on. The LGBT community will learn much about where they come from and why societal attitudes exist. The straight community will learn that the LGBT community is just as human as any other minority.

The film gives me an uplifting feeling at the incredible diversity of human nature. At the same time, I look at modern film and wonder if we too, in our more enlightened era, aren't falling into some of the same traps as in the past. The LGBT community will have to be vigilant or it will be trapped in a new round of stereotypes - the gay best friend of the heroine, the wise but tragic drag queen, and the militant Birkenstock wearing lesbian. The LGBT community is as diverse internally as the straight community and society, as a whole, is responsible for seeing that this is accurately and fairly represented in entertainment, especially in film - the mirror of our desires.

Much too important for the usual closing ephemera.

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