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"The Celluloid Closet" "See This!" - by Andrew Llewellyn (New Zealand)

From the Web 1.0 days I bring you The Forum. To preserve them for posterity as Geocities can no longer be found but also it's fun to re-read some of them.

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9th April, 2001

The Celluloid Closet

USA 1995
Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
With: Tom Hanks, Tony Curtis, Gore Vidal, Susan Sarandon, et al. Narrated by Lily Tomlin
Running length: 1 hour 42 minutes

Ever see Howard Hawk's classic western Red River? Did you guffaw when John Ireland asks Monty Clift if he can see his "fancy gun" and offers to show him his?

How about Ben Hur? What exactly was it Messala (Stephen Boyd) wanted from Hur (Charlton Heston)? Specifically, what, that involved so much eyelash batting....?

Or Spartacus? Do you prefer snails or oysters? Or both?

The Celluloid Closet is basically a string of clips from movies both famous & obscure, linked by talking heads (also both famous & obscure). I love documentaries with clips from movies. I get a buzz seeing how many I know. Let me take this opportunity to digress & heartily recommend Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography, which presents the most amazing scenes from over 100 movies while discussing the art of the cinematographer - it rocks, breathtakingly. The Celluloid Closet takes the same approach to a different subject - the portrayal of gay characters in the movies from the inception of cinema, till around about the present day.

Narrated by Lily Tomlin, starting from the very earliest days of cinema with an experimental short from the (Thomas) Edison studio, of two men dancing, comically entitled The Gay Brothers (I'm contacting Ripley's Believe It Or Not people right away), the film takes us through, in roughly chronological order, the evolution of gay depiction. And it generally ain't pretty.

Initially portrayed as mistakes of nature (a real old short called Archie the Miner), objects of ridicule (a Chaplin short, where Charlie kisses a female cross dresser, an observer who doesn't realise she's female begins to mock them with stereotypical campiness familiar to viewers of Allo Allo & the like), sissies (Edward Everett Horton in the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies, and Tony Randall in the Doris Day flicks), troubled and doomed (Sal Mineo, Rebel Without a Cause), and finally, the more sympathetic treatments of the present day (Tom Hanks, Philadelphia - although come to think of it, he was pretty much troubled & doomed too).

Hollywood tried hard to ignore gays for a very long time, but that's difficult if a movie is adapted from source material that includes gay characters. You might be interested to know that Ray Milland's alcoholic with writer's block in The Long Weekend, was, in the original novel, a sexually confused alcoholic. But gay portrayals did exist, you just had to read between the lines often - for instance, Marlene Dietrich in the movie Morocco, dressed as a man & paying far more attention to the female members of her audience than she does to her costar Gary Cooper. Or the sissy, who existed for decades to make the leading men look more masculine, and as comic relief. It's probably no coincidence that Tony Randall made a career of being Rock Hudson's cinema sidekick.

Come the mid 1930s, Hollywood had the Hayes Code inflicted on it to sanitise an industry that was seen to be increasingly hedonistic & perverse. To illustrate this, we're shown a deleted (heterosexual) scene from Tarzan and His Mate, with Johnny Weismuller as the ape man & Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. They cavort buck-nekkid underwater in a surprisingly modern manner. In all the Tarzan films made ofter this one, O'Sullivan's Jane resembled an animal skin clad Ma Walton.

The real fun in The Celluloid Closet comes in scenes from well known movies which reveal sub-texts that obviously went over my naive head on earlier viewings. There's the famous censored (but now restored) snails v oysters scene from > Spartacus, with Laurence Olivier in the bath with his "body servant" Tony Curtis. And an amusing interview with Curtis laughing about the script "Everyone's thinking, what's a body servant....?".

The Red River scene with Ireland & Clift also features the following line... "The only thing better than a really good gun is Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere... You ever have a really good Swiss watch?"

Ben Hur scriptwriter Gore Vidal is on hand to tell us that several scenes were written and filmed on the basis that Hur, and Boyd's character Messala had been lovers, and when they meet again many years later, Messala wants to renew the intimacy, but Hur wants none of it. Boyd was let in on the story, but it was felt Heston wouldn't be able to handle it, so he was left ignorant. The scenes shown are funny as hell, with Messala batting his eyelashes at the masculine Ben Hur.

There's also a very funny scene from the Hitchcock thriller Rope, Farley Granger & some guy they didn't name portray a couple of gay serial killers (at least, the real-life guys they were based on were gay). I defy you not to giggle as one of them describes the "intense exhilaration" he felt as a victim expired. "H-h-h-how about you?" he breathlessly stammers. How was it indeed?

Along the way to the more sympathetic treatments starting in the 60s, we're treated to Rock Hudson playing a straight man pretending to be gay in order to bed Doris Day. Talk about irony! Or how about Doris herself as Calamity Jane, ogling a saloon girl's outfit & cleavage? "Ah do declare, you're jest about the prettiest theng Ah ever did see..." For a moment there I thought she was going to fondle the monumental frontage. She darn well nearly had her head down there going "blubble blubble blubble". For the record, Calamity Jane's the one where she sings "Once I had a secret love".

And when did the word > "> gay> "> take on its modern meaning anyway? Aside from The Gay Brothers, which must surely be coincidence, since I think it was made more than 100 years ago (NB: I usually can> '> t be arsed checking & researching, so much more fun just to rely on my steel-trap memory - if I get anything wrong don't bother with the pedantry, I don't care), there's a scene with Cary Grant garbed in nothing but a mink coat (must be from A Touch of Mink with the almost ubiquitous Doris Day) explaining to some old prune who's asked the obvious question "I don't know why, I suppose I suddenly came over all gay!". Yeah right. Suddenly?

Later, we get Susan Sarandon telling us she managed to change the script as she didn't think her character in The Hunger (lesbian vampire flick with Sarandon, Catherine Deneuve & David Bowie) really needed to be drunk in order to be seduced by Deneuve "I think that no matter what your sexuality might have been up until that point, if you get the chance to bed Catherine Deneuve, you don't need to be drunk to accept." Amen. The same may not be true of Geena Davis, Sarandon later tells us their kiss at the end of Thelma & Louise was innocent.

There's lots more: Humphrey Bogart's amused reaction to the gardenia scented Peter Lorre in the Maltese Falcon (the book explicitly tells us the guy is "queer"); a masculinely garbed Greta Garbo as Queen Christina imperiously checking out one of her "ladies in waiting "; several clips from Some Like It Hot; and of course, the breakthrough 70s movie, The Boys in the Band. Parts of this documentary are hilarious, most of it is surprising, and some of it is kind of sad. Anyway, I recommend it - the clips are all letterboxed according to their original aspect ratios too :-)

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