From the image of two men dancing in an early experiment with sound film in 1894 to the out, proud gay men and lesbians in films like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Go Fish (both 1994), this acclaimed 1995 documentary traces the history of LGBTQ representation on screen through more than 100 years and well over 100 films. Life partners and co-producers and directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman turned film critic Vito Russo’s pioneering 1981 study, subtitled Homosexuality in the Movies, into a comprehensive look at the subject with the help of Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin, who wrote the narration and appears on screen, and narrator Lily Tomlin.
As a young man growing up in Manhattan in the 1950s, Russo had lived with stereotypical representations of gay men and lesbians in the media throughout his formative years. He was an early member of the Gay Activists Alliance, formed in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall riot. His graduate work in film at New York University and jobs at the Gay Community Center and the Museum of Modern Art inspired him to combine his political and academic interests. What began as a series of lectures with film clips starting in 1972 eventually turned into The Celluloid Closet, a book he wrote while staying with close friends Epstein in New York and Tomlin in Los Angeles. On its publication in 1981, it was hailed as “an essential reference” in The New York Times. He would revise the book in 1987 to encompass new developments since its initial publication.
Epstein was part of the collective that produced the groundbreaking documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977), which featured interviews with 26 gay men and lesbians in the first feature-length documentary about LGBTQ life told from an LGBTQ perspective. He had already won an Oscar® for The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) when Russo suggested in 1986 that he make a film based on The Celluloid Closet. Epstein had trouble raising funding at first, even after forming Telling Pictures with Friedman and winning a second Oscar® for Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), which included an interview with Russo. After Russo’s death from HIV complications in 1990, Tomlin launched a fundraising campaign in his honor, hosted a benefit at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre and reached out to HBO chairman Michael Fuchs, who agreed to make up the remainder of the budget.
The immediate challenge then facing Epstein and Friedman was how to make the film without Russo’s direct input. They had spoken with him a great deal about how he envisioned the film, however, and stuck to his primary directive that the documentary be entertaining, a sort of gay That’s Entertainment! (1974). For the sake of time, they confined the film to Hollywood films, with only a few mentions of European pictures. Originally, they had included more material about independent films, but, again, felt it made the picture too long. There was also the question of how to deal with developments since the revised edition of The Celluloid Closet had come out in 1987. By the early 1990s, out LGBTQ directors like Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant and Rose Troche had come into prominence. What Epstein and Friedman developed allowed the film to end on a celebratory note, as they highlighted more recent and positive depictions of LGBTQ life. It was at that point they featured clips from independent films like Poison (1991), The Living End (1992) and Go Fish.
Epstein and Friedman had to cut a planned segment on gay historical figures portrayed as straight on screen when they could not obtain the rights to use three key films, Hans Christian Andersen (1952), Alexander the Great (1956) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965). In blocking the use of the last film, its star, Charlton Heston, insisted that Michelangelo, the central character he had played, was heterosexual. Actor Michael Ontkean tried to stop them from using clips from Making Love (1982), in which he starred, but failed. He was one of a small group of people who declined to be interviewed. There also were three major stars — Cher, Liza Minnelli and Bette Midler — who agreed to be interviewed but then had to pull out because of scheduling conflicts.
Those absences hardly diminish the film’s power and scope, however. Ranging from the stereotyped pansies of early sound films through coded depictions of gay men and lesbians when Hollywood’s Production Code barred any mention of homosexuality in films, the documentary offers a compelling picture of the way queer representation was twisted by Hollywood, even after the Code was amended to allow gay and lesbian characters. Screenwriter Arthur Laurents and actor Farley Granger discuss the coded homosexuality in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). Gore Vidal points out how the creation of a gay subtext for Stephen Boyd’s character in Ben-Hur (1959) added to the film’s conflict. Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen describes the role of the protagonist’s bisexuality in Cabaret (1972). Harry Hamlin discussions the impact of Making Love on his career, and Tom Hanks talks about his efforts to portray a gay character positively in Philadelphia (1993).
The Celluloid Closet came out at a key time in LGBTQ history. Increased awareness of media depictions of LGBTQ characters, partly fueled by Russo’s book and lectures, had led to demonstrations against films like The Silence of the Lambs, JFK (both 1991) and Basic Instinct (1992). The documentary heightened awareness further and may have helped inspire industry leaders to do some self-examination. Columbia Pictures and Carolco both hosted seminars on representation with members of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), and Hollywood Supports was founded to counter homophobia in the entertainment media.
The film was named Best Documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival and won the Freedom of Expression Award at the Sundance Film Festival. After its HBO airing, it won a Peabody Award, Best Director from the News & Documentary Emmies and four Primetime Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Informational Special. Most appropriately, it won the Vito Russo Award, usually given to openly LGBTQ media professionals like RuPaul and George Takei, from GLAAD.
Producers: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Director: Epstein, Friedman
Screenplay: Armistead Maupin
Story: Epstein, Friedman, Sharon Wood
Based on the book by Vito Russo
Cinematography: Nancy Schreiber
Score: Carter Burwell
Cast: Lily Tomlin (Narrator), Tony Curtis, Arthur Laurents, Armistead Maupin, Whoopi Goldberg, Harvey Fierstein, Quentin Crisp, Jay Presson Allen, Gore Vidal, Farley Granger, Paul Rudnick, Shirley MacLaine, Mart Crowley, Antonio Fargas, Tom Hanks, Harry Hamlin, John Schlesinger, Susan Sarandon (Themselves)
Matthew Hayes (January 2007), The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers, Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press