The Celluloid Closet
There’s a thorny dichotomy that’s been around almost as long as cinema itself: is it enough simply to see minorities on the silver screen, even if portrayed in an unflattering or offensive light? Or should Hollywood be quietly written off as a no-hoper when it comes to positive depictions of non-WASP types?
Certainly the treatment of LGBT characters in film, particularly in Hollywood, over the last century, is squirm inducing. As Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s award-winning documentary highlights, the ‘sissy’ stereotypes of the 20s and 30s were replaced thanks to Hays Code-era censorship by a series of vampires and villains, such as Peter Lorre’s perfumed Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon and the pair of Leopold and Loeb-style killers in Hitchcock’s Rope. By the 50s, even sympathetic gay characters, such as Sal Mineo’s Plato in Rebel Without a Cause were required to pay the price for their perversion by being killed off in the final reel (‘If you’re gay, you have to do real penance – die!’ hisses screenwriter Arthur Laurents). It wasn’t until the 70s and 80s that occasional unapologetic images of queer relationships crept into cinema in films such as Cabaret and My Beautiful Laundrette.
Though 14 years old now, thus omitting the great strides that have been taken in cinema since, this intelligent, fascinating film – based on the book by Vito Russo – is well worth a watch and is stuffed full of clips and contributions from stars, directors, screenwriters and academics.
(Drakes Avenue DVD retail)