MiniReview: "The Celluloid Closet" (film)

John Ireland and Montgomery Clift comparing the size of their tools in Red River (1948).  

What is it?

It’s an American documentary from 1995 directed by Rob Epstein and Jonathan Friedman, based on a book by Vito Russo.


What’s it about?

It’s a retrospective look at how LGBTQ folk have been treated over the decades by Hollywood cinema.


Didn’t Hollywood just ignore us till AIDS hit?

No. As we learn in this fascinating documentary, there were all kinds of coded messages about homosexuality, bisexuality and transvestism going all the way back to the silent era. There’s a very revealing snippet from a 1916 Charlie Chaplin silent that shows how people made fun of “fags” even way back then. And there are wonderful clips of scenes from Old Hollywood featuring men who were out-and-out “queens”—a perennial source of comedy. And then there are comments from various contemporary (1995) Hollywood folk about their own experiences in Hollywood and also their reactions to earlier films.


That all sounds pretty interesting!

It’s fascinating. Not always terribly encouraging, but completely riveting.


So I’m guessing this one is getting a star, or even stars!

Two stars. This is definitely one to see. I would have given it three, but of course it’s a bit outdated now. While it’s a terrific look at the situation up to 1995, the situation was still very much in evolution at that time, and so much has happened in the past quarter century. The other reason I can’t give it a three is the syrupy musical accompaniment, that usual Hollywood shallowly uplifting/syrupy/nostalgic gush. And finally, there’s the predictable self-congratulation and insistence on how important Hollywood is to all our lives. When one of the interviewees said that Hollywood is the “custodian of our dreams” or something like that, I started reaching for the barf bucket. You ain’t the custodian of my dreams, Hollywood!


John, none of this belongs in a review.

No, of course it doesn’t. It’s an important documentary, with a succession of scenes that queer folk will just eat up (and in some cases be horrified by). And it will make you look at films like Ben-Hur in a whole new way! 

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