Near the beginning and the end of The Celluloid Closet we are shown the same clip: an 1895 scene filmed by Thomas Edison of two men dancing to music being made by a third, playing the violin. The couple hold each other close, and their faces are serenely grave. It is a moment of astonishing, instant intimacy; no wonder producer-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman seized on it to frame their striking documentary about homosexual themes and subtexts in movie history. Based on the late Vito Russo’s book of the same name, The Celluloid Closet is a first-rate work of cinematic criticism, tracing the ways in which, despite cultural disapproval, gay images, ideas, and implications have slipped into the medium.
The images range from Laurel and Hardy sitting on a bed, looking and chatting for all the world like a flirting couple, to a scene of Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon going all the way in the erotic vampire film The Hunger. Shuffled among the film scenes are interviews with a variety of actors, writers, and producers. Tony Curtis is wonderfully precise about the inspiration for his drag character in Some Like It Hot: ”I thought of Gene Kelly, my mother, and a little bit of Eve Arden.” Shirley MacLaine is blunt about one of her own movies, a 1961 film of The Children’s Hour that, MacLaine feels, played down its lesbian theme: ”We did the picture wrong.”
There’s little that is preachy or overstated about The Celluloid Closet. Its point is not that we must now read homosexuality into, say, the relationship between Laurel and Hardy, but rather that such an interpretation is possible, that noting gay allusions in ostensibly straight films can add layers of emotion, complexity, and mystery to movies. I’ve never been a fan of the overrated auteur Howard Hawks’ clunky version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but Closet’s dissection of a gym scene, with Jane Russell squaring her broad shoulders amid a bevy of barely dressed male bodybuilders, gives that 1953 movie a tangy wit it never had before.
This documentary points out the sheer range of gay screen images. There’s a pungent discussion of what Russo dubbed ”the sissy” — sexless, fussy types played by character actors like Franklin Pangborn — followed soon after by the powerfully aggressive spectacle of Marlene Dietrich in top hat and tails in Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930).
The Celluloid Closet is narrated by Lily Tomlin; Russo’s book was adapted by Tales of the City novelist Armistead Maupin, who also gives the filmmakers some of the choicest on-screen quotes. So does Sarandon, who notes the movies’ general importance in ”encouraging you to be the protagonist in your own life.” Closet will undoubtedly serve many viewers in the same way.