It’s a bit of a surprise that it’s taken so long for The Celluloid Closet to make it to DVD. The 1995 documentary, which looks at the history of gays and lesbians in film, won numerous awards and was a major success on its release, and yet it’s only just appearing on DVD now. Based on the book by Vito Russo, which was the seminal work on the subject, it’s a fascinating trawl through a topic that has always been present in cinema, but for most of its history was hidden away and never openly mentioned.
Starting right at the earliest days of moving images, The Celluloid Closet charts the different ways cinema has tried to deal with homosexuality, from Marlene Dietrich dressing in a tux and kissing a woman in 1930’s Morocco, to how The Hay’s Code insisted that any suggestion of homosexuality was stripped out of film adaptations of Tennessee Williams. Particularly interesting is how the documentary shows the ways filmmakers tried to get around the restrictions, normally by coding things so only those in the know knew what was going on (such as Gore Vidal’s suggestion that that in Ben Hur, there was meant to be the suggestion that Stephen Boyd and Charlton Heston’s characters had once had a sexual relationship, or that Peter Lorre’s character in The Maltese Falcon is gay because it’s mentioned he smells of gardenias).
The film then goes through the gradual relaxation of restrictions in the 60s, such as the release of Victim in 1961 (the first mainstream film to dare utter the word ‘homosexual’), and the double edged sword this proved to be, with gay characters spending much of the next 20 years as evil villains. While the film’s chronology ends in the early 90s with movies like Philadelphia and therefore misses out on the emergence of mainstream gay films like Brokeback Mountain and Milk, it’s nevertheless a fascinating trawl that takes us to the point where gay cinema and characters first starting making an impact in Hollywood. It’s also fascinating to see how many gay characters got killed off over the years, with filmmakers almost seeing it as their duty to dispatch anyone of questionable sexual orientation as a matter of course (Vito Russo’s original book even includes a necrology of the hundreds of gay or possibly gay characters bumped off in films over the years).
The disc also features a decent batch of extras, largely made up of interviews with stars and commentators that didn’t make the final cut. Although the visual quality of these isn’t great, it still provides nearly an hour of fascinating extra info, with the talking heads covering all sorts of subjects there simply wasn’t time for in the actual movie. There’s also a short interview with Vito Russo, who sadly died five years before the film was released due to complications from AIDS. The Celluloid Closet is a fascinating look at an often hidden subject, and really ought to be watched by anyone with even the slightest interest in the subject.
Overall Verdict: A truly fascinating look at gays in the cinema and their struggle to find a voice.
Special Features: ‘Rescued From The Closet’ Extra Interviews, Vito Russo Interview, Scene Selection
Reviewer: Tim Isaac
(This review previously featured on MovieMuser.co.uk)