THE CELLULOID CLOSET: Homosexuality in the Movies by Vito Russo

THE CELLULOID CLOSET: Homosexuality in the Movies

Email this review


From an earnest, raised-gay-consciousness viewpoint (very different from Parker Tyler's camping in Screening the Sexes, 1972), Russo painstakingly scrutinizes the portrayal of homosexuals in American films: ""As expressed on screen, America was a dream that had no room for the existence of homosexuals. . . . And when the fact of our existence became unavoidable, we were reflected. . . as dirty secrets."" Up through the Thirties, Russo finds the ""harmless sissy"" image prevalent (via the Grady Suttons and Franklin Pangborns); he resents the use of such figures as ""scapegoat and weapon"" (to heighten the masculinity of the hero) but does appreciate their ""inspired lunacy"" and ""innocence."" In the Forties the sissy (e.g. Clifton Webb) would become ""just a little deadly."" In the Fifties homosexuality was implicitly present (as a menace) but unmentionable. And then, after a relaxation of the Motion Picture Code in 1961, the taboo was off: ""in the 1960s, lesbians and gay men were pathological, predatory and dangerous villains and fools""--self-hating, suicidal. Even as of 1979, despite The Boys in the Band (steeped in self-hatred but ""the best and most potent argument for gay liberation ever offered in a popular art form""), US cinema ""was unable to portray gay characters without their being sex-obsessed or sex-defined""; and ""not one gay hero"" has emerged on the screen. None of this is new, of course (especially to readers of the Village Voice), but Russo has documented the generalizations with impressive research (especially into silents, early talkies, and editing-room history); and comparisons with more enlightened foreign filmmaking are also used to good effect. On the other hand, however, Russo undermines the book with lapses into shrill rhetoric--especially when branding heterosexuals as ""paranoid"" or ""homophobic,"" when arguing against masculine/feminine sex roles per se, or when perceiving non-explicit sexual statements (""homosexuals. . . take the rap for the heterosexist woman-hating attitudes that permeate buddy films and characterize the attitudes of heterosexuals toward both gays and women, whom they consider indistinguishable""). Highly subjective, then, but frankly so--and those with differing viewpoints will Fred lots of material here to argue over.

Pub Date: July 15th, 1981
Publisher: Harper & Row