Homosexuals have never been popular in Hollywood – in any case not on the silver screen. And if they appeared on screen, they were presented as stereotypes who were harmless to heterosexuals. The oldest and most familiar one is ‘the sissy’: a clearly recognisable, effeminate and a-sexual comical character. One of the many film extracts shows typical sissy behaviour in a western as early as 1912.
And if homosexuality was not farcical, it was deplored or feared. From the stern thirties, it always had to be clear that homosexuals and lesbians, suffered from their proclivity and came to nothing. Now, they became vampires, dangerous lunatics or prisoners. Nevertheless, a lot of gay innuendo was smuggled past the censors, as seen in amusing scenes from BEN HUR and SPARTACUS. Some examples that Epstein and Friedman have included seem far-fetched, but this is congruous with the attitude of many gay cinemagoers, who did not recognise themselves in Hollywood movies and were desperately searching for every possible hint of homosexuality.
Via an incessant, sometimes shocking and often hilarious series of feature film excerpts and talking head interviews with people like Tony Curtis, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, Harvey Fierstein and Gore Vidal, THE CELLULOID CLOSET outlines an alternative history of Hollywood. Tentative gay mainstream highlight is Jonathan Demme’s PHILADELPHIA, featuring Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas. But even here, a simple kiss is hidden from the spectator’s view.