Watching Hollywood dancing around the Hays Office is grand sport.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

"The Celluloid Closet" is a rare documentary treat: a thoroughly entertaining look at the history of homosexuality in the movies. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who produced, directed, and wrote the screenplay, have the uncommon sense to infuse their subject with lightness and humor. Their film is a panoramic look at Hollywood's interpretation of gender stereotypes, a freeze frame of gender attitudes in a given moment as reflected by the movies of the time.

100 mainstream film clips are held together by a warm, provocative narration by some very intelligent people: Susan Sarandon, Gore Vidal, Quentin Crisp, Farley Granger, Shirley MacLaine, Tom Hanks, and Lily Tomlin. They chronicle the early on-screen freedom that gave way in the 20s to decades of puritanical censorship by the infamous Will Hays.

In a stroke, he outlawed homosexuality, seduction, nudity, obscenity, and profanity. The code boiled it down: if you were gay on screen, you had to die. Even gay by implication meant a mandatory death in the last reel.

Hollywood danced to the Hays Office jig by casting gay men as villains, gay women as neurotics. Scriptwriters learned to write between the lines. Richard Dyer recalls, "The characters are in the closet, the movie is in the closet, and we were in the closet." Because the censors had little idea of what was gay and what wasn't, the results were sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic.

Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were masters at slithering through the censor's hoops. Gore Vidal enlivened the pedestrian "Ben Hur" by writing a gay subtheme for the javelin contest between Ben Hur and Messala in collusion with director William Wyler. It passed over the heads of both the censors and Charlton Heston, who never caught on, so wrapped was he in earnest masculinity.

Tom Hanks talks about a public that is always way ahead of what Hollywood thinks it is ready for. Susan Sarandon describes actors as "keepers of the dreams." The writer of "Rebel Without a Cause" tells us his movie was an attempt to widen the permission to love.

When you realize that the movies teach the very young what it is to be a man or a woman, or what it is supposed to be, the premise of this very good documentary resonates in the culture of our own time at the very moment we consider ourselves enlightened. Even today, gay actors stay closeted because they fear they won't be marketable.

Will Hays may not be standing there with his censor's quill, but the current social climate is almost as inhibiting. In a society still in the grip of antigay attitudes and antigay laws, "minority audiences watch movies with hope," waiting for some sign of permission that rarely comes.

Watching Hollywood dancing around the Hays Office is grand sport. But there is a poignancy to all this wise and funny commentary, because this story has yet to be visited by the happy ending of a world without gender judgment.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 498
Studio : Telling Pictures
Rating : NR
Running Time: 1h42m

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