Documentary Movie Review: The Celluloid Closet (1996) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “C” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “C” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Cane Toads: An Unnatural HistoryThe Case of the Grinning Cat,  Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Ceasefire Massacre, The Central Park Five, The Clash: Westway to the World,  and Constantine’s Sword.

TitleThe Celluloid Closet
Release Date: February 15, 1996
Director: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Production Company: Channel Four Films | HBO Pictures

This documentary traces the history of homosexuality as it is depicted in Hollywood films.  As early as the silent film era, stock characters of sissy men appeared in films for comic effect, although there were some positive representations of gay and lesbian people.  The institution of the Production Code included censoring “sexual deviancy” that put the kibosh on any acknowledgement of homosexuality.

Filmmakers instead used coded characters to slip gay and lesbian ideas past the censors. Movies of this period include Ben-Hur (1959), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Rebecca (1940), Red River (1948), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Rope (1948), Some Like it Hot (1959), and Young Man With a Horn (1950). I never knew that Gore Vidal worked on the script for Ben-Hur and wrote in a gay subtext, which makes the fact that I watched the movie at my Catholic elementary school hilarious.

By the 1960s, homosexuality was once again acknowledged in film but gay and lesbian characters were often tragic figures who inevitably died by the end of the movie, usually by their own hand. Stereotypically homosexual characters were also villains in many movies.  Advise and Consent (1962), The Children’s Hour (1961), The Fox (1967), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), Vanishing Point (1971), and Walk on the Wild Side (1962) are all discussed as examples of this problematic approach to homosexuality in film.

The Boys in the Band (1970) is recognized as the first mainstream film to depict gay characters in a positive light.  It was directed by William Friedkin whose later film Cruising (1980) was protested by gay rights activists for perpetuating the stigma of gay men as villains.  Cabaret (1972) and Making Love (1982) are also highlighted for positive depictions of gay characters.  Nevertheless, homosexuality continues to be coded in Hollywood films, derogatory terms like “faggot” are used indiscriminately in movies, and big name actors avoid being cast in roles as homosexual characters.  Philadelphia (1993) is recognized as an advancement for featuring likable star actor Tom Hanks in the role of a gay man with AIDS, although it’s noted that his character still dies at the end.

A frustrating aspect of this movie is that none of the interviewees are ever identified onscreen, nor are the titles of the movies from a good portion of the clips that are shown. I do know that Lily Tomlin narrates the movie and people interviewed include Tony Curtis (commenting on his roles in Some Like it Hot and Spartacus), Arthur Laurents, Armistead Maupin (who also wrote the script for the narration), Whoopi Goldberg, Harvey Fierstein, Gore Vidal, Shirley MacLaine, Barry Sandler, Tom Hanks, and Susan Sarandon.

Hollywood has continued to make progress on gay and lesbian representation since this documentary was released 24 years ago, but remains frustratingly slow in depicting LGBT people in the full range of human experience.  Consider recent Marvel, Star Wars, and Disney films which include scenes with extremely minor gay and lesbian characters, never the leads, but the studios expect to be celebrated for their progress. One thing that comes through in this film is that gay and lesbian viewers had to watch the coded depictions in movies and translate them to their own experience.  Harvey Fierstein makes a good point that it’s time for straight audiences to do some translation.

Rating: ***1/2


Movie Review: The Crying Game (1992) #AtoZChallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: The Crying Game
Release Date: October 30, 1992
Director: Neil Jordan
Production Company: Palace Pictures | Channel Four Films | British Screen

A British soldier, Jody (Forest Whitaker), on duty in Northern Ireland during The Trouble is abducted and held hostage by the Provisional IRA. An IRA member, Fergus (Stephen Rea), stands guard over Jody over several days and the two men bond. Jody is accidentally killed when the British military carries out an assault on the IRA safe-house.  Seeking to lie low for a while, Fergus flees to London and takes on a job in construction under an alias.

Jody told Fergus about his lover,  Dil (Jaye Davidson), so Fergus tracks her down. Initially Fergus wants to make sure Dil is okay as a debt to Jody, but he soon falls in love with her.  In a moment that was heralded as the BIG TWIST at the time of release, Fergus discovers that Dil is transgender as they are about to have sex. After his initial revulsion, Fergus continues to be drawn to Dil.

Unfortunately, Fergus’ former IRA accomplices find him and inform him he’s been tried in abstentia for his failing to execute Jody and the fleeing. He’s able to atone for this if he carries out a risky assassination of a British judge. Dil’s life is put at risk is Fergus fails to come through on the assassination. Fergus is left with some difficult choices in a final act that depicts some touching moments of love and sacrifice.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

Like good Irish Americans, my mother, sister, and I went to see this at the theater as a family because it was a big deal movie about The Troubles.

What Did I Remember?:

The broad strokes of the movie stuck with me if not the details.

Also, I have to brag here, but Jim Broadbent is one of those actors who is in like every British movie ever and I never remember who he is, but for the first time ever I recognized him right away as the charming bartender, Col.

What Did I Forget?:

Jody is rather obnoxious in the first few scenes we see him in before he and Fergus begin to bond and the characters soften.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

At the time of release, people talked about the movie as if “THE BIG TWIST” was the main point.  I never thought that then, and 28 years later, I think the movie’s real intent to tell a story of love, sacrifice, and a kind heart in troubled times perseveres. It also has an excellent soundtrack, from Percy Sledge to Boy George to Lyle Lovett, the perfectly compliments the storyline.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Awareness and understanding of transgender people in popular media has improved in leaps and bounds in recent years (albeit with more improvement necessary) so the depiction of Dil feels a bit clunky, and overall her character seems to lack some agency.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes, indeed.

Rating: ****


5 more all-time favorite movies starting with C:

  1. Casablanca (1942)
  2. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
  3. Citizen Kane (1941)
  4. The City of Lost Children (1995)
  5. Clueless (1995)

What is your all-time favorite movie starting with C? What do you guess will be my movie for D?  Let me know in the comments!