Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: The Celluloid Closet, by Vito Russo

The Celluloid Closet, by Vito Russo. New York: Harper & Row, 1981, rev. ed. 1987, 1995. 386pp.

Editor’s note: On the 30th anniversary of publication of Vito Russo’s Celluloid Closet, Mark Adnum takes a fresh look at this important but problematic history of queer representation in cinema.

Time has not been kind to The Celluloid Closet but then, Vito Russo never had much time for Time, either. Writing in 1981, Vito complained that no gay writer had produced any meaningful criticism of homosexuality in the movies, but actually, Parker Tyler had done just that, and nine years previously, with his twentieth book, Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies, which was infused with and informed by gay cinephilia. Tyler’s first book, The Hollywood Hallucination, was published in 1944, two years before Russo was born, and Richard Dyer’s Gays and Film came out in 1977, before Russo had constructed a closet for it to come out from. Thomas Waugh’s essays in Jump Cuts, such as “A Fag-Spotters Guide to Eisenstein,” were published through the late 1970s, and Robin Wood’s 1977 lecture at London’s National Film Theatre, “Responsibilities of a Gay Film Critic,” was printed as an essay in Film Quarterly in January 1978.

Still, Russo declared that it was he who would get the ball rolling. “We have cooperated for a very long time in the maintenance of our own invisibility,” he wrote in the first edition’s introduction. “And now the party is over.” It’s hard to find fault with this final, threatening sentence, as a turn of the page opens up on a picture of Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion and the first of 350 coma-inducing pages of examples of Russo’s single point: some movies had gay characters in them and those characters didn’t represent gay his preferred way.

Anything or anyone that might have lightened the stentorian mood, or enriched the (entry) level of analysis and argument, was refused entry into the Closet. There’s no mention, for example, of Bertolucci’s The Conformist, or The Exorcist‘s Father Dyer (flaming about his rapturous dream to play the club room in Heaven before Reagan comes downstairs to do a wee, remember?). The entire filmography of Luchino Visconti is missing, so is that of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and anything creatively contextual or tangential — why no mention of the gold-standard Dandy that is C-3PO, or the creepily carnivorous NAMBLA undertones to The Godfather‘s Hyman Roth? — doesn’t get a look in.

Here’s his entire take on Cabaret: “Joel Grey can be a creep because no one has to like him. But Michael York’s Brian is the hero. Brian represses his homosexual feelings throughout the film, and when he does sleep with the baron the act is seen by everyone as a fall from grace. Before Brian and Sally Bowles can get married, she calls it off — largely because she fears he might “slip” again and wind up in a gay bar, returned to his old habits.”

What good is sitting alone in your room when you can come hear someone reduce lush and labyrinthine movies into garden-variety gay pride dogma? On Tootsie: “A tired rehash of Some Like It Hot [that] pretend[s] to have something to say about gender roles.” 

Rope: “Philip and Brandon were warped individuals who murdered out of a belief in their own moral and intellectual superiority, which they believed placed them outside the law. By existing outside the culture, such gays were able to deny explicit homosexuality while at the same time reinforcing specific stereotypes.”

And so on and on. It’s just as well that Russo was never as famous for his erudition as he was for being an apostolic advocate of gay pride and the writer of one of that movement’s totemic texts. What’s not so good is that even his status in that latter area is terribly problematic. Though he was at pains to point out that “effeminate homosexuals are individuals, a diverse group of men,” a veritable Band of Boys, if you will, Russo’s turning, turning, revolutions-complete were very fast, and very savage whenever he encountered any gay movie character who induced in him any flutter of self-embarrassed discomfort.

The Celluloid Closet is saturated with frustrated references to “tortured little gay boys,” “homosexual fools,” and “sad-eyed queens.” Russo couldn’t stand “screaming queens” or “doe-eyed, timid faggots,” yet oddly “self-hating gays” really rubbed him the wrong way also. There’s “ostentatiously gay right wing Catholics,” who speak in “timid whispers” or “flamboyant queens walking a poodle,” the “compulsively promiscuous,” and anyone who may describe themselves or be described by their frenemies as a “lavender-tinted prissy.” He’s passionately opposed to “leather-jacketed killer gays,” and of course Cruising cops a bruising, but he also notes that “terrified closet cases who can’t hold a gun without dropping it” are not worthy role models, either. Steer clear too if you are a “super swishy Off Off Broadway director” and your supporting cast are “shy theatre queens with the soundtrack album to Gypsy in their cluttered apartments.”

Poor Ron Dellasandro (Matthew Laurence) can’t even walk out of a room with a drink in his hand without drawing Russo’s ire for no evident reason in this scene from St. Elmo’s Fire: “A walking limp wrist who lives across the hall from Demi Moore, he emerges from his apartment actually carrying a perfect frozen cocktail with a strawberry on the rim of the glass.”

And? Russo returns the blowtorch to skilled drinkmaker Ron, when Ron’s reaction to Moore’s suicide attempt does not meet with Russo’s satisfaction. “Ron the decorator runs around in the hallway whimpering, ‘what’s going on?'” which sounds to me like a perfectly appropriate question for anyone watching any scene involving anything to do with Demi Moore. What is it that Ron has done so wrong? Not even The Celluloid Closet’s three-page “Necrology” offers any clues! Elsewhere, Russo laments that “Dean Stockwell’s menacing pimp in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is easily read as gay,” swipes Paul McCrance for playing a “tortured little gay boy” in both Fame and The Hotel New Hampshire, and even spies a “cartoon gay villain” in The Great Mouse Detective.

Missing amid the careening vitriol is any suggestion of an alternative: these stereotypes are worn out, unrealistic, and potentially harmful, so here’s a better idea. What was it that Russo would have preferred? Taking a guess would have been dangerous business since Russo gives the impression of someone who would have been very difficult to please, changing his fundamental points of view more often than he rewatched Victim. His main complaint is that Hollywood filmmakers hadn’t made any effort to calibrate their gay characters and to stop sensationalising them and the things they do in bed so that mainstream audiences could appreciate and empathise with them. But he criticizes Steven Spielberg for doing just that in The Color Purple,“sanitising” explicit lesbian scenes for the benefit of “Middle America.” And, pages after he writes that “there’s no reason why sissies shouldn’t be created for the screen with some attention to character and human insight,” he dismisses Kiss of the Spider Woman out of hand for presenting “a homosexual exotic enough to be distanced from practically everyone in the theatre.”

“It is particularly degrading to witness the creation of a gay character who forces his narrow, kitschy vision of life on everyone around him,” Russo instructs, but he really could have taken some of that advice to heart. It’s telling, I think, that even though Russo won’t abide Roddy McDowell’s “bitchy fag gossip columnist” in Evil Under the Sun, there isn’t a single pejorative word about dog-at-a-bone gay cinephiles who live in Manhattan, dish continuously about cinema, and who are best friends with Lily Tomlin. Tomlin campaigned relentlessly after Vito’s death in 1990 to raise production monies for the film adaptation of The Celluloid Closet, which she narrated, promising to come out on screen if the film was made, reneging at the last minute and copping an outing from an angry Armistead Maupin for her sins.

I mean, what’s wrong with owning a poodle? The soundtrack album to Gypsy is a fine work of music, and timid whispers can be truly seductive. Exotic homosexuals should be revered as the deities they are. In any case, where does a queen who devotes his life to memorising every film made since the Silent Era and who expresses his intuitive responses to various fragments of dialogue spoken by Anne Baxter without provocation and for his life’s work writes a single book about homosexuality in the movies get off casting a stone at any pansy? Finally, who wouldn’t be a little “sad-eyed” surrounded by closet-case authors like this and their duck-in-a-barrel readers, the “homosexual fools” who take incoherent, weak-as-water books like this and turn them into Bibles?

The Celluloid Closet celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.