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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
The Celluloid Closet celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.