Vito Russo, film historian and author of "The Celluloid Closet," was a regular at New York City's St. Mark's Baths. No sex scandal here. More than a decade before publishing his definitive history of gay and lesbian images in popular films, the struggling young film critic worked for minimum wage and tips, making sandwiches for the men draped in towels enjoying some post-Stonewall sexual liberation. He argued film theory and politics for free.
After a 10-year struggle, Academy Award-winning filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman have brought Russo's monumental history to the silver screen. Opening Friday, the documentary has all the ingredients of a high-concept blockbuster: big stars, Oscar-winning directors, sex, violence, humor, tragedy and a topic ripped from today's Zeitgeist.
Russo, who appears in Epstein and Friedman's 1990 Oscar-winning documentary "Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt," died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991. But not before his book, published in 1981 and updated in 1987, changed forever the way gay men and lesbians go to the movies.
"The Celluloid Closet" reminds audiences that gays and lesbians always have been present in the movies, just as in life, even during the Production Code years when Will Hays, Joe Breen and the Catholic Legion of Decency acted as America's V-chip. Then, as now, homosexuality was taught on the nation's movie screens.
The lessons, though rare, subtle, indirect and closeted, declared unequivocally that homosexuality was something to laugh at, or pity, and even fear.
"We learn who we are and how to behave from the movies," asserts Friedman, "especially attitudes regarding homosexuality. We made the film for the same reason Vito wrote the book: We're gay men who really love the movies."
The filmmakers are quick to explain, however, that straight audiences probably have more to gain from seeing their film.
"For straight audiences, it's a fascinating peek at a whole different way of seeing the world," Friedman says.
Epstein says he hopes to educate "straights [who] are totally unfamiliar with the coded messages and portrayals of homosexuality, especially the gay subtext in films from the Hays Code era."
Gay men and women are already savvy when it comes to reading cultural code. Reading between the lines and against the grain in society, as well as in film, is a way of life. Straights frequently can't or won't see the 35-millimeter elephant in the room.
"The guys that ran the Code weren't rocket scientists," Jay Presson Allen, screenwriter of "Cabaret," says in the film. "They missed a lot of stuff and if a director was subtle enough and clever enough, they got around it."
Farley Granger, star of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope," based on the true story of gay murderers Loeb and Leopold, makes it clear that the actors knew they were playing gay although the censors "didn't have a clue."
Gore Vidal, who wrote the screenplay for "Ben-Hur," recounts the hilarious escapades he and director William Wyler went through to liven up the three-hour biblical epic's central conflict.
"You got good about writing subtext," Vidal explains on screen. "I told Wyler, 'Let me try something. Let's say these two guys at 16 or 17 had been lovers. The Roman Massala, played by Stephen Boyd, wants to start it up again with Ben-Hur, played by Charlton Heston, although heaven knows why.' "
After getting over the initial shock, Wyler agreed it was better than what they had. Vidal explained the subtext to Boyd but they all agreed to say nothing to the conservative Heston under any circumstances. "Chuck will fall apart," Wyler warned.
"So Heston thinks he's doing Francis X. Bushman in the silent version, his head constantly on high, and Stephen Boyd is giving looks that are so clear," Vidal continues, while on-screen Boyd gazes longingly at Heston and the two men sip wine, arms entwined.
Epstein and Friedman break the news gently to straight America that some of Hollywood's biggest stars and classic films were full of the love that literally dared not speak its name.
"We've fashioned the film so they would be comfortable watching movies from a different perspective. That's not to say we want people to leave comfortable. We want to be a kick in the butt to Hollywood, but not a punch in the face. A kick in the butt can point people in the right direction."
The film uses classic film clips and interviews with three generations of Hollywood players to show how the sissy, the victim and the villain have historically been Hollywood's only acceptable gay and lesbian images.
Jane Russell in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" singing "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" in a gym full of bodybuilders showing absolutely no interest in anything more than flexing and high kicking; pistol-packin' Joan Crawford dressed in black in "Johnny Guitar," ("the screen's great kinky Western," writes critic Leonard Maltin); Sal Mineo mooning over James Dean, with a picture of Alan Ladd taped in his locker, in "Rebel Without a Cause."
Fifties heartthrob Tony Curtis talks about the bath scene in "Spartacus" that the censors cut out but audiences finally got to see in a 1991 re-release. As "body servant" Antonius, Curtis bathes his master, played by Laurence Olivier. The senator tries to seduce his slave by letting him know there's nothing immoral in having a taste for both snails and oysters. Curtis is frank in both his recollections and his affection for the character who was afraid "to drop the soap."
When the project was conceived 10 years ago, the biggest obstacle was getting the studios to come out of the closet with clips from these and other closeted movies.
" 'The Celluloid Closet' would not have been made as a big-budget, 35-millimeter feature without Howard Rosenman and Lily Tomlin," Friedman says, referring to the megaproducer and actress-comedian, both friends of Russo's since the early '70s. "It would have been a guerrilla video with pirated clips."
Rosenman, former president of Brillstein-Grey Entertainment and producer of numerous films ranging from "Father of the Bride" to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," served as the documentary's executive producer.
Tomlin narrates the documentary, which was shown on HBO in January, and spearheaded the fund-raising, headlining a benefit for the project at San Francisco's Castro Theater that also featured Robin Williams and Harvey Fierstein.
"We strategized with Howard to get stars," Epstein says. "Lily asked some and others we went for case by case. We just wrote to Susan Sarandon at her home and got a response."
Still, for every Goldberg, Hanks and Shirley MacLaine, Rosenman claims to have "lists and lists of those who didn't even return our phone calls or didn't even show up after rescheduling."
"There were heroes and cowards and villains in the making of this just like in life," he says. "Some of the cowards and villains turned out to be people I idolized and now no longer do. I knew it was the gay text that got to them."
Tomlin occasionally worked the phones, getting hesitant celebrities to contribute to the project. "I got k.d. lang to sing the song by telling her if she didn't, I'd get Tommy Velour to sing it," she laughs, referring to the lounge singer Tomlin portrays in her repertoire of characters.
"Ultimately, getting the clips was a much larger hole to fill, which is what Howard did," she continues. "Let's face it, it's easier to ask a fellow actor to be interviewed than to ask a studio head to give a negative."
Rosenman at first seems to agree. "For a full year I went in circles with studio bureaucracies to get the film clips, until one day I got angry," he recalls. "Then I thought, 'What an idiot you are--why not just call the studio heads up directly?' Practically to a man, they all agreed on the phone. With one exception, everyone came on board in just two days."
Still, Epstein acknowledges, it's independent film and television that more actively and accurately portray gay and lesbian diversity. "Hollywood follows, it doesn't lead," he asserts.
"We're back to a time when the sissy is acceptable again," laments "Tales of the City" author Armistead Maupin, who is interviewed on-screen and wrote the documentary's narration. "I'm not sure if that's progress. My dream is to see gays in our infinite variety, including sissies. I just resent the way Hollywood currently implies homosexuality is about what one wears, not what one feels."
The recent spate of drag comedies with central gay characters that includes "Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and "The Birdcage," does reflect some progress in content if not form.
"I'm not against the current wave of drag movies," Maupin says. "Every one of them delivers a message about compassion and humanity. But until they're done in a way that really deals about what people hate about homosexuality, the physicality of same-sex affection, they'll feel more like exploitation than honest examinations of human lives."
"America loves drag queens," Friedman says. "They're nonthreatening, amusing clowns because they're nonsexual. Hollywood gay characters are allowed to be like normal people as long as they don't have a sex life. It's particularly ironic to take sexuality away from a gay character when that's what defines us."
It seems to be also what some feel is the reason behind the historical documentary receiving an R rating.
"It seems to me any film with homoeroticism in it gets an R," Friedman says. "Prejudice is built into the system. I've noticed a trend where if you shot the same sex scene with a heterosexual couple and then with a gay or lesbian couple, the rating would jump up a notch."
"An R rating vividly demonstrates the double standard when dealing with homosexuality," Maupin agrees. "A tender close-mouthed kiss between people of the same sex is considered as pornographic in some quarters as copulation between heterosexuals."
The filmmakers are optimistic, however. "Hollywood is becoming more aware, and there are filmmakers who are trying to get beyond the conventional language of stereotypes," Friedman says. "More gay images from independent film are seeping into the mainstream."
Even Maupin, a sworn enemy of the closet revered and reviled for his intolerance of famous closeted homosexuals, acknowledges some progress. "Anyone like me who has gone to the movies over the past 40 years can't help but believe that the subject matter is finally becoming more acceptable."
While still critical, Epstein and Friedman aren't quite so quick to dismiss the impact of Hollywood's new attempts at portraying homosexual lives.
"African American characters went through a similar process," Friedman says. "We'll just have to muddle through until it doesn't matter anymore, just like African Americans now playing non-race-specific roles. We'll eventually get to that point and be accepted as part of the social fabric."
Tomlin believes that "The Celluloid Closet" will go a long way toward sensitizing not just audiences but straight Hollywood as well.
"Producers and audiences are acculturated the same way as everyone else," she says. "This movie gives them a context and hopefully a more illuminated approach to the use of gay and lesbian characters."
Rosenman claims that is already the case. "A producer made changes in a script that were suggested by someone who saw the movie. Small as it was, it was a highlight of my career. Something I did changed an opinion. This is why I went into the movie business. It certainly wasn't for 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.' "