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Documentary traces portrayal of gay life Review: 'The Celluloid Closet' is compelling viewing of four phases of Hollywood's treatment of homosexuality.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"The Celluloid Closet," which opens today at the Charles, is a fascinating account of how Hollywood has dealt with homosexuals and homosexuality through its history.

And the answer is: generally, not so well.

The movie has a lot of passion and information but lacks rigor: It features too much uninformed opinion, too much advocacy PTC disguised as analysis, and too many "experts" whose opinions are suspect.

But it's compulsively watchable.

Derived from the book of the same name by the late gay film critic Vito Russo, it tracks the film industry's treatment of gays through four distinct stages: the sissy, the villain, the suicide and the whole man or woman.

The movie is conceived as something of a guilty pleasure: Its nominal values require us to abjure the horribly insensitive earlier incantations of gay man. We're supposed to be shocked and chastened by the insensitivity with which the industry treated effeminate men.

But the ruthless truth is that the cruelty of these ancient impersonations is weirdly liberating, and one watches the Franklin Pangborns of movies past swish prissily this way and that with much secret pleasure. Even gay-activist/playwright Harvey Fierstein says, "I always liked the sissy."

When the Hays office clamped down in the early '30s, homosexuality transmuted into a kind of unctuous villainy, with Peter Lorre's Joe Cairo, in "The Maltese Falcon," as the prime example.

By the '50s and '60s, homosexuality had transmuted yet again. Now it was pathology, and movie after movie depicted men or women haunted by their illness, desperate for a cure, suicidal if unable to achieve such.

Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour" is the perfect example, and the film cuts to the now almost comic scene in which Shirley MacLaine castigates herself sobbingly for her moral weakness, and then, in shattering '50s melodramatic trope, is discovered hanging in the attic.

The movie looks upon Mart Crowley's "Boys in the Band" as the first mainstream film to show homosexuals as whole beings. It also sees "Cabaret" as something of the gay masterpiece.

Frequently, the witnesses or experts are just as moving as the imagery. One, the gay critic Susie Bright, talks about how gays watch a movie desperately, waiting and searching for some semblance of gay culture, such as Joan Crawford in that black gunfighter's shirt in "Johnny Guitar."

But, occasionally, the film becomes ridiculous. Gore Vidal claims not only that he wrote "Ben-Hur" (he got no screen credit) but that he subverted it by creating a gay subtext suggesting that Ben-Hur and the Roman Messala had been lovers as boys.

Pub Date: 5/03/96

'Celluloid Closet'

Documentary Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Released by Sony Classics

Unrated

Sun score ***

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