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Out and About

Gay San Francisco filmmakers combine art and sweat to open US cinema's doors of perception

By Erika Milvy

"I hope it will be a kick in the ass to Hollywood," says Jeffrey Friedman about his film The Celluloid Closet, which examines the multitudinous ways gays have been depicted in cinema. "We've come a long way and not far enough." The Celluloid Closet, which won the Freedom of Expression award at the Sundance Film Festival in January but which was shunned by Oscar, was adapted from Vito Russo's book of the same name.

"Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people and gay people what to think about themselves," the film explains. With this film, for the first time, we now have a film that analyzes our beliefs, our fears and fantasies. It's no wonder that budding homosexuals have been rather alarmed when they looked to the silver screen to see themselves reflected back. When shown at all, the movies have given us gays as ugly butts of a joke, evil villains, lesbian vampires, sociopathic murderers and your garden variety miserable misanthropes.

One of the film's most impacting montages is a too-long string of film clips, spliced back-to-back in which one character shouts "faggot!" at another. The cinematic history of hatred is unmistakable. But Epstein (who won an Oscar for the inspiring Times of Harvey Milk) and Friedman (who with Epstein produced and directed Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt) have created a movie that is much more than a litany of wrist-slitting images.

The movie is quite fun to watch. For much of The Celluloid Closet, the film invites you to play "spot the homo," explains Friedman. Since the film explores the many ways in which gays have been written out of screenplays and written between the lines, squeezed past the censors or stood tall in the history of cinema, the possibilities are as infinite as a motivated imagination.

"Gay people are endlessly resourceful and that need to see yourself on the screen is going to be fulfilled one way or another," says Epstein. "If the movies don't give it to you then we're going to take it, we're going to find it."

With narration written by Armistead Maupin and orated by Lily Tomlin, the film tells the history of gay images in cinema from the birth of film, a century ago. One archival clip, which surprised the filmmakers when they came across it, is a primitive film test made by Thomas Edison's studio. The clip, which is one of the earliest surviving motion picture images, shows two men dancing together.

But some time later, gay images in film went under cover. The Hays code was superseded by the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency, which threatened massive boycotts. As Tomlin explains, "For all its efforts, the Production Code didn't erase homosexuals from the screen: It just made them harder to find." Gore Vidal talks about how he, as the screenwriter, conspired with director William Wyler to add a pinch of homoerotic tension to Ben Hur, without the reactionary Charlton Heston ever knowing about it.

Often, when they were to be found, gays and lesbians were found to be the villains. Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon, Gloria Holden as Dracula' s Daughter or a creepy Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca--a woman a little too interested in her deceased mistress' undergarments. Or they were to be found as hopelessly miserable. As gay screenwriter Barry Sandler points out, "Growing up in the '60s, all we had were images of unhappy, suicidal, desperate gay people."

Or they were the laughingstock. "Sissy characters in movies were always a joke," explains Quentin Crisp. "There's no sin like being a woman." But Harvey Fierstein disagrees: "I like the sissy. Is it used in negative ways? Yeah, but I'd rather have negative than nothing. That's just my particular view--and also 'cause I am a sissy!"

When Epstein rose to accept his award at Sundance, he thanked his partner on the project and his partner in life, Jeffrey Friedman. The climate is right for a film like The Celluloid Closet and Friedman and Epstein don't care if it's a byproduct of faddishness or political correctness.

"That doesn't matter. Fads come and go but what will be lasting is that the door will stay open," says Epstein. "More gay images will be coming forth from more gay filmmakers and there will be more gay people in power in Hollywood."

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From the April 11-17, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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