The Celluloid Closet

One of the biggest influences on me as a young man (and a lifelong film enthusiast) was Vito Russo's extraordinary masterpiece The Celluloid Closet. It was really a kind of dream book - a detailed examination of homosexuality as it appeared throughout the history of popular American film. Russo was the first (and certainly the greatest) to collect together in one exhaustive text the sad sissies, the suicidal closet-cases, the murderous bull-dykes and the awkward and unlikely drag queens that have populated film since the medium was invented.
For me it was a revelation - I realised that I was not the only one who had spent a lifetime carefully watching out for hints and suggestions that something queer was happening in the background of those Saturday night blockbusters on TV.
Russo's magnum opus is even more amazing when you consider that it was the biggest and ultimately the final thing he ever did - he was one of the generation of geniuses lost to AIDS.
There is, of course, some criticism contained in the book that might seem a little overdone to a contemporary audience. We have to remember that Russo was righteously angry because he had seen the very worst of oppression of gay and lesbian people, and to him the often dismissive and cruel treatment of homosexuality by Hollywood stood only to rub salt into the wounds of a deeply wronged community.
He lived to witness a brief period of fascination with homosexuality and gay liberation that began to filter through Hollywood and onto TV. But ultimately Russo still decried the stereotypical representation of gay and lesbian people, and he was uncomfortable at the best of times with representations of drag and effeminacy, as were many of his 1970s gay liberation cohort.
I still think The Celluloid Closet is one of the most fascinating and comprehensive histories of film ever produced, and certainly the most readable. A documentary was also made of the book after Russo died, and this is well worth seeing.
Russo hoped to see a day in which the sexual outlaw could also be the hero, and I'm not at all sure that that day has come. I often wonder what he would make of the endless (mostly) gay characters we witness now in film and television who serve as witty neuters and constant "best friends" to glamorous female leads? Or perhaps re-reading Russo has filled me with a little of the good old-fashioned indignationand energy for justice that he so embodied.


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