The Celluloid Closet

DIRECTORS: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

Exactly twenty years after its theatrical release, and despite a generation’s worth of LGBT-themed films and characters entering the American media mainstream since then, San Francisco-based documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s The Celluloid Closet remains an indispensable—and profoundly moving—record of the way Hollywood depicted gays and lesbians throughout the 20th century. Drawing from the groundbreaking work of the late film historian and activist Vito Russo (who in 1986 received the very first Frameline Award), and weaving together countless film clips from the obscure (Charlie Chaplin’s 1916 Behind the Screen) to the infamous (Cruising, Basic Instinct), The Celluloid Closet powerfully demonstrates how movies reflected and reinforced the deep-seated distrust, mockery, and downright hysteria with which mainstream America viewed (and often still views) sexual minorities. The film’s stellar cast of interviewees—including Tony Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Quentin Crisp, Whoopi Goldberg, and Susan Sarandon—provide firsthand accounts of the behind-the-scenes attitudes that shaped how homosexual characters were portrayed and same-sex love was erased or vilified on camera. It is a legacy that resonates to this day; as Lily Tomlin reminds us, in Armistead Maupin’s deft narration, “Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gays and gay people what to think about themselves.” As entertaining and sometimes campy as Hollywood’s gay cavalcade can be, The Celluloid Closet is a poignant reminder of the long lavender shadow the movies have cast on LGBT lives.

— Peter L. Stein

Co-presented by:
San Francisco LGBT Community Center

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