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The Celluloid Closet: A Brief History of Queer Cinema

We take a brief look back at queer cinema from the 1930s to the 1990s.
The 1995 American documentary film The Celluloid Closet by director-producer duo Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman was released at the tail-end of a movement that film theorist B. Ruby Rich famously dubbed “New Queer Cinema.” The movement marked a crucial turning point in the history of cinema, as portrayals of LGBT people finally became more humane and favourable in both mainstream and independent films.

As more and more openly gay filmmakers rose to the forefront of cinema through the film festival circuit, hurtful depictions of the LGBT became less common and were met with protest – as was the case during the release of the 1991 movie The Silence of the Lambs, which features a homicidal transvestite who abducts overweight women.

The Celluloid Closet details the many types of negative representation of members of the LGBT community in Hollywood films over the course of the twentieth century. Many early films – e.g. during the 1920’s and early ’30s, an era known as “Pre-code Hollywood” that gave filmmakers practically unlimited freedom of expression before strict censorship laws took effect – featured the gay stock character known as the “sissy.” This painted homosexual men as effeminate males who are easily frightened, overly stylish, and flamboyant in behaviour, suggesting that because they are “lady-like,” they are inferior to heterosexual, cisgender men. These sissy characters never broke out of the supporting role, never got what they were after, and were often the object of laughter rather than praise and honour.

The homosexual woman, on the other hand, was occasionally presented more positively than the gay man in early cinema. In the lesbian bars of Weimer-era Germany during the start of the 1930’s, films that featured Marlene Dietrich like Morocco or The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel) and the 1931 film Mädchen in Uniform quickly developed cult followings. Lesbian relationships were hinted at – rarely directly suggested, but when they were, homosexual relationships were almost always shown in a negative light. For example, the 1961 feature film The Children’s Hour, based on the 1934 play of the same name, starred Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as lesbian lovers. The film set up their homosexual relationship and the consequences they faced as a cautionary tale. Their love for one another was something that both women were deeply ashamed of having.

The Celluloid Closet notes that Hollywood departed from portraying homosexual men as sissies and lightly condemning homosexuality by showing it as something odd, funny, or shameful depending on the tone of the film – i.e. dramas often depicted characters overcome with guilt because of their sexual orientation and comedies poked fun at it, for example how it would be funny if a woman rejected a man to dance with another woman – and moved rather drastically into depicting homosexuality as something evil and deeply shameful.

LGBT characters from the 1930’s onwards appeared on the silver screen as villains – homewreckers, creepy outcasts, psychotic transvestites, promiscuous bisexuals, you name it. Some viewers felt that any type of representation was better than being invisible and completely ignored, but others understood that images projected into the world negatively affect perceptions of homosexuality and how people treat us.

Towards the end of the film, The Celluloid Closet praises many films that positively depicted LGBT characters during the late 1980’s until 1995, when the documentary was made. New Queer Cinema was a welcome change in the film industry and suggested, at the time, that a better future was in store for members of the LGBT.

Several films of the early 1990’s, particularly Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1991), Todd Haynes’s Poison (1992) and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (1990), were a watershed for lesbian and gay cinema, marking the beginning of this queer new wave. Filmmakers of this unofficial, but highly influential movement – like Gus van Sant and Pedro Almodóvar – were able to gain international popularity and acclaim through works like My Own Private Idaho (1993) and All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre, 1999).

Thanks to the influential writers and directors of this age, we now have many films with brilliant, multi-faceted LGBT characters with stories of their own, character development and depth, romantic interests (that they can end up with), and, above all, a voice and pride.

Written by Lilja Valtonen

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