‘The Celluloid Closet’: a history of Hollywood’s depiction of homosexuality

During the forties there were clear intimations of it in Rope (1948), Victory and The Maltese Falcon. The fifties brought I Vitelloni, Strangers On a Train, Suddenly Last Summer, Serious Charge, and the decade was rounded off with two productions of the life of Oscar Wilde. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Spartacus were probably the last two Hollywood movies to have homosexual  inferences deliberately removed from the original. The character of Brick, played by Paul Newman in the film is unable to make Love to Elizabeth Taylor, but the film ignores the playwright Tennesee Williams’ reasons for this, i.e latent homosexuality, and replaces it with a drinking problem.

In 1962 the subject was bought right out into the open with Victim. In it servant Dirk Bogarde blackmails his master whom he knows to be gay. A Taste of Honey featured a sympathetic homosexual, ie, not a criminal, pyschopath or murderer; and Advise and Consent and The Best Man concerned allegations against American politicians. On the other hand Lawrence of Arabia was so shy in showing any signs of  its hero’s sexual make-up that it was difficult to know what estimate was being made (T.E. Lawrence was known to have had many gay relationships), but for good measure Peter O’Toole (what a  great name for a porn-star) was raped in Lord Jim.

By now universal romantic comedies were starting to make fun of the subject: in That Touch of Mink Gig Young’s psychiatrist thought he was in love with Cary Grant, and in A Very Special Favour Rock Hudson deliberately acted effeminately so that Leslie Caron would feel inclined to ‘rescue’ him.

Tea and Sympathy

Now the floodgates were opened: in short succession we had A View from the Bridge, with its male kiss; The Servant with its odd relationship between master and Servant (Dirk Bogarde again); The Leather Boys (what a title); Stranger In The House; The Fearless Vampire Killers (the bloodsucking vampire is gay) the miscast and unhappy Staircase, The Detective, which made New York appear to be a very gay city; The Gay deceivers, in which two men avoid the draft by pretending to be queer: Reflections In a Golden Eye; Midnight Cowboy; The Boys In The Band, the first sympathetic homosexual comedy; The Boston Strangler and Funeral In Berlin; If, Young Woodley, Tea and Sympathy, Riot, The Sergeant and Villain which revealed camp goings-on in school, prison and gangland. Girl Stroke Boy revealed the plight of parents unable to tell whether theirson is engaged to a boy or a girl.


In Myra Beckenbridge (adapted from Gore Vidal’s novel) homosexuality was lost in a welter of more spectacular perversions.

Historical figures Richard the Lionheart and Tchaicovsky had their sexual pecadilloes explored in The Lion In Winter and the Music Lovers respectively. Billy Wilder jokingly investigated The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. There has always been a homoerotic undercurrent to Holmes and Watson hasn’t there?

Lonesome cowboys private_life_of_sherlock_holmes_1970

TV got in on the subject with That Certain Summer in 1973. There wasn’t much further to go as gays had their own porno films. 1978 brought the last curiousity: a Different Story, the love affair between a gay man and a lesbian.

A new era 

Harvey Fierstein’s semi-autobiographical The Torchsong Trilogy had less impact on the screen than on the stage. Fierstein did the voice of Carl on The Simpsons episode Samson and Delilah. ..Trilogy went hand in hand with a new camp sensibility that appeared in La Cage au Folles and its sequels, as well as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, some of Andy Warhol’s films, like Lonesome Cowboys, and the work of John Waters.


The mood changed in the eighties with AIDS becoming more prevalent and killing many young performers. British director Derek Jarman reacted by making a contemporary film of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.

Younger directors

Working outside the mainstream in the early nineties were Greg Araki and Todd Haynes, who proclaimed a new ‘queer cinema’. Tom Kalin’s Swoon (puts the homo back in hiomicide claimed the publicity) looked at the Leopold Loeb murders from a homosexual viewpoint; Todd Haynes’s Poison looked at social and sexual deviance with the equanamity of Jean Genet. The Living End had two homosexuals taking revenge on a straight world; Mark Rappaport looked at Rock Hudson’s performances from a gay perspective.


Two examples of new queer cinema

Gus Van Sant enjoyed success with My Private Idaho, about a narcoleptic hustler, it starred River Pheonix and Keanu Reeves.

Director Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels had a black and white male as its protagonists, unthinkable in mainstream cinema.

Philadelphia won an Oscar for Tom Hanks but upset many AIDS activists.

In 1997 Stephen Fry reminded us of past persecutions with Wilde, a role many would consider him born to play.1997, WILDE

Dream casting: Stephen Fry as Oscar Wilde

Meanwhile in the same year Rupert Everett concentrated on present pleasures as Julia Roberts’ gay companion in My Best Friend’s Wedding; Everett’s revelations that he was a rent boy made it difficult for his long term prospects as a film actor.

Most recently same sex love was depicted, albeit very cautiously, in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain 2005. 

When all is considered, this is not a subject mainstream cinema has been keen on investigating. The most groundbreaking productions have been for tv, witness Queer As Folk and Tipping the Velvet.

Sadly, there is still a perception that its more acceptable for a straight actor to play a gay role than vice versa. Indeed, I can think of no known gay actor to have been offered a role as a straight man, but hopefully that will change soon.



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