hundred years of movies, homosexuality has only rarely been depicted on the screen. When
it did appear, it was there as something to laugh at -- or something to pity -- or even
something to fear. These were fleeting images, but they were unforgettable, and they left
a lasting legacy. Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to
think about gay people... and gay people what to think about themselves.
The Celluloid Closet by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
In general we can say that homosexuality, or the suggestion of it, has been with us since the movies were born. One of the earliest surviving motion picture images is a primitive test made at Thomas Edison's studio, in which two men dance together while a third plays the fiddle.
From the very beginning, movies could rely on homosexuality as a surefire source of humor.
In early comedies of the teens and twenties,
homo behavior was a common joke. A popular gag in parodies of the western was to insert a
flamboyantly effeminate pansy into the world of the macho cowboy (Wanderer of the
West and The Soilers). As film historian Richard Dyer demonstrates,
describing a scene in which a burly stagehand taunts Charlie Chaplin for supposedly
kissing a boy in Behind the Screen, the equation of male homosexuality with
effeminacy was already so firmly in place that a popular mainstream film could
assume that the audience would know what that swishy [behavior] was all about.
Then the Sissy appeared in the world of movies - Hollywood's first gay stock character.
The Sissy made everyone feel more manly or more womanly by occupying the space in between. He didn't seem to have a sexuality, so Hollywood allowed him to thrive.
The Celluloid Closet
A movie by the homosexual director George Cukor, Our Betters,
includes Mr. Ernest - an astonishingly swishy fop. Character actors like Edward Everett
Horton made careers out of characters of vague sexuality. Backstage stories like
Broadway Melody and Myrt and Marge featured fey costume designers
- comic characters whose humor was based on male effeminacy.
Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen recalls these sissy characters from her youth:
were sissies, and they were never addressed as homosexuals. It was a convention that was
totally accepted. They were perceived as homosexuals just subliminally. This was a subject
that was not discussed, privately. Certainly not publicly."
There has always been a big difference between a man
dressing like a woman or a woman dressing like a man. Sissy characters a man
dressed like a woman causes laughter. A woman dressed like a man like
Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930) the audience loves and thinks that is sexy.
Even Greta Garbo raised eyebrows
with her portrait of Queen Christina (1933), based on the life of a sixteenth
century lesbian ruler of Sweden. When Christina is admonished by her Chancellor, But
your Majesty, you cannot die an old maid, Garbo proudly retorts, I have no
intention to, Chancellor. I shall die a bachelor!
In the 30s powerful forces were already at work against this freedom within movies. Religious and women's groups had been protesting the movies' permissiveness throughout the twenties and thirties, lobbying for federal censorship of the movies. The early Hays Code was a token gesture seldom taken seriously. By 1934, even the Catholic Church had devised a scheme of its own. The Legion of Decency not only rated movies as to content, but threatened massive boycotts. Hollywood promised to play by the rules.
For all its efforts, the Production Code didn't erase homosexuals from the screen; it just made them harder to find. And now they had a new identity -- as cold-blooded villains.
At this time a lot of movie directors used subtle homosexual characters which were used to make villains more menacing (Rebecca, The Maltese Falcon, Rope, ). Using his experiences as a screenwriter of Ben-Hur, Gore Vidal illustrated how a writer, working together with the director and an actor, can hint at a gay relationship even in a biblical epic.
Hollywood had learned to write movies
between the lines, and some members of the audience had learned to watch them that way.
Richard Dyer, reflecting on the movies of this period, finds parallels with what it was like for gay people in the real world:
We could only express ourselves indirectly, just as people on the screen could only express themselves indirectly... the characters are in the closet, the movie is in the closet, and we were in the closet.
By the early fifties, lesbians are suggested on the screen by tough masculine girls behind bars or as a troublesome neurotic (Lauren Bacall in Young Man With a Horn).
These women were
a warning to ladies, to just watch it and get back to the kitchen, where God meant them to
Jay Presson Allen
Other such films during this period include:
"Johnny Guitar, "Red
River, "In a Lonely Place, "Gilda", Gentlemen Prefer
Blondes, Pillow Talk, Some Like It Hot,
Spartacus, Suddenly Last Summer, The Bride of
Faced with the competition from more sexually explicit foreign films, as well as from the newly popular invention, television, filmmakers searched for new ways to attract audiences. Producers were convinced that audiences would pay to see films with more adult themes. Therefore, by the early sixties, the Code had gradually been whittled away. The only remaining restriction was sex perversion.
Two filmmakers, Otto Preminger and William Wyler, set out to make films that would smash the last taboo. Otto Preminger forced the issue by announcing that the Production Code had been revised to allow him to film the bestseller Advise and Consent, a movie which includes a subplot concerning a US Senator who is blackmailed about a homosexual affair in his past. William Wyler's The Children's Hour, starring Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn, dealt with accusations of lesbianism in a girls' school.
Both these films dealt with homosexuality as something shameful, as though it was a dirty secret. These films often had a devastating affect on the psyches of young gay people in the audience. In film after film (The Detective, Caged, Dracula's Daughter, The Fox, Rebel Without a Cause, Johnny Guitar, Rebecca, Suddenly Last Summer, The Children's Hour) characters of questionable sexuality meet their end in the last reel.
Just when it looked like there was no hope for gay characters anywhere...
Finally it happened. Hollywood made a movie in which gay people took a long, hard look at their own lives. And, in a refreshing twist, they all survived.
The Celluloid Closet
The movie was Boys In the Band and for young gay men it offered an image of homosexuality as having a incredible sense of camaraderie. By the time the film was released thousands of gay men and lesbians had taken to the streets in the name of "gay liberation." As gay people made themselves more visible in the world, they also became more visible on the screen.
The Celluloid Closet