Approve of it or not, homosexuality is a reality. Movies at their best should mirror reality.
Homosexuality in films has always been an interesting subject. Some would rather not remember the terrible ways which gays have been cast upon the silver screen, and even more so it seems some will not change such representation. Granted there seems to a slight change in the openness and honesty attributed to these roles, but still for every sensitively-drawn and accurate gay character there is an ice-pick wielding psychopath waiting in the next Hollywood lot.
I got curious about how it was, why, when, and by whom, watched "The Celluloid Closet," and learned a couple things. After reading a bit, I now have complied some information, humbly presented to okayplayer.com, ready for interpretation, dissection, and discussion.
"In a 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."-Vito Russo
In the Beginning:
-In The Florida Enchantment (1914): Two women dance off together, leaving their bewildered men folk to shrug, and dance off together themselves.
-A popular gag in parodies of the western was to insert a flamboyantly effeminate pansy into the world of the macho cowboy, i.e. Wanderer of the West (1927) The Soilers (1923.)
Film historian Richard Dyer: 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.
Enter the Sissy:
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 seemed to have a sexuality, so Hollywood allowed him to thrive.
-Ours Better (1933): The character of Mr. Ernetst, an astonishingly swishy fop.
-The Broadway Melody (1929) & Myrt and Marge (1934): Comic characters whose humor was based on male effeminacy.
Screenwriter Jay Presson Allen (Cabaret, Prince of the City): There were sissies, and they were never addressed as homosexuals. It was a convention that was totally accepted. They were perceived as homosexuals just subliminally."
Many looking back on that time saw them as ignorant clichés, "like Steppin Fetchit for the blacks."
The Vision is Seen:
Policies and censorship were not to be so strict for another couple years. This relative freedom (compared to the coming times) lead way for some big screen homosexual representations.
-Morocco (1930): Dietrich's first nightclub performance exudes an androgynous eroticism (as she) tuxedo-clad accepts a flower from a female admirer and nonchalantly kisses her on the lips.
-Call Her Savage (1932): Hollywood's first glimpse at a gay bar (and to be the last for another three decades.)
-Queen Christina (1933): Based on the life of a sixteenth century lesbian ruler of Sweden. While the movie invented a heterosexual romance, hints of her lesbianism remain.
The Shackles That Were:
The Hays Code From March 1934 (excerpts)
-Motion picture producers recognize the high trust and confidence which have been placed in them by the people of the world and which have made motion pictures a universal form of entertainment.
-The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.
-A man may be judged by his standard of entertainment as easily as by the standard of his work.
-All out of a regard for the sanctity of marriage and the home . . .
-In the case of impure love, the love which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been banned by divine law, the following are important:
-It must not be presented in such a way to arouse passion or morbid curiosity on the part of the audience.
-It must not be made to seem right and permissible.
-In general, it must not be detailed in method and manner.
So there already was a national taboo and disease attached to homosexuality and now the Hays Code aimed to make sure this "impure love" if represented, was done so minimally and in a way not contradicting from the manner in "which society has always regarded as wrong . . ."
The Hays Code, which came from the Production Code Administration, picked up steam during the great depression years and especially when conservative Joseph Breen was made head. The first major example of censorship coming to play involved nude scenes from 1934's "Tarzan and his Mate," where several sections of the film's intended print were edited out. At this time the hays code began explicitly expressing their distaste and discomfort for what they saw as "sexual perversion" by "prohibiting films from using the words lesbian or gay."
Notable movies that lost their story on the cutting room floor.
-Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958): Brick Pollitt's sexual identity and curiosity
-Spartacus (1960): A suggestive scene in which Spartacus bathes his master.
Competition Spurs (Some) Changes & Much Distress:
Hollywood was hurting. Faced with 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. By the early sixties, the Code had gradually been whittled away. The only remaining restriction was "sex perversion."
-The Children's Hour (1961): Hepburn & MacLaine lesbian relationship took shape, which had been censored in a previous version of the story, These Three (1936.) Still in the end the final reels of the movie casts the characters as mentally disturbed and abnormal.
-Walk on the Wild Side (1962): A lesbian role was actually written (adapted from the novel by Nelson Algren), but in lecherous Madame hell-bent and fatally vengeful.
-The Detective (1968): This presented a view of homosexuals as desperate, unhappy, self-loathing -- and ultimately murderous.
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.
And Then . . .
-The Boys in the Band (1970): The first major-studio production to deal frankly with homosexuality.
"If we could just not hate ourselves so much. That's it, you know. If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so very much."
But Still . . .
Still the gays portrayed on screen were done so in not the most glorious of lights. They were called "faggots" and now not shown as victims, but rather victimizers.
Ellen Carton, director of the New York GLADD: "We had moved from suicide to homicide."
-Cruising (1980): Psychopaths and gritty gay S&M fetish.
-Windows (1980): Gay groups were indignant that the stalker-whose identity is revealed in the opening scenes-is a very rich, very unbalanced lesbian.
-The Fan (1981): A slasher film, with one killing whose homoerotic subtext got the film in a lot of trouble with the gay community.
Somebody Has a Problem:
"I think Americans are perhaps more scared of their sexuality," suggests gay British director John Schlesinger. "They're prepared to show violence of all kinds, but when it comes to sexuality I think America is both self-righteous and tries to bury it as if it didn't exist."
Screenwriter Susie Bright: "There's a comfort with female nudity and female girlishness and girlie bonding that can be sexy, and it can be completely palatable, even erotic. There's just a world of difference between how an audience looks at two men getting it on, and two women getting it on."
Whoopi Goldberg: "Straight men are more uncomfortable with two men making love because somehow that means you're weak."
Susan Sarandon: "I don't think, for better or worse, that women are taken very seriously in this area. It's actually something that straight men can watch and not be threatened by, and straight men are the ones that are propelling the industry forward."