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8 minute read
Richard Corliss

AS THE NIGHTCLUB CROWD WAITS impatiently downstairs, Starina, the headliner, sits at her dressing table. She powders away the age lines. She applies mascara to the eyes that have bewitched a thousand sailors. She runs an electric shaver over her chin stubble. It’s hard work being a drag queen, as Starina (Nathan Lane), diva deluxe of The Birdcage, can testify.

And as any moviegoer can tell you, it’s even harder to find much evidence of homosexuals on the Hollywood screen. The Birdcage, opening this week, is the rare exception. This gently supportive comedy about gays, a sweet parable of family values, has Robin Williams and Gene Hackman for star quality, writer Elaine May and director Mike Nichols to provide 80 years of comedy know-how, and a famous property for box-office insurance–the hit French play and film La Cage aux Folles. In short, this new version is no more threatening to mainstream American sensibilities than the pro-Indian Pocahontas.

Maybe once a year, a big studio trots out a big picture with similarly sympathetic gay characters in leading roles: To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar last year, Philadelphia before that. Is this enough to constitute enlightenment?

Hardly, as a spiffy new documentary, The Celluloid Closet, amply demonstrates. For nearly a century, Hollywood has done a shoddy, often slanderous job of showing what it is like to be homosexual. Adroitly assembled by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, with narration written by Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City) and read by Lily Tomlin, Celluloid Closet is by turns funny and poignant. It interlaces old clips (for instance, a peignoired Cary Grant declaring, in Bringing Up Baby, “I just went gay all of a sudden!”) with cogent commentary by Gore Vidal, Harvey Fierstein and others. It should be getting raves at Oscar time–except that, like Crumb and Hoop Dreams last year, Celluloid Closet was denied a nomination by the Academy’s documentary committee.

In this film (and in another enticing compilation, David Johnson’s The Lavender Lens: 100 Years of Celluloid Queers, available in some video stores), we see gay characters haunting the corners of the film frame. From the early days of silent films (when Charlie Chaplin, in a barbershop, gives a cruel hairdo to an effeminate man) to the ’90s (when gay or bisexual murderers lend lurid pizazz to The Silence of the Lambs and Basic Instinct), American films–like America itself–have typically treated gays as a joke or a curse.

Homosexuality was described as a disease, a mental illness, the most mortal of sins. Its carriers were monsters or, the luckier ones, martyrs. With few exceptions they have been members of the movies’ creepiest underclass: the men more feminine than the heroine, foils to make the hero look more masculine; the women as big as truck drivers and miles meaner. And that was on the rare occasions when they were there at all. Mostly, homosexuals have had nonperson status in movies. What a destiny, in movies or in life: to be either reviled or invisible.

Briefly, in the early ’30s, gays were familiar screen types: “pansies” (often played by Franklin Pangborn) for comic relief and, more heroically, bisexual heroines (incarnated by Garbo and Dietrich) who looked thrillingly glamorous in their tuxedos and bachelor togs. That was old Hollywood’s highest compliment to a woman–that she acted and thought like a man–just as new Hollywood accepts films with transvestites, men who act and think like women. In the ’50s, gayness could be viewed as a social disease (in Tea and Sympathy) or with oblique rapture (in the torrid gaze of Stephen Boyd’s Messala at Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur).

When gays were not figures of suave or silly decadence, they were figures of fear, preying on normal people and meriting Hollywood’s sternest judgment. They were murdered–and a good thing too–in Caged and Suddenly, Last Summer. The nicer ones were left to their own misery, suicide being the only solution for characters who either had a homosexual fling (Don Murray in Advise and Consent) or were accused of one (Shirley MacLaine in The Children’s Hour). Moral: the only good gay was a dead gay. It took the 1970 film of Mart Crowley’s hit play The Boys in the Band to find good news amid the woe. As one character noted, “Not all faggots bump themselves off at the end of the story.”

The movies, as commentators of every political stripe have noted, are a glamorous mirror of society. Growing up, we all find ourselves, in part, by finding aspects of ourselves onscreen. Gays didn’t. “You feel like a ghost,” essayist Susie Bright (author of Sexwise) says in The Celluloid Closet, “a ghost that nobody believes in.” So gays went looking for kinship in any movie character who was artistic, flamboyant, wounded. They still do, and some of the subtextual readings in The Celluloid Closet result in eyestrain. “We know the Sal Mineo character in Rebel Without a Cause is gay,” asserts British film historian Richard Dyer, “partly because he has a picture of Alan Ladd in his locker.” Well, maybe Mineo was just…sensitive. But even if these interpretations are wrong, they are telling: they indicate how desperate some gays have been to find their reflection onscreen–even in code or in could-be, should-be wish fulfillment.

The Celluloid Closet tells us things are better now. But that is mainly on the independent scene, where nobody’s betting real money. In the films most people see, gays are still crippled in some way. Tom Hanks can be the good, dying gay man in Philadelphia–but no passionate kiss for your boyfriend, please. In the thriller Copycat, the gay character is not the serial killer, he is the heroine’s best friend–but he still gets murdered. And gay baiting is still acceptable; “faggot” remains the epithet du jour of movie machismo. In Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, early line favorite for the top Oscars, the English prince who will become Edward II dares to have a male lover at court. The King’s response: he throws the lover out a high castle window, then contemptuously swats his whining son aside.

Maybe The Birdcage–with its Romeo and Juliet plot about two young lovers and their opposing families, one gay, one straight–will challenge a few prejudices. For a start, it’s funny, with two of the world’s most gifted comics, Lane and Williams, as the drag queen and his slightly more butch companion. Lane is wildly endearing: a tempestuous wife, a doting mother and every inch the great lady. The film gets less comic mileage, but more political kick, from the right-wing politician (Hackman) who is the butt of the film’s genial jokes. He might be Pat Robertson or Pat Buchanan on a bad day. In the mistaken-identity dinner party that serves as the film’s third act, it is his function to be enlightened–not to forgive the gay couple for any crime against nature but to realize that charm and devotion have their place in every family, every life-style.

The Birdcage is about reconciliation: of two families, of opposing social and sexual points of view, but also of the two meanings of gay; the word can suggest happiness as a part of homosexuality. The film is bold enough to propose the integration of gays–and by extension of anyone “different”–into an America that at the moment seems ready to take up arms and shoot holes in the melting pot. Indeed, that may be a part of Hollywood’s continuing reluctance to confront the issue. As exotics–drag queens or dying swans–gays are fine fodder for movies. But Hollywood sees little need to show that the vast majority of gays are ordinary, reasonably complicated people. They are the folks who work next to you at the steel press or in the sales office.

Or in the film studio. For the final irony is that Hollywood, with its dozens of gay stars, its hundreds of gays in positions of creative and executive power, is afraid to depict homosexual life–the world it knows and could persuasively dramatize. The whole town, timid as ever, prefers to reside in one huge, beautifully appointed celluloid closet. Or a gilded birdcage with a cover over it. The world looks safe and cozy from inside. Why would anyone want to come out?

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