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The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies

4.15  ·  Rating Details ·  1,856 Ratings  ·  46 Reviews

Praised by the Chicago Tribune as "an impressive study" and written with incisive wit and searing perceptionthe definitive, highly acclaimed landmark work on the portrayal of homosexuality in film.

Unknown Binding, 276 pages
Published January 1st 1981 by HarperCollins Publishers
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Reread this as it was the main textbook of a Queer Film undergrad class I helped out with last semester, and my initial reaction was more or less confirmed: when analyzing LGBTQ representation in classic Hollywood and other early cinemas Russo is as enlightening as he fun to read, but when he gets to post-Code representation he goes into Righteous Anger mode and it just all starts getting very numbing and increasingly unnuanced. For some reason Russo can locate endless resistance and subversiven ...more
Russo's is an impeccably argued tract. I can't imagine a better thought-out analysis of the predicament of gays and lesbians and their presentation in film in the pre- and immediate post-Stonewall era of the cinema. He zeroes in on the wider attitudes of society, nails the nature of the mixed messages in films with overt or coded gay content, even in films that were supposedly relatively enlightened. This book proves a film study can be written with a popular clarity and
Richard Derus
Rating: 3* of five

A groundbreaking revelation when it came out almost 30 years ago, this book, as revised by its author in 1987, is very dated; and it's never been my idea of a prose paradigm.

I admit I was going down the primrose path of nostalgia when I decided to read this revised edition. I'd read the first edition as an eager young slut-about-town, yearning to impress the Older Men (25! 30! Oh, those old roues!) I was seducing in job lots with my encyclopedic knowledge of their old-fashioned
This was a very interesting book that deserves its reputation as a classic but does have (at least in my opinion) a few flaws.

First and foremost, the research that went into this book is excellent. Russo describes the development of gay characters in motion pictures from the silent movies and the early talkies until the mid 1980s.
The best part is the one about the early days up to the 1950s (or what Russo calls the stereotyp of the "sissy"). It's very detailed and features a very good analysis
Dec 04, 2012 April rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: film
Albeit a dated book, it's a very informative look at the portrayal of homosexuality on film and the extent of which it has been previously caged. Despite flaws, I never lost interest; it was for me the first glimpse into the transformation of film and how far it has come in the past century or two. It also introduced me to a number of new movies I watched and enjoyed and for that I am eternally grateful.

*also the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman is a co
Neil Schleifer
Aug 08, 2010 Neil Schleifer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: politics
People's roles within a society are defined by those in power. For centuries homosexuality was defined by those in power as alternatively pathologiccal (a mental disorder) or morally deviant and evil. Vito Russo shows how in the medium of film, from silents through the 1990's, the portrayal of gays and lesbians on film was defined by the powers that be as villainous, tainted, manipulative schemers; hiding in shadows or flamboyantly hip-swaying down the street, limp wrists akimbo, and alternately ...more
Jeffrey Richards
While Vito Russo's ground-breaking and definitive tomb mapping the representation of homosexuals and homosexuality on film published in 1981 (and updated in 1987) it is far from dated. Whether you're into queer studies or not, this is a must read to see how far we have come and how far we still have to go in regards to how to homosexuals (and all minorities, really) have been treated throughout the history of the American cinema. Highly recommend!
Apr 01, 2011 Carlos rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating and frank study of the representation of the LGBT community in cinema! Russo’s analysis is incredibly insightful and a thoroughly enjoyable read thanks to the humor and irony with which the book in filled. I would recommend it to anyone who is even mildly interested in the LGBT rights movements as Russo shows how cinema more than anything serves as a barometer for the relationship between mainstream culture and the LGBT minority.
Karina Westermann
Uneven. The first section is great - the early years of American cinema and the representation of homosexuality. Russo is informed and congenial. Later, he appears to know less about his subject (oddly enough). The same films are discussed at length and some strange omissions/slights occur. Once we hit the 1980s, the slights and omissions become glaring. Still, an important work and one I'm glad to have read.
Read this for an essay, and I enjoyed it, having seen the docu a few times. The book has more space for a deeper look at some of the examples that flies back on film. One of my favourite random facts in the book: Greta Garbo once "expressed...her desire to play in a film version of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray with herself in the title role and Marilyn Monroe as a young girl ruined by Dorian". Imagine how AWESOME that could've been?
Isaac Timm
Apr 12, 2013 Isaac Timm rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, 2013
Russo study of film is fantastic, but I was also moved by his views on advocacy, and his powerful insights on being an outsider, and how stereotypes, even positive ones, cause harm. The term Russo uses, ghettoized, really pulled together many of the ideas I've seen in other book aimed at historical analysis. An amazing work that covers a broad scope of time and theme but does not lose the reader, or become dry and sterile.
Dec 12, 2014 Matthew rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A classic in film criticism and queer history, Russo's prose can be a tad dry, but it is an illuminating look at how movies and the dominant culture have dealt with homosexuality in the 20th century.
Thomas Knoch
Jan 11, 2014 Thomas Knoch rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the books that really shaped the way I look at life and my favorite art form, the movies. I had to buy it over and over because I would lend it to friends who would baldly state, without any doubt, "You know I'm not giving this back, don't you?".
Sep 26, 2009 Surreysmum rated it really liked it
[These notes were made in 1984; I read the 1981 Harper & Row edition:]. You wouldn't think, in fact, there would be much to write on the subject of gays in the movies, at least up until the 1960s. And, in fact, this book deals, for its first two-thirds, with (a) suppression of gay themes by the censors within and without the industry, and (b) gay sub-texts. Occasionally there is some really interesting information - apparently Gore Vidal wanted a gay motivation in the relationship between Be ...more
Lee Anne
Apr 27, 2013 Lee Anne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In summer of 2012, HBO ran a documentary about Vito Russo, and I loved it and decided to read this, his life's work.

This is a very readable and eye-opening, exhaustive overview of the way gay characters have been portrayed in movies, from the beginning of cinema until the mid-eighties, when this was written and revised. It covers a LOT of ground, and only occasionally dips into what I found to be over-reacting. But I don't want to focus on that, as I agreed with 99% of what Russo says here. It r
I'm a fan of secret history--I'd had no idea that there was this whole story of homosexuality in cinema, mostly implicit and hidden, which spanned the twentieth century.

There was an entire language of (almost entirely male) homosexuality throughout the various movements of the cinema, building on (and never questioning) stereotypes of gay men as effeminate, incomplete, and broken. It didn't just affect depictions of gay men, either; the threat of homosexuality was omnipresent, requiring that clo
Tristan Goding
This was an insanely fascinating book for me to read. Not only did it shed light on how homosexuality was been depicted before, but it also helped me to understand why certain stereotypes exist in gay culture and how, due to the media's influence, a lot of members of the gay community have played into those very abhorrent depictions that exist and continue to exist to some degree. It allowed me to develop an understanding of where these ideas come from, and it granted me a greater appreciation a ...more
Sep 24, 2011 Melissa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: pop-culture, film
I read this book around the time it first came out. Since then I've read it at least 2 more times. I've since read a very scathing review of it which was written in response to its 30th anniversary edition that has made me rethink it to a degree but I still think it is a valuable contribution to film history. It certainly helped to fuel my abiding interest in film and film lore. I think the reviewer made some valid points but he is coming from the point of view of a much younger gay man who grew ...more
True story. Late 1980s.
My much more worldly neighbor: The New Kids on the Block are cute, but they're gay.
Me: Gay? What does that mean?
Her: You know, they like sleep together and stuff.
Me, uncomprehendingly: Oh. (I concluded that the New Kids must hold slumber parties, and only girls must be allowed to have sleepovers, not boys.)

If you've ever wondered where some of the worst popular stereotypes of gay people originated, this book will take you on a tour from the dawn of the medium until the 198
The world was robbed of the witty, courageous, and forward-looking thinker that was Vito Russo when he died of AIDS in 1990 at age 44. Now considered a classic text on the subject of gays and lesbians in film, Closet still speaks to us today. And it's often relevant well beyond context of movies, too. Towards the end of the book, I encountered this:

"Bigots are real people. There's a reason why they hate what's different. They fear change; they don't understand losing control over a world they th
Freyja Vanadis
I read this book and saw the movie they made about it back in the mid 1990s, but I don't remember being as disgusted as I am now. The late Vito Russo knew his movies, but in several of the old movies made in the first half of the 20th century, it seems like he was trying hard to manufacture a gay connection when there wasn't one. And then, when he added some chapters for the second edition he published in 1988, he threw all objectivity out the window. Anyone who doesn't agree with his take on ho ...more
Aug 07, 2007 Lauren rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: gay movie lovers
I first read this book for a Feminist Film class in college, but have returned to it now and then as I've matured in my movie-going. It's probably the most comprehensive guide to gay representation in film (up until the date it was published, of course), and a must-read for any armchair film critics. A documentary was released by the same name in the mid-90s that makes a great companion to the book, particularly if you haven't seen all of the films Russo writes about. I dock it one star because ...more
Sep 09, 2014 Abiyasha rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm not really a fan of non-fiction but when I found out that this book is about homosexuality in Hollywood, I couldn't resist to read it. First because I love old movies and this book is exactly about that, since the early years of cinema and second, it's how Hollywood had treat homosexuality in their movies.

Now I know the history of homosexuality in cinema and I highlighted many movies in this book that are worth to check out. To movie lovers, especially old movie and who interested in the th
Aug 13, 2008 Tove rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Vito Russo's opinionated voice traces the history of how homosexuals have been portrayed (or not portrayed, as the case has been) in movies since the silent screen era. He tackles the subject approximately chronologically by theme, integrates many specific references to many movies, reviews, and quotations from people directly involved with the making of mentioned films. It is an engaging and enlightening read.
I don't know about other nerds, but I almost never read nonfiction books start to finish -- I usually skip around finding things that interest me. This was the exception. I started at the beginning and pretty much devoured it down to the appendices. Fascinating and eminently readable, even if (or perhaps especially if) a few times I fervently wished that I could write to the author and argue with him about a few of his points.
Jason Vanhee
Sep 17, 2016 Jason Vanhee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sadly just as informative as it must have been 30 years ago. I said sadly because it means that in three decades, there's been not much additional information compiled, no particularly notable works, nothing. Partly it's because this book is so well respected, but partly it's because the history of homosexuality is still less studied than it should be. A great (if peculiarly dated) work.
Dec 05, 2009 Korri rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: queer, film-and-tv
A fascinating pioneering work about the censorship of homosexual characters & elements in Hollywood films as well as identification of homosexual tropes & motifs. It lacks a rigorous framework and critical analyses but is a good starting point from which to examine representations of homosexuality in film.
Jun 19, 2014 Leslie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There were time when I wished Russo had explored things more deeply or taken his arguments further and I had to remind myself that this book came out in 1981--1981!--and he laid the groundwork for all the work that's been done since. Groundbreaking. And I have a whole bunch of films I want to hunt down and watch.
Nov 07, 2013 James rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating look at how gays have - and have not - been portrayed on film from the dawn of cinema to 1987. I didn't fully appreciate what a terrible job Hollywood does in representing gay people; I do now.
James Burkhalter
Jul 11, 2008 James Burkhalter rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: all Film students, anyone who thinks Gays in movies is a recent development
Recommended to James by: LOGO (Cable Network)
Shelves: glbt, film-studies
ANOTHER Classic film book, this one chronicles the portrayal of homosexuals throughout motion picture history, and how they've evolved over time. Only down side is that I wish they'd publish a newer edition to include the strides that have been made after the mid-1980s.
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Vito Russo was an early gay activist whose work at the Museum of Modern Art and love of movies led to the ground-breaking book The Celluloid Closet, which takes a look at the coded representations of gay men and women in the movies. He was also a vocal AIDS activist who helped found both GLAAD and ACT UP in response to the Reagan Administrations inaction at what is still a global epidemic.
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“You can’t plead tolerance for gays by saying that they’re just like everyone else. Tolerance is something we should extend to people who are not like everyone else.” 10 likes
“No one ever asks what causes heterosexuality because no one is interested in stopping it” 9 likes
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