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The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  2,291 ratings  ·  84 reviews
Praised by the Chicago Tribune as "an impressive study" and written with incisive wit and searing perception--the definitive, highly acclaimed landmark work on the portrayal of homosexuality in film. ...more
Paperback, 384 pages
Published September 20th 1987 by It Books (first published 1981)
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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
Jul 23, 2020 added it
Shelves: 2020
i remember being much much younger & getting this shivery, gleeful zing of recognition from characters or conversations or shots that felt like they were saying more to me than to anyone else. i remember how closely i followed that feeling, that subtextual, insubstantial, intuitive want, the sense of affinity built out of suggestion & hope, held together by spit. i remember how little they had to offer, how much i made of crumbs, & yet how much more alive & interesting those possible moments of ...more
Richard Derus
Dec 18, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Feb 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is one of those classic texts that pretty much everyone has read if they're in any way connected to queer studies, and it absolutely lives up to the hype. ...more
Nov 01, 2012 rated it liked it
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
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
Dec 04, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Karie 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. ...more
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? ...more
Thomas Knoch
Jan 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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?". ...more
Marsha Altman
Jun 20, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, for-work, queer
I don't want to bash this book too much because it's famous and was really important in its time and became a documentary, but the presentation of the material is not stellar. When the author goes into theory and discussion of gay history, it's very good. When he talks about specific films, he mentions titles in passing and rarely goes into plot summaries to explain in what context he's bringing them up. If you're unfamiliar with most of the films (and surprise surprise, I did not grow up with a ...more
Andrew Austin
Jun 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020-non-fiction
An indictment and a history of the portrayal of gays in film rolled into one. Insightful criticism that does not hold back in holding Hollywood figures as well as critics accountable for their historically homophobic remarks and attitudes regarding same sex love shown in movies. Only goes into the mid-80s - I wish someone would take up the mantle and write a sequel.
Apr 21, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lgbtq
Great coverage of gay representation in cinema from the very beginning. I wish the chapters were broken up into sections, the lack of sections made reading the long chapters a little tiring.
caro (she/they)
Sep 27, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: lgbt
a really interesting pre aids crisis look on queer cinema, i loved seeing the implications for the future of the genre
Dec 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
And with this, my final book of this year's reading challenge comes to a close.

The Celluloid Closet functions as a multi-purpose wonder: first, as a survey of Hollywood films from the thirties to the eighties and the cultural context within which those movies functioned when signaling toward, or denigrating, homosexual life; second, the primer of movies come with a helping of very fair criticism to the point where it becomes a way to amass a list of good gay/lesbian film recommendations (I hesit
W. Stephen Breedlove
Apr 14, 2022 rated it it was amazing

In his introduction to The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, Vito Russo says that his book is “an exploration of gay characters in American film.” He bookends this statement in the afterword: “This book is meant to survey the portrayal of lesbians and gay men in mainstream commercial American cinema.” The Celluloid Closet includes a thorough index, a filmography, a necrology of films in which gay characters die, and many black-and-w
Neil Schleifer
Aug 08, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
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.
Isaac Timm
Apr 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Dec 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
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. ...more
Vanessa (V.C.)
Nov 19, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: lgbt-literature
The Celluloid Closet is a famous book for many reasons: for one, Vito Russo is a queer elder/figure that every LGBT person should know, as he founded the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and he also appears in many HIV/AIDS archival footage (one of them being the 1989 Academy Award winning documentary, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt) as he himself was fighting the virus since he was first diagnosed with HIV in 1985 (4 years after The Celluloid Closet was published), and while ...more
E. V.  Gross
Apr 19, 2021 rated it really liked it
I have a lot of not-fully-formed thoughts about this book but mostly, I feel deeply indebted to the tremendous amount of work and ground covered by Vito Russo in this book and in his (sadly, shortened) lifetime.

Something that did bother me, and especially because it tends to happen even now with white gay/queer people making arguments against homophobia in mainstream culture, is the constant pitting of race against sexuality — i.e., the constant "it wouldn't be okay to say this about black peop
Aug 06, 2020 rated it liked it
I don't know if I'll ever truly be interested in non-fiction books, but this book was pretty interesting. It felt kind of repetitive and even outdated at certain points, but overall, it's an important and informative book.

Over the past few weeks, I've been getting kind of bored and tired of doing the same mind-numbing shit every day, so I decided to read more. And like I said before, I've never been particularly interested in non-fiction books, but I decided to read this non-fiction book because
Peter Walt
Mar 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
The oldest trick in the book, to disenfranchise people, is to make them believe they have no past. It's a trick often pulled by 'conservatives'. Pretend that there were no homosexuals before the sixties. Meanwhile, Western Civilization is the product of gay, and a few bisexual, men. (The patriarchy pretty much ruled the roost when it came to the early days, unlike now and brand new day notwithstanding).

But 'The Gay' has been there all along. From 30,000 old cave paintings, to the Silver Screen.
Micah Horton hallett
This brilliant book needs to be updated now. It has a few flaws, but just a few, and for a book that purports to simply detail the history of homosexual representation in mainstream American movies from the silent era to 1986, Vitto Russo accomplishes so much more. The Celluloid Closet is a manifesto, a road map and a mid-eighties view from the trenches on the struggle for visibility, viability, representation and social and artistic expressions of gender, sexuality and difference that are STILL ...more
Jase Brown
Sep 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fascinating, important book. Although dated by 30 years now, there is still a lot to find here. Calling it a "revised" edition is pushing it a bit, since the core of the books seems unchanged, except for the addition of a further chapter covering the period up to late 1986 from about 1980 (the first edition came out in 1981). This last chapter is a bit incongruous, going back to some of Russo's earlier arguments but not all of them; as well, some of the seminal films of the period (Victor/Victor ...more
Michael Brown
Jul 06, 2021 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2021-reads
A comprehensive look at all kinds of gay references in the movie from early days until today the book, originally published in 1981 has been updated to include more modern bits. It has an angry feel to it as there is dissatisfaction certainly with the way things were but even with post Boys in the Band concessions which have been made. Everyone takes a hit from the most obvious gay-bashing producers and directors to stars who won't come out or just don't realize that what they are saying is wro ...more
Liam Ostermann
Mar 01, 2022 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It is good every now and then to sit down and read, or reread, those classic books that everyone knows and refers to, quotes and claims to have read/own/love/have as a bible, etc. and take a look at how good they are. The Celluloid Closet does not disappoint and is as refreshing, challenging and interesting as when it was first published. I think this is a tribute not only to Mr. Russo's intelligence and ground breaking ideas but because he was such a fine writer. This book is accessible to anyo ...more
Mar 28, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An extensive study of how homosexuality was portrayed as well as inferred in cinema in the 20th century. Russo makes a rather good case that what was shown on-screen and what types of characters were heroes and which were villains was intended to and effectively did shape the American consciousness and people's conceptions of homosexuality and what was an acceptable expression of masculinity. Russo passed away in 1990. I wish he'd have lived to see Ellen, Will & Grace, and, eventually, RuPaul's ...more
Tim Pinckney
Jun 25, 2022 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Essential reading for anyone interested in film and in representation. Vito Russo was way ahead of the curve - this book was first published in 1981 - with in-depth discussions of issues that resonate deeply today. We need to see ourselves represented in films. This landmark book searches for any and all queer representation throughout the history of Hollywood.It's a fascinating, often disturbing history. Russo's writing is pointed, often hilarious and his passion for this subject is clear on ev ...more
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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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