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The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  2,165 ratings  ·  60 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.
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 ...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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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?".
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
Jeffrey Richards
Dec 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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 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: 2013, history
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 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.
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
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 ...more
Steven Johnson
May 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is like a university-level course on film studies.

It’s meticulously well researched, enlightening to read, and offers profound (though hopeful) insights on how film has evolved and what potential lies ahead.

It is also amazing to read over 30 years after it was published, in a time of tremendous LGBT cinema like Weekend, Call Me By Your Name, Love Simon, and countless others.
Mar 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: books-of-2019
Really interesting. Sometimes it was tough to figure out if the author was using the name of a character or the actor. And sometimes it was hard to tell the different movies apart.

I had to stop the book at multiple times to shake my head at how long the fight for LGBT representation had gone on, and knowing that it's far from over.
Nov 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Lacks nuance at times, definitely absent any queer/critical theory perspective (unsurprising, given the year it was written), but a comprehensive & fascinating exploration of gayness in cinema over the first three-quarters of the twentieth century.
Jun 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: queer-studies
An important compendium of anecdotes and analysis concerning the evolution of queer representation in the first 50 years of Hollywood. Russo's main thrust –that stories about queer people don't need to be solely about their queerness – remains as relevant as ever. ...more
Aug 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I should really just buy this to read it over again.
Oct 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
An excellent text that opened my eyes to pre-Hays code film. Vital and important reading for any film scholar or fan of cinema, but also of interest to history buffs.
May 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
Oh shit, they turned this into a documentary. I've got to see that. I loved this book.
[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 ...more
Jun 30, 2019 rated it liked it
Really enjoyed (finally!) reading this, and especially enjoyed Russo's quick, biting and often quite funny commentary which I wasn't expecting - it's a pity he died so young, I would have LOVED to hear what he has to say about some modern movies! The book itself runs a bit out of steam around the middle, sometimes jumping from movie to movie with not much in between, the early chapters were definitely better (the one on sissy characters was my favorite). It's outdated in some ways but not so ...more
Lee Anne
Apr 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
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
Sep 24, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: film, pop-culture
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
Aug 08, 2016 rated it liked it
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
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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.
“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.” 14 likes
“It is an old stereotype, that homosexuality has to do only with sex while heterosexuality is multifaceted and embraces love and romance.” 12 likes
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