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March-April, 2001: "Out of the Celluloid Closet".

The heading for this issue is of course a reference to the book (and later documentary film) by the great film historian Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet, which documented the hidden presence--or conspicuous absence--of gay and lesbian images in the movies, mostly during the period of "The Code" from the early 1930's to the late-60's, when all references to homosexuality were effectively banned. The Code gave rise to another kind of code in movies of this period: an informal system of subterfuges whereby gay or lesbian (or other sexual) content could be conveyed to the cognoscenti in a recognizable, albeit ambiguous, guise.

The actress who adorns the cover of this issue, Marlene Dietrich (by Charles Hefling), was very much a case in point: a decidedly butch woman who often played roles that involved dressing in men's clothes and who, in her private life, was at least an on-again, off-again lesbian. In this issue, Carol LeMasters discusses Dietrich's career and that of her arch-rival (early trick?) Greta Garbo, along with those of women like Thelma Ritter and Agnes Moorehead who often played lesbian-coded character roles and/or were gay in their private lives. Denise Noe explores the cinematic history of roles in which women disguised themselves as men, starting with Katherine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett, 1936, through Hilary Swank's Brandon Teena in 1999's Boys Don't Cry.

About midway between those years came the release, in 1970, of The Boys in the Band, which is widely viewed as the movie that broke the code of silence (and The Code itself). John Rickard documents here the shock of both the 1968 play and the movie for their sheer acknowledgement that homosexuals exist, however unhappily and bitchily in their private New York enclaves. Given how much ground The Boys broke in this portrayal, Andrew Holleran marvels that so few good movies were made after 1970 depicting gay and lesbian life as other than syrupy sweet (Making Love) or brutally cruel (Cruising). Things slowly opened up in the 1980's and 90's with wide-release movies like Philadelphia and la Cage Aux Folles; but it wasn't until late last year that the ultimate mainstrearning of gay life took place: the arrival of an explicitly sexual, exclusively homosexual series on cable TV, Showtime's Queer as Folk.

And yet, like the lesbian kiss on Roseanne when it finally came, the long-awaited arrival of the British miniseries as a 22-episode American serial has seemed rather anticlimactic. No one is shocked! If anything, Queer As Folk, which features rather explicit gay sex and nonstop dialog on the subject, has been criticized for being too obvious in its desire to shock. Such, at least, is the verdict of jaded New York and LA critics who'd apparently been primed for something even juicier. But lest we forget: QAF is debuting on cable even as a right-wing administration is taking over the White House, filled with the kinds of people who denounce this sort of fare at places like Bob Jones University. Such is the state of cultural civil war, it would seem, that one side is already bored by the kind of activity that the other side finds utterly beyond the pale.

RICHARD SCHNEIDER, JR.
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Title Annotation:history of homosexuality in television and cinema
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Words:532
Previous Article:Mont Proust.
Next Article:Consolidation Bodes Ill for National Gay Media.
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