Pride Issue: ‘The Celluloid Fishbowl’

Published in: May-June 2024 issue.


THIS ISSUE’S THEME is of course a reference to Vito Russo’s 1981 book, The Celluloid Closet, which documented the many films in pre-Stonewall America that hinted at an LGBT message or possibility, whether through subtle gestures or ambiguous language. Everything changed after the 1960s. Suddenly there were out gay people whose lives could be portrayed or documented on film, and often the aim was to proclaim the existence of LGBT people, and their struggle, to anyone who would listen.

            One way to track this transformation could be by tallying the mainstream awards received by movies with explicitly gay characters or themes. In this issue, Andrew White analyzes the history of Oscar nominations since William Hurt became the first person to win Best Actor for playing a gay role, in 1986, in Kiss of the Spider Woman. White argues that this was the first in a string of Oscar nominees that depicted an LGBT character who died or otherwise came to a bad end. Even films with an ostensibly “pro-gay” message, from Philadelphia (1993) to Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), ended up killing off their main gay character (from AIDS in both of these cases).

            The “fishbowl” metaphor seems apt to describe the early films of John Waters, which were expressly exhibitionistic in their desire to bring a campy sensibility to a mainstream, albeit a midnight, audience. While Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble earned Waters the sobriquet the “Pope of Trash” in the 1970s, Peter Muise tracks the full trajectory of his career and shows how he slowly moved toward mainstream respectability, even as the American public grew ever harder to shock—thanks, in part, to Waters’ own influence.

            The 1980s marked the arrival of films with openly gay characters, who were typically engaged in a death dance with AIDS. However, there had yet to be made a film told from a gay person’s point of view, a lacuna that was recognized by a group of gay theater people led by playwright Craig Lucas. As documented here by Frank Rizzo, who was a journalist covering the story, Longtime Companion (1989) was a labor of love that began with Lucas’ screenplay and called upon the talents of countless investors, actors, technicians, editors, and the horde of people needed to make a major movie on a minor budget.

            Decades passed; a bona fide LGBT film industry arose for the home market, while movies with gay themes pitched to a mainstream audience continued to dribble out at a few per decade. In 2023, a British film was released that brings us back to this issue’s theme. All of Us Strangers is about two gay men who live in an otherwise empty glass-and-steel high-rise; often we observe them through the windows of their flats. Andrew Holleran finds in this film a portrait of gay loneliness untethered to the social order or to reality itself. Was it all just a dream?