Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Talking Out of Turn #33: Vito Russo (1981)

author Vito Russo

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the Eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was radically starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions who were only concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton, the executive producer of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (e.g. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone) which made it look as if they hadn't read the outline. Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be simply a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews a couple of years ago, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large. I'll let the readers judge their merit rather than marketing folks. 

Talking Out of Turn had one section devoted to reviewers who ran against the current of popular thinking in the Eighties. That chapter included discussions with Globe and Mail film critic and author Jay Scott (Midnight Matinees) who spoke about how, despite being one of Canada's sharpest and wittiest writers on movies, he was initially a reluctant critic; author Margaret Atwood, who turned to literary criticism in her 1986 book Second Words, discussed  from an author's perspective  the value of criticism and how it was changing for the worse during this decade; New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who had returned to writing in the Eighties after a brief hiatus as a consultant in Hollywood, talked to me in 1983 about how the Reagan decade was already having a deadening impact on the movie industry; and Vito Russo, who in 1981, wrote a book called The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movieswhich examined the way gays and lesbians had been portrayed in the history of American movies.

In his book, Russo moves from decade to decade, weaving into his narrative a chronological and thematic awareness of the various representations of gay life; that is, the attitudes that lay hidden and closeted in American culture. He examines with both humour and affectionate insight the early work of 'movie sissies' like actors Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn, who gave form to what couldn't be acknowledged openly. Russo moves from these 'buddy movies' of the Thirties and Forties to contemporary representations which often ranged from predatory and psychotic (Cruising, American Gigolo) to victims (Advise and Consent, The Children's Hour). He even delves into hidden homosexual dynamics not acknowledged such as the unspoken love between Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd) in Ben-Hur (1959), the covert lesbian attraction that Elizabeth Wilson has for Kim Stanley's Marilyn Monroe character in The Goddess (1958), and the originally cut scene between Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), where Olivier's Roman general admits his bi-sexuality to his slave Antoninus (Curtis) whom he's trying to seduce.

The Celluloid Closet was made into a fine documentary in 1995 by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman where they had the benefit of using Russo's book to select clips that supported his thesis. This fall, at Ryerson University, I'll be teaching a course through the LIFE Institute based on their material. Since this interview with Vito Russo takes place over thirty years ago, just as the AIDS epidemic was first becoming national news, there isn't the sense of dread here that came to overshadow the rest of the decade. (Although he was a huge activist bringing awareness to the needs of the LGBT community, by the end of the decade, AIDS would also claim Russo himself.) Looking back to 1981, it was a year when dozens of Toronto police officers conducted simultaneous raids on Toronto's most popular bathhouses and arrested more than 300 gay men. Times may have indeed changed since those raids, but certain attitudes haven't (including having a mayor who continues to spout invective towards homosexuals – even ignoring them as citizens – without much of a whisper of protest from his supporters). Since Toronto is hosting WorldPride this year, it just seemed fitting to post this talk with Vito Russo on the eve of the celebration.

kc: By concentrating on American films in your book, are you specifically questioning American ideas of sexuality especially where it concerns masculinity and femininity?

vr: Absolutely. Molly Haskell in her book, From Reverence to Rape, said that the big lie about women in media is that women are weak and powerless. I think the big lie about gay people is that such creatures exist only on the fringes of society. They are no part of what we commonly understand as the American Dream. In particular, when I talk about Hollywood films, America is this pioneer country with a masculine pioneer heritage. But I think the movies, of all art-forms, has perpetuated this myth about what is masculine and feminine behaviour to the exclusion of homosexuality. When novels and plays were brought to the screen, homosexual characters were omitted. When biographies of famous people who were gay were made into movies, that person was made heterosexual. And this has never been seen as a serious offence against a person's identity. So the movies have dealt with the subject of homosexuality very gingerly. In the book, what I'm really trying to point out is not so much that homosexuals have been invisible – although they have been in both real life and on the screen – but the wilful ways in which the movies have created a world in which homosexuals are really no part of the major culture.

Peter Finch and Murray Head as lovers in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971).

kc: Given the long history of American movies, how did you plan to do this?

vr: Since American movies have provided a falsification of our national heritage, I wanted to write a book about the ways in which homosexuals did appear in the movies. And to show that, in a measure, homosexuals, when they do appear, they appear negatively – and when they appear positively, they are either removed, or deleted, so that the public, both straight and gay, has gotten a false image of who we are. The movies have presented gay culture as pure sexual exploitation where everything gets sexualized. Whereas, heterosexuality has been presented as in all its different facets. You have pictures about heterosexuals who are nasty and those who are nice, but you don't get that with gays. Gay culture is seen as depressing and violent, where gay men are either psychotic (as in Cruising), or sissies; and gay women are predatory, masculine creatures (as in Walk on the Wild Side) who are not really women but pretending to be men. It all gets mixed up with this idea that we have of what is it that a man behaves like? How is a woman supposed to act? I think the movies have hopelessly confused us about these things.

Al Pacino as an undercover cop in the leather bar in Cruising (1980).

kc: Are you not also addressing the distorted ideas of sexuality that have been perpetrated generally in movies and that has affected all areas of sexual depiction on the screen?

vr: Oh yeah. I think we live in a tremendously sex-negative culture. People do think of sexuality, in general, as being a dirty thing. Whenever you have a movie with heterosexuals that has anything to do with explicit sex, the censors take care of it. With homosexuals, however, we end up defined by sex. It's almost as though a homosexual is nothing else but a person who has sex. Look at how films always show homosexuals in the context of sex, either looking for it, or where sex becomes their downfall. You would never think that these people get up in the morning and go to a job like everybody else. And when you say to people that you want to see more positive portrayals of homosexuals, they can't figure out what you mean.What I mean is simply that if you're going to have a picture that is about something there's no reason in the world why some of the characters shouldn't be gay and some shouldn't be straight. But I don't see Hollywood doing that.

Greta Garbo as Queen Christina in 1934.

kc: Is that because Hollywood has a long history of creating illusion?

vr: People have asked me: what do you expect of Hollywood? There's no answer to that because Hollywood is, as you said, set up to create illusion. In 1934, when they made Queen Christina, and Greta Garbo played the Queen of Sweden, everybody knew that she was a lesbian. And they knew that Greta Garbo was not going to play her as a lesbian. It's just illusion. That's what Hollywood is about. It's about making a dream for people to believe in. The sad truth is that most people would rather not discuss homosexuality. They would rather not see it. They don't want to know it's there. And the movie industry has done them the favour of creating a world on film in which such things do not intrude on that illusion. That's what The Celluloid Closet is about. It's about the creation of an illusion that had no room for homosexuals.

Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault in La Cage aux Folles (1978)

kc: I know that La Cage aux Folles is not an American film, but don't you think its huge and recent success has marked a change in attitudes that your book is calling for?

vr: La Cage aux Folles is an interesting case because it's the largest grossing foreign film in American history. It's an enormous success. That's why Hollywood is now getting interested in this subject because they see money. La Cage aux Folles does two things: It does not offend most gay people and it makes most straight people comfortable with the homosexual characters in the film. It makes you feel sorry for the characters because they're different, and they're charming. You like them. They're very funny. The actors [Ugo Tognazzi and Michel Serrault] are very, very good. I don't think it's such a great film, but I can see why it's popular. It doesn't challenge anybody's idea of what a homosexual is. People are comfortable with the idea that homosexuals are sort of sissies who are weak and helpless and not threatening anyone. They're never seen having sex. You can't even imagine them having sex. That's also a comfortable illusion. I think if you had made a film in which the characters were not fools and harmless and all that effeminate stuff, and you made them like in [John Schlesinger's] Sunday Bloody Sunday, for instance, with Peter Finch and Murray Head playing two very masculine men who have a love affair – and kiss on the screen – people would go nuts. They don't want to see it. That's the reality of the situation most of the time. La Cage aux Folles resembles some of the Hollywood films of the Thirties and Forties where the sissies, like Eric Blore or Franklin Pangborn, were the comedy entertainment. La Cage aux Folles repeats the success of those movies from the Thirties and updates it.

kc: We used to talk about the idea of mixed marriages on the screen making people uncomfortable. Are we any different here?

vr: The movies have to make people comfortable. It's an audience proposition. Hollywood knows and perceives correctly that the public does not want to see certain things. I actually still don't see white and black mixed marriages in the movies today. After all the discussions of the Sixties, and the Civil Rights movement, and all the marches, and all the protests, audiences still don't want to see a white woman kiss a black man, or a black woman kiss a white man on the screen. They don't want to see it. It still makes them nervous.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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