American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Portrayals of homosexuality were frowned upon until the 1960s, by the movie industry's production code and such groups as the Legion of Decency.
Yet gays were everywhere in the movies, right from the beginning--this documentary shows two men dancing together in a Thomas Edison short named “The Gay Brothers,” from 1895--and often they were hidden in plain view. Hollywood knew who was gay and who was not, and there were in-jokes like John Ireland's line to Montgomery Clift in “Red River”: “There are only two things more beautiful than a good gun--a Swiss watch, or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a Swiss watch?” “The Celluloid Closet” is inspired by a 1981 book by Vito Russo, who wrote as a gay man who found he had to look in the shadows and subtexts of movies to find the homosexual characters who were surely there. His book was a compendium of visible and concealed gays in the movies, and now this documentary, which shows the scenes he could only describe, makes it clear Hollywood wanted it both ways: It benefitted from the richness that gays added to films, but didn't want to acknowledge their sexuality. In those few films that were frankly about gays, their lives almost always ended in madness or death (there is a montage of gays dying onscreen, of which my favorite from a Freudian point of view is Sandy Dennis as a lesbian in “The Fox,” crushed by a falling tree).
The movie, narrated by Lily Tomlin, contains interviews with a lot of witnesses from the days when gays were in the Hollywood closet. The chat with Gore Vidal has already become famous. He recalls how he was hired by director William Wyler to do rewrites on “Ben-Hur.” One of the film's problems was that there was no plausible explanation for the hatred between the characters played by Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd. Vidal's suggestion: They were lovers when they were teenagers, but now Ben-Hur (Heston) denies that time, and Boyd is resentful. Wyler agreed that would provide the motivation for a key scene, but decided to tell only Boyd, not Heston, who “wouldn't be able to handle it.”The film shows the scene, which plays with an amusing subtext.
Sometimes directors deleted scenes with gay themes because of studio or censorship pressure. Tony Curtis is droll as he recalls a scene with Laurence Olivier in Stanley Kubrick's “Spartacus,” where the two men flirted in a hot bath. (The scene was restored when the movie was re-released in 1991.) Is it because we know stars were gay that their scenes play differently this time around? There's a scene from “Pillow Talk” in which Rock Hudson plays a straight man pretending to be gay in order to avoid an entanglement with Doris Day. Does Hudson seem privately amused by the twist? It looks that way (and Mark Rappaport's “Rock Hudson's Home Movies” finds scenes all through Hudson's career where he seems aware of additional levels of possibilities).
At the ripe age of 89, Oscar can still be a notoriously picky fellow when it comes to what constitutes a contender fo...