Vito Russo wanted his book tobe transformed into a documentary film and helped out on the project until he died in 1990. Some critics of the documentary noted that it was less political than the book and ended on a more positive note. However, Russo had wanted the documentary to be entertaining and to reflect the positive changes that had occurred up to 1990.
Russo approached Epstein about making a filmversion of The Celluloid Closet and even wrote a proposal for the movie version in 1986. But it wasn’t until Russo died in 1990 that Epstein and Friedman gained any traction on the project. After his death, Channel 4 in England approached the filmmakers about the film, and offered development funding in order to write a treatment, “and most importantly to determine if it would even be possibleto obtain the movie clips from studios.”
After developing the project for years, fundraising remained the biggest obstacle. Lily Tomlin, the actress and comedian who would narrate the film, launched a direct mail fundraising campaign in Vito Russo’s honor. She also headlined a benefit at the Castro Theatre, which featured Robin Williams, Harvey Fierstein, Lypsinka (the drag star).Individuals such as Steve Tisch (Hollywood producer), James Hormel and Hugh Hefner offered “significant support” and the filmmakers also began to receive foundation funding from the Paul Robeson Fund, the California Council for the Humanities, and the Chicago Resource Center. European television again played an important role in funding the project, when ZDF/arte signed on, but it wasn’t until thefilmmakers reached out to HBO that they were able to begin production. In May of 1994, “Lily Tomlin contacted Michael Fuchs, chairman of HBO, on behalf of the project. Epstein, Friedman, Tomlin, and Rosenman flew to New York for a meeting with Fuchs and HBO Vice President Sheila Nevins, and at that meeting HBO committed to supply the remainder of the budget.” They could now focus on creating the“gay That’s Entertainment!” that Russo had envisioned.
The following people are interviewed for the documentary.
Lily Tomlin (narrator)
Jay Presson Allen
Mrs. Gustav Ketterer
Gore VidalFarley Granger
In 2001, the DVD edition of the documentary includes a crew audio commentary, a second audio commentary with the late Russo, an interview Russogave in 1990, a link to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation website, and some deleted interviews put together into a second documentary titled Rescued from the Closet.
Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum noted in a review at the time of initial publication of the book that The Celluloid Closet had precursors in Parker Tyler's 1972 book Screening the Sexes and Richard Dyer's1977 Gays and Film.
The film was released at a dramatic time in gay history. It seemed like success was on the horizon when Bill Clinton was elected president. He had been the first candidate to court and to promise openly to gay voters. However, the movement faced a huge public setback when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was passed (Gay Rights Movement, US 3). In response to these obstacles,...