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The Celluloid Closet (DVD)

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Film archivist and activist Vito Russo had been dead for five years by the time the film version of his 1981 book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality In The Movies reached the screen. But the indelible marks of his personality are all over the wry, lively 1995 documentary that resulted. Directors Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Common Threads: Stories From The Quilt) constructed the film to match the format of Russo's book, stringing together a surprising collection of well-chosen film clips—from two men dancing cheek-to-cheek in an Edison experimental short to Sharon Stone aggressively groping a girlfriend in Basic Instinct—to show how movies have explored and exploited gay characters (and gay stereotypes) throughout cinema history. Russo, who started the project himself in 1976, envisioned it as "a gay That's Entertainment" rather than a stuffy scholarly work, and Epstein and Friedman carried the idea through. They do a nice job drawing their editorial comments from a wide range of actors, writers, and directors (including Tom Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg, Susan Sarandon, Tony Curtis, and Tales From The City author Armistead Maupin, who also wrote Lily Tomlin's voiceover narration) and moving crisply from theme to theme without getting bogged down in any one period. The final result is a little facile, especially in its overreaching, upbeat conclusion, which cites a series of mostly obscure art movies and independent films as a sign that Hollywood's take on homosexuality is improving. But it's also immensely entertaining, and the film segments largely speak for themselves. The hour-long collection of "deleted scenes" on the special-edition DVD consist of interview segments that weren't used: Some are irrelevant but involving personal reminiscences, like Maupin's Rock Hudson stories and Curtis' anecdotes about Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe on the set of Some Like It Hot. Others, like Gus Van Sant's production tales from My Own Private Idaho, are simply too in-depth to fit into such a streamlined final piece. These were wisely trimmed, but, unlike like most DVD cut-scenes collections, they're also wholly entertaining and stand up well on their own. The same can't be said of the chatty, class-reunion-style filmmakers' commentary track, in which Epstein, Friedman, Tomlin, executive producer Howard Rosenman, and editor Arnold Glassman talk about their résumés, their fundraising efforts, and their reactions to specific clips. They do, however, tell a few touching and illuminating stories about Russo, whose "commentary track" (actually an audio-only recording of a clip-centered film lecture that could have been the prototype for Celluloid Closet) reveals him as a funny, good-natured, dedicated, and intelligent man who likely would have been proud to have created such a satisfying legacy.