BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
One of the best-known films in gay cinema is a movie about the movies. The Celluloid Closet, based on the book by Vito Russo, documents how American films depicted gay culture throughout the decades.
Generally, there were no gay characters in movies during the mid-20th century, and those that we saw usually were effeminate men, butch women and serial killers.
The Celluloid Closet, to be screened Sunday at the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival along with a documentary about Russo on Saturday, includes segments on two Tennessee Williams plays adapted for the movies in the late 1950s: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, and Suddenly, Last Summer with Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer were both de-gayed for mainstream film adaptations. A third Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire starring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter, also was heavily rewritten for the screen -- and then cut even more between filming and release in 1951.
In the play, Leigh's character, Blanche DuBois, reveals her young husband was gay and committed suicide. In the movie, she describes her late husband as "a poet" and doesn't mention his sexual orientation.
"Streetcar maintains its integrity despite having to work around the issue of Blanche’s husband," said Warner Home Video executive George Feltenstein, who oversaw this month's restored Blu-ray release of the film."I would like to think sophisticated audiences in 1951 could see through the gauze of the production code."
To appease the Roman Catholic Church's National Legion of Decency -- which threatened to "condemn" the film, several post-production cuts were made to Streetcar for its original release. Warner restored the film for theatrical and home video release in 1993.
"Streetcar had such a tortuous journey to the screen," Feltenstein said. "It still stands on its own as a great work despite the encumbrances of the censors."
Feltenstein is pleased with how Streetcar looks in high definition.
"It’s almost like watching a different film on Blu-ray. It’s alive," he said. "You could see each of the hairs on Marlon Brando’s arm. It blew us away. ... These black-and-white films explode when you get them onto Blu-ray."
Brando, who won international fame as Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar, was nominated for a 1952 Best Actor Oscar, but lost to Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.
Streetcar, directed by Elia Kazan and with a jazzy score by Alex North, did win four Academy Awards, including one each for Hunter (Best Supporting Actress as Stanley's pregnant wife, Stella), Karl Malden (Best Supporting Actor as Blanche's suitor) and Leigh (Best Actress).
The Oscar was Leigh's second. The British-born actress won a previous Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of another Southern belle, Scarlett O'Hara in 1939's Gone With the Wind (also available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video).
Feltenstein says of Leigh in Streetcar: "You can't take your eyes off of her."
Her real-life persona was not much different from Blanche's. (The character ends up being raped by her brother-in-law, who then has her committed to a mental hospital.)
Leigh had a tempestuous marriage from 1940-60 to Laurence Olivier. She suffered from bipolar disorder and tuberculosis for much of her life and died in 1967 at age 53.
Said Feltenstein: "Now that we know the tragedy of her personal life, she was not far from the character at all with her schizophrenia."
Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival
Vito, a documentary about Celluloid Closet writer Vito Russo, screens 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Regal South Beach Cinema.
In the aftermath of Stonewall, a newly politicized Vito Russo found his voice as a gay activist and critic of LGBT representation in the media. He went on to write The Celluloid Closet, the first book to critique Hollywood's portrayals of gays on screen. During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Vito became a passionate advocate for justice via the newly formed ACT UP, before his death in 1990.
The Celluloid Closet screens 1 p.m. Sunday, also at Regal South Beach Cinema.
To compliment the screening of Vito, The MGLFF is proud to present Celluloid Closet, as its 2012 retrospective screening. Based on Vito Russo's book with the same name, this film surveys the various Hollywood screen depictions of gays and the attitudes behind them through the use of film clips and interviews