- Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall
Richard Barrios's book examines hundreds of both obscure and well-known movies with homosexual characters and/or gay sensibilities to document what he describes as the "museum-quality glimpse into how gays and lesbians were seen by others, and in some ways how they saw themselves" (8). His exhaustive research and accessible style make the book a valuable resource for those interested in the representation of filmed homosexual males and females from early cinema to the beginnings of the gay liberation movement.
The book features homosexual images from a variety of movies, from shorts to documentaries, from the horror genre to musical fantasies. Some of the earliest images appeared in comic westerns, such as Algie, the Miner in 1912, where homosexuals contrasted with more virile men. Many of the early images indicated homosexuality through cross-dressing, most famously with Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo for the cabaret scene in Morocco (1930). The sissy and pansy character actors from the 1930s comedies, including Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton, receive their due as critics and flaunters of repressive gender norms. As the use of pansies declined, homosexual representation dropped, although homosexual males appeared as villains in several noir classics of the 1940s, including The Maltese Falcon (1941), Laura (1944), and Gilda (1946). Among the depictions carrying hints of homosexuality during the 1950s were the female juvenile delinquents in So Young, So Bad (1950), the scheming title character in All about Eve (1951), the evil genius Dr. Terwilliker in the Dr. Seuss–scripted The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), and the consumed Sebastian Venable in Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer (1959). [End Page 462]
The major earlier works about gays and lesbians on-screen, including Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet and Andrea Weiss's Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in Film, were not as extensive a catalog of filmed depictions. Barrios does not address Weiss's work and argues against Russo's assertion that the images of sissy males and lonely, frustrated lesbians appeared in movies to promote the virtue of masculinity and the patriarchy. Barrios tends to view the amount of and approach to homosexual depictions in movies as dependent on the political climate of the era. Certainly, the Legion of Decency's organization of boycott threats and establishment of a rating system led to a strengthening of the administration of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors codes, which tamed the depiction of homosexuals in movies from their most licentious period in the early 1930s. Similarly, the culture changed, and the companionate marriage system's sexual mores, which defined proper love and romance as occurring between a husband and a wife, lost its dominance. When this occurred during the early 1960s moviemakers gained the ability to depict homosexuals as long as the work was serious. However, the book did not convince me of a direct relationship between approach to representation and the political attitude prevalent in the country. During the politically conservative 1950s The Big Combo featured a vice czar with two henchmen. The two, who were not labeled homosexual, appear as loving men sharing the same bed. In the more liberal 1990s a key character in Basic Instinct, while portrayed as lesbian (although not given the label), ends up being the ice pick–wielding killer.
Many readers will find this book a valuable rereading of filmic homosexual images. Barrios uses the established methods of identifying homosexuals in these movies, including gender inversion, coded words, and cross-dressing. Unlike Russo, who interpreted Franklin Pangborn's sissy character in Only Yesterday (1933) as demonstrative of gay males' mindless indolence, the author views the character as living in a milieu where he was accepted and had a boyfriend. The lesbians in the prison movie Caged (1950) are not simply "an equation of lesbianism with an outlaw social structure but appear as a refraction of Warner Brothers studio's crime-and-punishment tales through a postwar toughness" (216). However, the author...