I was not familiar with the Sissy character that was so popular in early Hollywood. In early films, gays – much like blacks – when shown, were treated in a derogatory or ridiculous manner. Every character was the stereotype that became so popular. With the enforcement of the Hays code, Hollywood was forced to hide the so-called seedy side of cinema, but this did not stop the portrayal of gay characters.
While the Hays code did not allow for displays of sexual perversion (homosexuality) the references were still there. Men could still be effeminate, but less obvious. The documentary shows how gays went from a standard character that was often included to help better define the masculinity of male lead to something that had to be hidden or only hinted at. One thing that did surprise me was the lack of mention for the Bride of Frankenstein. This was a popular film by an openly gay director that is filled with hidden sexuality. It is only mentioned in passing when a scene from another film is compared to it visually.
As Hollywood matured and left the Hays code behind, gay cinema did not fare any better. It was still treated as a perversion or disease. Gay characters were no longer the butt of the joke, but they became the focus of anger. They were now punished for their actions. If a gay character appeared in a film, most like they would die in the end. It was seen as fit punishment for their "crime".
Slowly, gays became less persecuted in Hollywood and openly gay filmmakers and writers began putting out material aimed at that specific audience. Up until that time, gay film-goers had to do with repressed, stereotypical characters and were forced to watch movies looking for clues in-between the lines. Gay cinema is now a stronger force in Hollywood, but still faces persecution and ridicule compared to other films. Gay characters are still forced into stereotypical roles and gay films are often seen in limited release or as art films. Perhaps if more people saw this documentary, they too would see what Hollywood has been hiding in its closet for so many years.
The Video: The video varies in quality in this film because so much of it is clips and interviews that were pulled from archives and filmed under different circumstances and different locations. When possible, the films are presented as they were intended, with everything from Scope to Full Screen video being shown.
The Sound: The documentary has a Dolby Pro Logic soundtrack that is beautifully mixed. The sound is full and rich with a deep bass to the music. It really surprised me how good the little bit of music in the film sounded.
The Menus: I feel this should get a short mention in itself. The title sequence of the movie is one of the best designed sequences I've seen in a recent film and the menus duplicate if perfectly. They are not animated, but the film strip and colors provided a seamless transition from menu to film.
The Extras: This disc also packs in quite a few noteworthy extras as well. There are two audio commentaries included. The first is with filmmakers Robert Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Lily Tomlin, producer Howard Rosenman, and editor Arnold Glass. It's a big crowd, but necessary for it to work on a documentary. I thought a commentary on a documentary was strange, considering all of the footage was either clips or interviews, but it works rather well. Each clip or interview is commented on and additional info is given, making it an interesting one to listen to. The second commentary is not really a commentary, but more of an isolated audio track. It's a speech given by author Vito Russo (who wrote the book that the film was based upon) shortly before he died in 1990. Since the film was not made until 1995, the speech does not correlate to the film at all, but from it you can see the backing on which the film was based. He mentions many clips and stories that are repeated in the film.
Also included is a near-hour long string of additional interview material that was not used in the film. The approximately 20 clips can be watched individually, or thankfully in order without having to select each one. They are interesting, because the expand again on many ideas and quotes often mention in the actual film, but left out due to time restraints. Also included are trailers for a few of the films mentioned in the documentary, as well as the standard talent files for the director and producer. Last, but not least, there are production notes that included letters from Gore Vidal and Charlton Heston (who was kept in the dark about the added homosexual subtext that Gore Vidal added to Ben Hur after the initial casting).
Overall: I definitely recommend this film to anyone interested in the history of film. It offers an inside and outside look at one of Hollywood's closest guarded secrets that is both fascinating and sad at the same time. Hopefully after watching, it will encourage you to seek out new films that were shown and allow you to view them a little bit differently.