Inspired by Vito Russo's book of the same name, this documentary chronicles the changing representation of homosexuality in (mostly Hollywood) movies, taking an 1895 Edison test shot of two men dancing as the first gay scene on screen. In doing so, it digs up some astonishing bits of silent and early sound cinema, then covers the period from the 1930s to the late 60s when strict censorship forced filmmakers to be more discreet.
All the usual suspects are here: the sexually ambiguous cross-dressing heroines of Dietrich and Garbo, the sinister/perverse gays of Dracula's Daughter and The Maltese Falcon, the agonised/sensitive sufferers of such 50s melodramas as Tea And Sympathy and Rebel Without A Cause.
After a well-worn disgression about the subtext of Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston recently pointed out that the anecdote Gore Vidal tells here against him was originally told against Ralph Richardson), the film gets to actual as opposed to implied representations of gays, from the camp and agony of The Boys In The Band through the brutalities of Cruising and Basic Instinct to the AIDS era attitudes of Parting Glances and Philadelphia. In its search for the positive images, it overrates some marginal pictures (Making Love, Personal Best) and accepts the half-hearted tact of Victim and Philadelphia as courageous.
However, the talking head snippets, with everyone from Whoopi Goldberg to Quentin Crisp, afford insights, and some useful perspective: after a serious indictment of the limp-wristed sissies of the early 30s as demeaning as comic blacks of the same era, Harvey Fierstein admits he thinks Edward Everett Horton (the comic relief of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals) is funny and that he is proud to be a sissy.