CELLULOID CLOSET week continues with the 1961 lesbian scandal film adapted from the play by Lillian Hellman.
This week we inducted Vito Russo into the Badass Hall of Fame. Russo was the author of Celluloid Closet, the premier work on gay and lesbian film studies that established the ways in which homophobic stereotypes in cinema propagate discrimination and hateful misconceptions in society. Russo excavated the Museum of Modern Art's film archives to find instances of homosexuality throughout the history of film.
As a child, Russo was enamored of the 1961 film The Children's Hour, starring Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn as schoolteachers accused of lesbianism by a little shit from their school. Although the rumor was malicious and untrue, it caused immense destruction in the teachers' lives. MacLaine was acclaimed for her extraordinary performance, particularly in the scene where her character Martha breaks down and admits that she does love Hepburn's character Karen that way.
Martha's shame and remorse are heartbreaking, and as the trailer totally gives away the ending, I guess there's no harm in telling you that, like so many other gay characters in film since, Martha hangs herself over the unforgivable trespass of falling in love with her best friend.
The Children's Hour is adapted from the play written by Lillian Hellman, recently revived in the West End with Keira Knightley as Karen and Elisabeth Moss as Martha.
In the documentary based on The Celluloid Closet, Shirley MacLaine states that she and Hepburn never discussed the gay angle of their characters when offscreen. The direction (by William Wyler, who also directed Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday, Funny Girl and tons of other films) was never explicit about Martha's homosexuality, and the actresses (at least MacLaine) were oblivious.
It was about a child's accusations; it could have been about anything. So none of us were really aware. We might have been the forerunners, but we weren't really because we didn't view the picture right. We were in the mindset of not understanding what we were basically doing.