Interview: ‘Celluloid Closet’ Airs on TCM June 21 & 26

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Turner Classic Movies (TCM) presents the groundbreaking Jeffrey Friedman-Rob Epstein film “The Celluloid Closet” twice this month, on Wednesday, June 21, 2023, at 9 p.m. (PT), and on Monday, June 26, at 5 p.m. (PT). The following interview is part of a conversation between the filmmakers and Goweho Editor Laurie Schenden that first appeared on Goweho.com in June 2021.  The film is narrated by Lily Tomlin. See the sidebar for other notable films by one or both filmmakers. 

Jeffrey Friedman

Q: Because many of your films, including “The Celluloid Closet” (based on writer-activist Vito Russo’s landmark 1981 book), were made in 2000 or before, what’s the most important information or revelation that you think new viewers will get from watching 20 years later?

Rob: They each cover such different terrain … but I guess I come back to Harvey Milk’s legacy and what he stands for this many decades later, when there’s now an airport terminal named after him and a Navy battleship named in his honor. For me, his takeaway legacy is to look at the better sides of our human nature and what we can each individually and collectively contribute to the greater good rather than the darker forces of human nature, which is so much the force that we’re all contending with now.

Rob Epstein

Jeffrey: Our collective memory is so short. These films were made as history was unfolding and they document different portions and aspects of our collective LGBTQ history, and I hope it’s a helpful way of acknowledging and increasing the understanding of where we came from.

Q: Can you briefly explain why you made these films, and why you think they have become iconic?

Rob: I think for us the starting point with these films … these are stories of themes that we’ve lived, or were interested in learning more about the history that preceded our lived experience. All these films are very personal to us as well as intending to tell a larger story that we believed would have significance and resonate to a greater population. Jeffrey: Each one would have a slightly different answer, but all these films illuminate aspects of our collective history and we hope put our present tense situation into a context that makes it more understandable, and if they have become iconic it’s because they’ve succeeded in doing that.

Rob: And they were all stories at the time that had yet to be told, so that was certainly a driving motivation that we felt the importance of telling these stories because they weren’t known.

Q: How were you able to get access to so much LGBT history–was it because so many people wanted to have their voices heard?

Rob: We spent a long time in the research and development phase, which helps us figure out the part of that history that we feel we can tell in film form. And then it does come down to access to the people that you’re going to be filming, and their willingness and participation. Probably the biggest challenge in that regard was “Paragraph 175,” that’s the Nazi persecution of homosexuals during the Third Reich. Those men who survived the camps and prison were old and very vulnerable, and they had lived their lives at a time when being homosexual was equal to being a criminal. So they were very reluctant to participate, and that was probably the hardest film for us to cast.

Jeffrey: “Common Threads” was also. When we would ask people to talk about a very intense and painful period in their lives, and we had to get them to trust us. People didn’t know who we were at that point, and we had to make them understand that we were not sensationalists, and  TV reporters, that we were going to respect their humanity and tell their stories in a way that they would feel good about. And there were people that we were not able to convince, that’s fine. We really wanted people to participate in our films who saw the value of having their stories told.

Click image for ‘Celluloid Closet’ trailer; the film depicts how Hollywood portrays gays.

Rob: In “Celluloid Closet,” which is in large part based on Vito Russo’s book [“The Celluloid Closet,” 1981], we were able to get people to participate in the film that Vito wasn’t even able to get at that time, to sit down and do an audio interview for his book, because they wanted no association with the subject. And that was a lot of Hollywood people. By the time we made the film 15 years after he wrote the book, we were able to get people to participate in a way that Vito couldn’t at the time he was working on the book.

Q: Since this is primarily for the Goweho audience, have you spent much time in West Hollywood?

Jeffrey: [Laughs] We have spent a fair amount of time in West Hollywood.

Rob: Some of the places would really date us.

Jeffrey: There’s a very nice library, as I recall.

Rob: Hugo’s … breakfast at Hugo’s.

Jeffrey: I just like walking around West Hollywood, it’s beautiful.

“The Celluloid Closet” on TCM: Wednesday, June 21, 2023, at 9 p.m. (PT), and Monday, June 26, at 5 p.m. (PT).  Click here for the TCM schedule or for more information.



Journalist Laurie Schenden covers the entertainment industry, with many of her notable celebrity interviews appearing in the Los Angeles Times and other national and international publications. As a longtime columnist and feature writer for the LA Times, she also covered events and California destinations for the lifestyle, Outdoors and Travel sections. Laurie Schenden's international pieces include the long-running Where Are They Now celebrity feature for Spotlight Magazine, published in five languages. Laurie has also contributed to numerous documentary films, and produces content via Saving Grace Films.

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