The film was given a limited release in select theatres, including the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, in April 1996, and then shown on cable channel HBO.
The documentary interviews various men and women connected to the Hollywood industry to comment on various film clips and their own personal experiences with the treatment of LGBT characters in film. From the sissy characters, to the censorship of the Hollywood Production Code, the coded gay characters and cruel stereotypes to the changes made in the early 1990s.
Vito Russo wanted his book to be transformed into a documentary film and helped out on the project until he died in 1990. Some critics of the documentary noted that it was less political than the book and ended on a more positive note. However, Russo had wanted the documentary to be entertaining and to reflect the positive changes that had occurred up to 1990.
Russo approached Epstein about making a film version of The Celluloid Closet and even wrote a proposal for the film version in 1986. But it was not until Russo died in 1990 that Epstein and Friedman gained any traction on the project. After his death, Channel 4 in England approached the filmmakers about the film, and offered development funding in order to write a treatment, “and most importantly to determine if it would even be possible to obtain the film clips from studios.”
After developing the project for years, fundraising remained the biggest obstacle. Lily Tomlin, the actress and comedian who would narrate the film, launched a direct mail fundraising campaign in Vito Russo’s honor. She also headlined a benefit at the Castro Theatre, which featured Robin Williams, Harvey Fierstein, and drag star Lypsinka. Individuals such as Hollywood producer Steve Tisch, James Hormel, and Hugh Hefner offered “significant support” and the filmmakers also began to receive foundation funding from the Paul Robeson Fund, the California Council for the Humanities, and the Chicago Resource Center.
European television again played an important role in funding the project, when ZDF/arte signed on, but it was not until the filmmakers reached out to HBO that they were able to begin production. In May 1994, “Lily Tomlin contacted Michael Fuchs, chairman of HBO, on behalf of the project. Epstein, Friedman, Tomlin, and Rosenman flew to New York for a meeting with Fuchs and HBO Vice President Sheila Nevins. At that meeting, HBO committed to supply the remainder of the budget.”
The following people are interviewed for the documentary.
In 2001, the DVD edition of the documentary includes a crew audio commentary, a second audio commentary with the late Russo, an interview Russo gave in 1990, and some deleted interviews put together into a second documentary titled Rescued from the Closet.
The Celluloid Closet had precursors in Parker Tyler's 1972 book Screening the Sexes and Richard Dyer's 1977 Gays and Film.
The film was released at a dramatic time in gay history. It seemed like success was on the horizon when Bill Clinton was elected president. He had been the first major party presidential candidate to court and to promise openly to gay voters. However, the movement faced a huge public setback when "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" was passed. In response to these obstacles, the LGBT-rights movement became increasingly media focused, realizing that the images projected into the world negatively affected perceptions of homosexuality. In 1994, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation was formed as a national organization. The Celluloid Closet came out in 1996, as marches and protests against homosexual representation in film and television grew.
"Protests [were] aimed specifically at some of Hollywood's biggest and most prestigious films, including The Silence of the Lambs, which features a crazed transvestite who kills and flays women, and JFK, which has a scene in which gays alleged to be conspirators in the Kennedy assassination cavort in sadomasochistic fun and games". The article quoted above features an interview with Kate Sorensen, a member of Queer Nation, an organization that helped to organize the protests: "‘Every lesbian and bisexual character in these films is accused of being a psychotic killer ... And the girl never gets the girl. I'm tired of that.’” Gay activists across the country attacked films like these, where the homosexual character is portrayed as a disgustingly erotic killer. Protesters would mince around the filming area during outdoor scenes as well as around ticket lines when the film came out.
It was believed that these portrayals reflected "a perverse fear of AIDS or the rising intolerance that [had] caused an increase in hate crimes of all kinds. Still, Hollywood's treatment of gays [hadn’t] helped. With few exceptions, the homosexual characters in films are creepy misfits or campy caricatures". The release of The Celluloid Closet further emphasized the twisted way homosexuals have been depicted throughout history. Addressing specific issues that were pertinent at the time, Russo exposes the existence of Hollywood homosexuals as well as the uncontrolled homophobia that keeps homosexuality in the closet on and off the screen.
"Russo essentially did for film what ACT UP did for AIDS awareness ... he opened up a world and a culture that had almost never been discussed before under any circumstances, exposing prejudices and hurts”. The film continued to motivate the need for positive representation of homosexuals. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation held seminars for staff at Columbia Pictures and Carolco. In addition, Hollywood Supports, a service organization with the mission to combat AIDS phobia and homophobia in the entertainment industry, was founded.
Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) gives an award called the Vito Russo Award to openly gay or lesbian people within the Hollywood film industry who advance the cause of fighting homophobia.
In addition the film was honored with four Emmy Award nominations in 1996. It was nominated for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Informational Programming for editing, sound recording and director of photography. It was also nominated for Outstanding Informational special. Additionally, the film received both a Peabody Award and recognition at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival by winning the Freedom of Expression award.
The following is a list of film excerpts in The Celluloid Closet.