A new respective series at the American Film Institute Theater called "The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Cinema" is bound to give some people the wrong idea, an occupational hazard in a culture that often seems saturated with sex and anxious about sex.

Evidently the first systematic perusal of this topic to be presented at an American film archive, "Closet" was programmed by AFI Theater supervisor Adam Reilly in collaboration with Vito Russo, a young gay activist movie critic and historian.

Reily already has been chastised in print for including exhibits like the 1915 Charlie Chaplin two-reeler "A Woman," in which Chaplin did a turn in drag, and the classic Laurel and Hardy two-reelers "Liberty" and "Their First Mistake," in which the stars got into fine messes trying to change trousers and care for a baby, respectively.

All are legitimate selections for the broadest purposes of illustrating the topic at hand. Obviously, they'd be just as legitimate and entertaining under topics that had nothing to do with homosexuality.

For example, "Liberty" is essentially a slapstick cliffhanger. In a hurry following a prison break, Laurel and Hardy put on the wrong set of clothes. Their attempts to get straightened out lead absurdly, but breathtakingly, to the top of a skyscraper under construction in downtown Los Angeles, cica 1929. They find enough privacy to switch trousers without drawing suspicious looks but place their lives in jeopardy.

"Liberty" can be appreciated by virtually everyone as a slapstick gem. It also may be appreciated by more specialized audience as a farcical homosexual parable. The specialized interpretation, as likely to amuse more or less worldly heterosexuals as confirmed homosexuals, doesn't exclude or invalidate the general impression. It simply enhances and complicates the humor, or ought to .

It also should go without saying that the presence of innuendo proves nothing about the sexual predilections of the performers themselves. According to Russo (whose lecture program has evolved and expanded over the years and will culminate sometime next year in a scholarly volume entitiled "The Celluloid Closet"), he must repeatedly reassure worried heterosexuals that there's no evidence that Laurel and Hardy, among others, were in fact homosexual. He must also disabuse wishful-thinking homosexuals of the presumption that they were . Obviously, this field of study could be mined for a mother lode of comic misunderstanding in its own right.

If Laurel and Hardy aren't camping it up in a comedy as sly as "Their First Mistake," it's difficult to imagine what they were doing. As a matter of fact, their awareness of the put-on is constantly apparent and might be cited as persuasive evidence of their lack of furtive, latent or unconscious inclinations.

The outrageous tone is established immediately, when an irate Mrs Hardy asks, "Where were you last night?" and receives the naive reply, "Stan took me to the Punch and Judy Show."

Moments later, conferring with his sidekick, Hardy complains, "She says I think more of you than I do of her." Laurel frowns and asks, "Don't you?" Prissily Hardy replies, "We won't go into that." Who can doubt that these canny clowns knew exactly what they were up to?

In a similar respect, Chaplin in drag consitutes a knowing rather than shocking whimsy. It also belongs to an ancient, multi-cultural tradition that still seems to be going strong. Anyone who has seen Harvey Korman on Carol Burnett's show or Walter Matthau in the new comedy "House Calls" could testify to its ongoing vitality here.

Although the AFI series includes the most popular of American movie farces exploiting transvestism, Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot," in which Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis were inspired to unmatched comedic heights by donning female disguises, it could be criticized for giving this tradition less representation than it deserves. For example, it might have been a kick to include Jack Benny (speaking of effeminate put-ons. . .) in "Charlie's Aunt."

Reilly and Russo might be faulted for ill-chosen juxtapositions. For example, "Their First Mistake" shares a bill with "The Boys in the Band," while "Liberty" precedes "The Queen," a documentary about contestants in a transvestite beauty pageant. Mixing genres and traditions in this way could be asking for trouble, and you don't need extra trouble when you attempt to organize a rational survey of homosexual characters, presumed characteristics and ambigous allusions.

The programmers also can be criticized for certain entries and omissions. Why "Staircase" and "A Very Natural Thing," but nothing by significant artists whose record homosexuality is a matter of record like Eisenstein, Coeteau, Murnau or Tennessee Williams?

It's difficult to get a sane perspective on this topic, in part because it now seems to require superhuman tact. Falter one way or the other and you risk being mistaken for a sneaking homophile or an insensitive homophobe. It may not seem worth the potential aggravation.

Russo envisions his book as a social history analyzing the ways homosexuality has been represented and toyed with by the movies. For many years the Production Code as well as popular mores made it impossible to depict homosexual characters or relationships straightforwardly.

The official censorship no longer exists, and more are certainly less strict, but in all likelihood emotionally honest pictures about homosexually will remain a rarity.

Evidently, the modest box-office returns on "The boys in The Band" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday" are often cited in Hollywood as evidence that serious dramatizations about homosexual protagonists about homosexual protagonists can't crack the commercial big-time.

One mass-audience success dominated by a poignantly mixed-up homosexual protagonist, Dog Day Afternoon," is inexplicably missing from the series. No one has followed through on the shock appeal of this film, which truly disarmed ordinary prejudices and began to complicate the audience's feelings about its central character.

Recent movies like 'The Naked Civil Servant" and "Outrageous," both included in the series, indicate a worthwhile direction that could lead to a mass-audience break-through. They are authentic and affecting character studies of homosexuals. John Hurt's impersonation of the courageously preposterous effeminate homosexual in "Civil Servant" is a high comedy milestone.

Richard Benner, the director of "Outrageous", might stake out a unique filmmaking claim. His first feature revealed a gift for exploring the tensions among homosexuals without alienating or patronizing heterosexuals.

The time may be approaching when someone updates the film biographies of people like Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart, incoporating aspects of their private lives that could never have been acknowledged in "Night and Day" or "Words and Music."

"The Celluloid Closet" runs through Thursday, July 6. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, popular misconceptions persist that all homosexuals may be indentified by effeminate behaviour and that all men who imitate "feminine" mannerisms are homosexual. One of these days a more comprehensive series in the spirit of "The Celluloid Closet," may help sweep out a few such myths.