Category Archives: GLBT documentary

“EVERY ACT OF LIFE”— The Life of Terrence McNally

“Every Act of Life”

The Life of Terrence McNally

Amos Lassen

Terrence McNally has written the scripts of Broadway plays and musicals for 60 years, he has been involved in the struggle for LGBT rights, has suffered addiction and recovery, has found true love and seems to be always looking for inspiration. “Every Act of Life” is his story.

He is a recipient of the Dramatists Guild Lifetime Achievement Award and the Lucille Lortel Lifetime Achievement Award. He has won four Tony Awards for his plays Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class and his musical books for Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime. He won an Emmy Award for Andre’s Mother. He wrote the libretto for the operas Great Scott and Dead Man Walking.

Playwright Terrence McNally is living NYC history yet he runs from the spotlight. He is a shy, modest man who lets his writing say what the want to say. Director Jeff Kaufman interviewed many of McNally’s friends and colleagues, including F. Murray Abraham, Lynn Ahrens, Jon Robin Baitz,  Christine Baranski, Zoe Caldwell, Dominic Cuskern, Tyne Daly, Edie Falco, Stephen Flaherty, John Glover, Anthony Heald, John Benjamin Hickey, Sheryl Kaller, John Kander, Roberta Kaplan, Tom Kirdahy, Larry Kramer, Nathan Lane, Angela Lansbury, Paul Libin, Joe Mantello, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Peter McNally, Lynne Meadow, Rita Moreno, Jack O’Brien,  Billy Porter, Chita Rivera, Doris Roberts, Don Roos, John Slattery, Micah Stock, Richard Thomas,  John Tillinger, Stanley Tucci, and Patrick Wilson, plus the voices of Dan Bucatinsky, Bryan Cranston and Meryl Streep.  

Kaufman met McNally while he was filming “The State of Marriage” about the struggle for marriage equality. That film is set in Vermont, the first state to allow civil unions. McNally and his partner, producer Tom Kirdahy, were married there in 2003, and make a brief appearance in the movie. Kaufman understood that McNally doesn’t like to talk about his personal life but once it was decided to male this movie, McNally held nothing back. McNally’s story, is also a portrait of what life is like in the theater and the history of New York City over the past 50 years.

McNally came to New York from Corpus Christi, Texas in 1956 to attend Columbia University, where his teachers included Mark Van Doren and Eric Bentley. At a party one night he met Edward Albee, who’d just written “The Zoo Story.” At about 2 a.m., Albee invited him to his apartment for a drink. He had no idea that Albee was gay.

They went on to live together  while Albee worked on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Their relationship was filled with too much drinking and it did not last. When they broke up, Albee told him to stay away from the West Village. Eventually, they reconciled and McNally was one of the last people to visit Albee before he died. McNally’s own career took off in 1965 with “And Things That Go Bump in the Night,” which probably was the first play to put an open and positive gay character onstage.

McNally tells us that alcohol nearly destroyed him. He stopped writing and spent most of his time drinking. Once sober, McNally solidified his position as a major American playwright with “The Lisbon Traviata” in 1989, followed by “Lips,” “Love!” and “Master Class.”

At 78, Terrence is one of the world’s most renowned, risk-taking playwrights, but he wakes up every day with the spirit of an ambitious and romantic young man. His attitude toward life mixed with a quiet courage is what empowered him to be the first proudly open major American gay playwright.  His plays are about sexuality, homophobia, faith, the power of art,  and finding meaning in every moment of life. “McNally has had long relationships with Edward Albee and Wendy Wasserstein; lost a lover and many friends to AIDS; stopped drinking through the intervention of Angela Lansbury; helped launch the careers of Nathan Lane, F. Murray Abraham, Audra McDonald, Doris Roberts, Patrick Wilson, and Joe Mantello; was an early champion of marriage equality and faced violent protests for his play “Corpus Christi”; survived a brutal fight with lung cancer; and finally found lasting love with his now-husband, producer Tom Kirdahy.”

His plays, books for musicals, opera librettos, and screenplays include: And Things That Go Bump in the Night (1964), Next (1969), Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? (1971), Bad Habits (1974), The Ritz (1975), The Rink (1984), Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1987), It’s Only a Play (1986 and 2014), Andre’s Mother (1988), The Lisbon Traviata (1989), Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), A Perfect Ganesh (1993), Love! Valour! Compassion! (1995), Master Class (1996), Ragtime (1998), Corpus Christi (1998), Dead Man Walking (2000), The Full Monty (2000), Unusual Acts of Devotion (2008), The Visit (2001 / 2015), And Away We Go (2012), Mothers and Sons (2014), and Anastasia (2017). He is currently working on three new plays.

“His plays that are out and proud and cutting edge, but he also writes plays like Frankie and Johnny and Ragtime that have nothing to do with being gay, but everything to do with not being accepted. In the end, they’re all about love.” – director Sheryl Kaller

Broadway actor Audra McDonald says that “You cannot tell the history of the American theater without celebrating the work of Terrence McNally.”

“CHERRY GROVE STORIES”— Tales From a Gay Haven

“Cherry Grove Stories”

Tales From a Gay Haven

Amos Lassen

I have always regretted that I have yet to visit Cherry Groves and I feel that desire even more so after seeing Michael Fisher’s fascinating documentary that shows the unique character of Cherry Grove, a community on Fire Island, New York that became a safe haven for gays during a time when it was illegal for two men to hold hands in public. Fisher’s interviews with residents bring out hidden stories and unknown facts that need to be told.

 Cherry Grove has always played an important role in LGBT history.  It is part of Fire Island that is located just off Long Island, New York. It began in the 1950’s when gay men and women needed a safe place as an escape from the city where gay men were free to be themselves when homosexuality was still illegal. 

This documentary combines archival footage with a great many interviews with the old-timers who happily share what the Grove was like back then in the good old days.  Emphasis was on having a good time and sexual freedom that was not available to LGBT people anyway else. Cherry Grove was wild and a place where literally anything goes.

The liberation and freedom that Fire Island offered was a precursor of what the gay community would start to demand elsewhere even though this was not  view shared by everyone.

It wasn’t a totally safe paradise— there were police crackdowns and entrapments.  The effect of an arrest meant public humiliation and ‘outing’ with names and photographs in a newspaper that could lead to men losing jobs, homes and being rejected by families.

Drag always played am important part of Cherry Grove especially since it was still illegal for men to be out in public in women’s clothing.  In 1976 when a drag queen called Terry Warren was refused entry to a restaurant because of his outfit, the incident caused a major protest.  Then on July  4th that year a bunch of drag queens jumped into a water taxi and ‘invaded’ the place.  It was such a success that the ‘Invasion’ has been an annual event for celebration ever since. 

The AIDS epidemic devastated the population of Fire Island with many of its residents choosing to have their ashes scattered here. It was the place where they had been the happiest,  The after effects of AIDS also changed the whole make up of the Grove. It always had been a place where the gay community had intermingled well with the straight community that lived there, but now with so many properties suddenly being available, there was an influx of lesbians who were becoming homeowners.

Some of the more flamboyant interviewees ramble and the film was made with the assumption that the viewer already knows something about Fire Island and Cherry Grove which could be a confusing for those who do not.  Fire Island is still an LGBT paradise that will continue to be so.

“FROM BAGHDAD TO THE BAY”— Meet Ghazwan Alsharif

“From Baghdad to The Bay”

Meet Ghazwan Alsharif

Amos Lassen

Erin Palmquist took ten years to make “From “Baghdad to the Bay”. It is the story of Ghazwan Alsharif, an Iraqi refugee and former translator for the U.S. military.  After years of service helping the American invading forces, he was wrongfully accused of espionage and tortured by the military police in Iraq for some 75 days before being rescued by an American Colonel who he had served and who personally vouched for him.

When the Iraqi militia learned of the work he had done with the United States Forces, they threatened his family and then bombed his home.  His parents who had initially encouraged him to help the Americans liberate the country now ostracized him for refusing to give up his war work.

Despite the American Government’s avowed aim to help re-settle Iraqis who had risked their lives working with the Armed Forces, the reality of actually being allowed to immigrate to safe haven in America involves a long and rough procedure with no guarantee of success.  Alsharif was one of the lucky ones who managed to be awarded a place in an International Refugee scheme that enabled him to get to San Francisco.

Over the years Palmquist and her crew regularly returned to visit Alsharif and see how he was adjusting to his new life especially with what he had to go through and being forced to give up his own home and culture purely to survive.  He was not only cut off by his entire family back in Iraq, but his divorced wife now living in London rarely allowed him even phone contact with their son.

Alsharif was to finally able to come out as a gay man, but when his photograph with other gay men appeared on Facebook, his brothers called from Iraq to demand that they are taken down.  In 2012 when he lent his support to the group campaigning to stop Iraqis being killed back home just for being gay, his family contacted him again to tell him to stop doing so.  An American Arab explained that the family could be totally excluded from Iraq society if it was known they had a gay son, which may seem severe but is really nothing in comparison with the knowledge that this could easily cost Alsharif his very life.

Alsharif is a very affable man and loves his work as a his work as a chef. He has a new group of friends, American citizenship, and a gratitude for his freedom which almost makes up for the loneliness he feels that he will never escape.   

“SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD”— Escort and Pimp to the Stars

“Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood”

Escort and Pimp to the Stars

Amos Lassen

Scotty Bowers who is now in his 90s, Bowers wrote a book about how he supplied a ‘service’ to the Hollywood elite. He was a gas-pumping pimp and prostitute to the stars and according to Bowers, he had sex with everyone who was anyone…or, supplied some-body to someone who could pay $20.

He shares some pretty big names [those we know of and those we don’t] with neither reservation nor shame. His ‘stories’ are corroborated by his ex-employees and a few clients.

In Matt Tyrnauer’s film we only see what Bowers wants us to see. “Bowers is an inveterate performer/manipulator who has aged…disrespectfully, disgracefully, disloyally, irresponsibly.

During the Golden-age Hollywood, there was a great deal of homosexuality, infidelity, alcoholism, drug addiction and so much more that would upset the moving-going public yet the movie stars of the mid-20th century were presented as such paragons. Now we know better. Unmarried male stars and directors, weren’t necessarily just bachelors who hadn’t met the right girl. In 2012, Bowers published “Full Service,” a tell-all about his days running a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard in the 1940s, from where he provided male and female sex workers to satisfy the sexual needs of the film business from stars to set designers. Bowers claims to have personally serviced or provided companions for hundreds of people, many of them were the names you saw on movie marquees.

Director Matt Tyrnauer introduces us to a handsome young Bowers, fresh out of the army, who one day was picked up a at a gas station by Walter Pidgeon. It did not take long for Bowers to become Hollywood’s go-to guy for attractive young sexual playthings. (Bowers says that he was not a pimp because he never took money from anyone he procured).

We learn of three-ways with Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, and of the sexual appetites of Charles Laughton, Vivien Leigh and Cole Porter. Tyrnauer shares that Bowers was at Guadalcanal and in deadly WWII combat. Bowers discusses his sexual abuse —as a child, from a neighbor and from a string of Catholic priests after his family moved from the farm to Chicago. There will be those who will either not believe Bowers’ tales or who feel that it’s inappropriate that he’s telling tales about celebrities who are no longer around to defend themselves. (To the films credit, it leaves out some of the more nauseating revelations, like the very many inclinations of a certain legendary actor-director.) “Scotty” captures a fascinating era of Hollywood — the public-relations version and the real one, with its morality clauses and scandal sheets while at the same time examining a key behind-the-scenes figure. We get an understanding of who Bowers is and where he comes from, and why his current wife says that his desire to make others happy is compulsive.

Those who object to Bowers’ revelations may find themselves surprisingly empathetic to his life story— there is plenty of gossip to be found here, but there’s also no shortage of humanity.

Bowers opens his little black book as he tells about his scandalous life as a Hollywood escort and pimp to the stars but Matt Tyrnauer avoids making Bowers’ narrative one of tabloid fodder. There is novelty to this Hollywood insider’s portrait. Bowers is a good storyteller and a quirky character that offers scintillating stories about hooking up all sorts of A-listers with hot young men and women to please the stars behind closed doors. We can object to Bowers’ decision to reveal all at the age of 90 without being a member of the moral police. Bowers insists that his decision to out famous stars is an act of humanizing celebrities. And really, who cares if a celebrity was gay?

Tyrnauer is aware of this and includes a handful of objectors, including a hot debate of the book on the talk show The View in which Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck all dismiss Full Service as exploitative trash. Several characters in the film tell Bowers that it’s wrong to reveal personal information about people who are dead and cannot speak to the story themselves, especially since his relationship as a liaison between the stars and the hustlers was one of discretion. Of course, we see Bowers as someone cashing in on the secrets of the dead.

Far more problematic, however, is the way Bowers presents his own secrets. One uncomfortable scene features Bowers recalling the early days of his sexual prowess, which leads to an account of a sexual relationship with his adult neighbor, who pleasured him when he was only 11. Tyrnauer interjects and asks Bowers if he realizes that the act he describes is child abuse. Bowers refutes the notion that his neighbor’s actions were molestation. Tyrnauer revives the question in a later interview and asks if his profession might be the result of a latent trauma, but Bowers simply waves it off. He portrays the act as a beautiful experience. While convention cautions filmmakers and viewers to avoid judging their subjects, Bowers’ characterizations of his childhood leave one uneasy.

Tyrnauer finds strong material in the implications of Bowers’ bag of secrets as the documentary extends the conversation to the manufacturing of stars by the studios and how actors like Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy compromised their personal lives for the escapist images we love.. Scotty’s personal history might have best been kept a secret, but one appreciates Tyrnauer’s ability to open the story up to Hollywood’s own checkered past.

The most striking thing about Scotty Bowers is that he is ordinary. He seems to be a harmless old guy in a messy house, checking his messages. But Scotty Bowers knows a lot. He was Hollywood’s “gentleman hustler,” but “he was never a pimp,” one of his employees insists. “He was a friend doing another friend a service.”

“TRANSFORMER”— Finding Her Place

“Transformer”

Finding Her Place

Amos Lassen

In the summer of 2015, former US Marine and world record weightlifter Matt “Kroc” Kroczaleski was publicly outed as being transgender. The reaction was quick and universal: her sponsors abandoned her, she was disowned by her parents, banned from competing, and she changed her name to “Janae”. “Transformer” follows Janae as she attempts to find her place in society. Initially wanting to strip off the muscle and become a much smaller looking woman, she found herself unable to do so She now finds herself living one day as an alpha male and the next day as a delicate girl.

This is the story of the journey that Janae took to become her true identity and as told to us by filmmaker Michael Del Monte, it is an affectionate and uplifting documentary that captures it all without the sensationalism that we usually get with stories like these.

We learn that Janae has been struggling with gender identity since early childhood and attempted to start transitioning about eight times in the past decade. The public disclosure provided Janae with what was needed to finally start his journey in earnest.

Janae is a divorced father of three teenage boys who totally idolize him and to whom he came out too when they were just 4 and 6 years old. There is a scene in the movie of Janae is putting on her wig and makeup as the boys sit nearby watching TV and encouraging their father. (I do realize that the use of pronouns here is difficult and that I tend to switch back and forth).

The hormones Janae has been taking have radically altered her body and part of Janae’s dilemma is that she wants to continue to do weightlifting making her accept t the price she will pay as a 250 pound with muscles. Del Monte’s cameras follow her as she meets and consults with surgeons about making more changes to her body and when she  presents herself as a female to her mother for the first time, and even being the judge for a Trans Weightlifting Competition. Acceptance from her friends,  and especially all her training buddies, is unanimously supportive. It helps of course that Janae is charming.  We see her vulnerability and is remarkably honest to us and to herself as well.

Janae seems to be the most unlikely person ever to undertake a journey like this and in such a public fashion, but we understand that as we watch this film, we take joy in her joyous spirit and bravery and we hope that her story will help others who are struggling with their own identity.

“MCKELLEN: PLAYING THE PART”— A New Documentary

“MCKELLEN: PLAYING THE PART”

A New Documentary

Amos Lassen

The trailer and poster for the documentary “McKellen: Playing The Part” have been released for the film that takes a close look at the life of the Ian McKellen. The film will premiere in the UK (and Scandinavia) on Sunday 27 May at 3pm at cinemas across the country, with the screening followed by a live Q&A with Ian McKellen, hosted by Graham Norton at London’s BFI Southbank. The film was built around a 14-hour interview. We learn about McKellen’s story from his upbringing living through the war, working through repertory and West End theatre, becoming a pioneering stage star, coming out and being a leader in the campaign for equality, to his mainstream film breakouts as Magneto and Gandalf. His work and influence transcends generations and are celebrated here in this fully authorized insight.

“McKellen: Playing the Part” features unprecedented access to private photo albums, a wealth of never-before-seen archive material, including diaries written when he was 12, and unseen behind the scenes of theatre shows and films, alongside his personal thoughts on a life long lived. The film also features dramatic recreations starring Luke Evans, Frances Barber, Adam Brown, Scott Chambers, Milo Parker and Edward Petherbridge.

More info about the cinemas that will be screening the event can be found at mckellenfilm.com.

“BIXA TRAVESTY”— Independence and Strength

“Bixa Travesty”

Independence and Strength

Amos Lassen

“Bixa Travesty” has something to say about the gender binary. This is a documentary about the life and times of Linn da Quebrada, a self-proclaimed “tranny fag” born out of a rough neighborhood of São Paulo. She takes on her personal journey in which she reveals and proclaims her insights on what it means to be a woman thus giving us .a new perspective on the definition of the word.

Her performances are loud, abrasive and unapologetic. Through the use radical self-expression, she obliterates heteronormative constructs of gender and asserts that a woman is not defined by her genitals. While many of the performances have a shock value element that can be rather coarse, directors Claudia Priscilla and Kiko Goifman also give us moments of vulnerability that reveal Quebrada’s softer side. We see these in her intimate moments at home and her artistic exploration during her cancer treatment. Informal talk radio discussions with fellow trans woman Jup do Bairro on gender, femininity and the daily struggles faced by trans women in show us a woman on the brink of a revolution. Through her art and ultimately through herself, Quebrada challenges us to think beyond what we believe we know about gender and to become open to up to the possibility of fluidity in our definitions.

Although a powerful statement for Quebrada and undoubtedly for the trans community, “Bixa Travesty” is difficult to categorize. It is a shocking film and we know that shock value is often at the core of many catalyzing moments of change in many movements, and therefore it’s understandable why this documentary is as abrasive as it is. The danger is that if these moments aren’t adequately countered with enough instances that foster empathy, the effect can be isolative.

“LIAM”— Dealing with Death

“Liam”

Dealing with Death

Amos Lassen

While we are alive, we tend to forget that death is a fact of life. When a young person dies, it is difficult to deal with and if it is someone we live, it is that harder to understand. This is what we face in this brilliant new film by Isidore Bethel. Not long after, Bethel graduated from Harvard, he went to France to study film and it was there that he got word that his best friend from childhood, Liam had been killed by a drunk driver.  He was just 23 years old.

Bethel decided to make a documentary film about Liam in the hopes that this would help him through the grieving process. Bethe; had never come out to his folks and did so as he began to work on the film and his parents were totally accepting. Liam’s parents are important to the film because it is basically through them that Bethel explores his own feelings about their loss of a son and his loss of a friend. Bethel’s own parents also play a huge part in accepting the tragedy. All of the characters now must see their futures dramatically changed by Liam’s death and this also includes Liam’s ex-girlfriend who had remained relatively close even though the pair had split up long before Liam’s death.

It was the loss of Liam that was responsible for Bethel’s examination his own feelings in a very public way which would have been out of character for him before this.  He intimately involves his French boyfriend in this self-examination, and learn that their very public declarations of love to each other, was not enough.

This is a very personal movie and at times I felt like I was being intrusive as I watched. Yet, this is a moving look at feelings and I applaud the director for this chance to know him. I have a feeling that we will be hearing a great deal more from him in the future.

“Liam” had its world premier at this tears Wicked Queer, The Boston LGBT Film Festival.

“Paternal Rites”— A Contemporary Jewish American Family

 

“Paternal Rites”

A Contemporary Jewish American Family

Amos Lassen

Jules Rosskam’s documentary is a “first-person essay on film that examines the aftereffects of physical and sexual abuse in a contemporary Jewish American family, with the filmmaker’s queer and transgender identity at its core”. Filmmaker Rosskam and his partner, Alex, retrace a 1974 road trip taken by Rosskam’s parents and combine photographs, audio recordings, home movies, live action “to evoke the psychoanalytic journey of memory retrieval and trauma recovery”.

This is also a film about the nature of trauma and memory itself: the ways in which trauma works uncannily; the function of speech and narrative in the process of decryption; and the role of film and filmmaking in the practice of healing. In the fall of 2013 filmmaker Jules Rosskam and his partner, Alex, set out to retrace a road trip that Rosskam’s parents, Marilyn and Skip, completed in the fall of 1974 (just prior to his birth and their transition to both suburbia and parenthood. We hear audio diaries that Marilyn and Skip kept during the course of their four-month journey and sees photographs and travelogue footage recorded on Super 8 that is barely perceptible, grainy. Their route included Boston, Mobile, Savannah, Chicago, Portland, Vancouver. 

As we watch, we hear present-day audio interviews between Rosskam and his mother, father, partner, and therapist. The faces of speaking subjects are never seen. Rosskam tries to make sense of conflicting narratives of his childhood, and to find forgiveness for the man who did not protect him. As the director searched for a story about his father, he is confronted with the truth about his brother causing a surprising and shocking conclusion. 

We see images of the American landscape, which tend to haunt the viewer with their banality, and with the layering of still images over live-action footage. There is also the white screen upon which colorful animations are used to “evoke the psychoanalytic process of memory’s retrieval and trauma’s repair.”  

What is really implicit throughout is the filmmaker’s queer and transgender subjectivity, which comes to the surface of the screen when the viewer sees fragments of home movies of his childhood that are amazing in their unremarkable nature and hears audio recordings of contemporary conversations between Rosskam and Alex, who functions as Rosskam’s partner in life as well as in this project. What we really see is how film is able to take us to places we would not ordinarily go.

 

“CRUISING IN THE PARK”— Bold and Explicit and NSFW

“Cruising In The Park”

Bold and Explicit and NSFW

Amos Lassen

Antonio Da Silva’s “Cruising in the Park” hit close to home. When I lived in Israel, the park was the meeting place for gay men and very often it was where sex was consummated. In both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem the parks are centrally located and it was no secret as to what went on there. The parks in other cities were notorious as well and I actually remember only one time that the police came to do anything and they were met with angry men who stood their own.

Da Silva gives us quite a look at a park where a “straight” married man habitually cruises during his lunch break. It’s convenient since the park is next to where he works. cruising in the park next to his workplace. He is both a hunter and hunted and he enjoys other married men.

“They enjoy looking at each other’s hard erections, mutual masturbation, oral and anal sex. They share short meetings in the woods and then its back to work. I understand that the film’s narration comes from the feedback that Da Silva has received about his other films which you can check out at

HTTP://ANTONIODASILVAFILMS.COM. 

In this film, Da Silva teamed up with Fabio Lopes.